Exploring digital engagement as a mindset

During my fall fellowship at OpenPlans, I spent time exploring many different tools for digital engagement. Today’s my last day, so I want to share some thoughts about what the planner’s toolbox will look like in the future.

Choosing from a rich selection of great online tools, planners will be able to pick the right tool from their toolbox for the task at hand. Working this way requires a different mindset. It’s about approaching the problem in front of you with both traditional practices and digital tools in mind, and changing up the tools at different stages through the planning process.

For example:

Public engagement using only traditional practices.

the look on this guy's face says it all

this picture really is worth a thousand words

Public engagement using only digital tools.

For Phila2035, there’s a broad engagement process going on, and digital tools are just a small part of the outreach process. That’s a good thing, because the digital tools may not reach everyone. Here’s Phila2035’s Shareabouts map, collecting information in South Philadelphia to guide the district plan. Look at the disparity in number of pins west of Broad Street (outlined in red),  compared to east of Broad Street. In the bottom right hand corner I outlined a section to show all that activity was from one user. Not necessarily a bad thing, but does suggest there is more than meets the eye when looking at just the pins on the map alone.

powerful, but not always equitable

powerful, but not always equitable

and finally …

Public engagement which balances traditional practices with digital tools. 

the flow zone

Besides taking you to the planning flow zone, let’s take a moment to explore what else we know about the potential of balanced public engagement.

Incorporating digital tools enables you to:

  • Strategically deploy limited resources most effectively because digital tools show you you where people are not participating.
  • Add educational, hands on components to your current community meeting repertoire. For example, plug qualitative and quantitative data from the exploratory tools like a collaborative map into Budget Simulation and Scenario Modeling tools and create accurate, engaging activities for attendees.
  • Create plans based on data driven recommendations and a clear understanding of what the public wants. No more collecting dust on the shelf!

I’m starting to see anecdotal evidence of this potential. During the OpenPlans & Textizen presentation recently at Map, Measure, Manage, Michelle and Mjumbe spoke about the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities ability to review the data halfway through the feedback collection process and then engage low response areas in-person.

So that’s the vision. And sure, its easy to proselytize when the blinding potential of civic tech traps your worldview within the metaphorical tunnel. Which is why it’s important to acknowledge today’s reality as well.  As a field, civic technology has some challenges to overcome before it has greater impact – problems like equitable access to technology, trust in government compared to trusting a company, widespread government willingness to provide open data publicly, procurement, and more. Digital engagement tools, within the civic tech umbrella, are subject to the same concerns.

But, that’s okay! Some of the smartest people I know are working on solving civic tech’s challenges (and not just OpenPlans and CfA, very interesting things happening on the other side of the pond). The other good news is, we planners can also help drive the field forward in a positive manner.

So instead of thinking about digital tools as a threat to replace existing practices, or as an either/or approach, instead conceptualize digital engagement instead as a mindset. This involves:

  1. Developing public engagement strategies which include a balance of in-person and digital from step one.
  2. Relishing what is a steady influx of new resources for the first time in a long time.
  3. And perhaps most importantly, taking an active role in building the tools you want to use.

Regarding the 3rd item above — this does not mean the same thing as building the tools yourself. Many opportunities exist for planners to contribute to development (lending subject matter expertise, writing documentation, usability testing, storytelling). Check to see if there is a local civic hacking group nearby, and there is a good chance you will find people willing to work with you on this project. Find one of the tools from the list of 50+ which is open source on Github and make a contribution, little changes add up over time and go a long way.

That’s all from me (for now at least). I’m looking forward to hearing from you! What are some experiences you have had balancing traditional practices with digital tools? What is your favorite digital engagement tool to use as a planner? If it doesn’t exist yet, what would it be? Find me on Twitter @jawntehrani.