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Informing and Engaging Using Technology

Public agencies are increasingly using technology to inform and engage the public, but are they doing enough?

Keeping citizens informed and giving opportunities for public input is a key role that public agencies play when managing transportation projects. The public meeting is a tried and true way for sharing plans, answering questions, and gathering input. However, public meetings don’t work for everyone. People may not be able to attend due to time conflicts with work or family obligations. Others may simply not be comfortable in a public meeting setting, for example if they are not confident speaking up in public. People may feel that they simply don’t have two hours to spend on a weeknight to dedicate to a project they are not that interested in or are in support of, or that those two hours may not be all that useful due to the tendency for some citizens to ramble on or monopolize the conversation. Some of these issues can be solved by better facilitation of public meetings, but even the best run public meeting cannot engage everyone who is affected by a project.

Since the advent of the Internet and other technologies (email, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc), technology has enabled public agencies to more easily share information and increase transparency around transportation projects, as well as giving new ways for the public to communicate with public agencies and share their own thoughts and ideas. In general, agencies in the Boston area are doing a good job utilizing these technologies. However, some agencies are doing a much better job than others. And there is even more that could be done to engage the public using technology than just what is being done now.

Nearly all the public agencies related to transportation in the Boston area regularly post public meeting announcements and presentations to their websites. Some also post meeting transcripts afterwards, but most do not. While this information is useful, the presentations often lack the details and explanations that are only communicated verbally by the presenters at the public meetings.

Some agencies have gone beyond merely posting meeting presentations online. The City of Cambridge also regularly posts the actual project plans (as a pdf file) online as they evolve throughout the design process. Having access to the full plans allows citizens and advocates to easily look into the details of the design and to provide very specific feedback. MassDOT will usually provide a pdf of the current design plans for a project, but only if one emails them and requests it. But sometimes MassDOT will refer someone to the municipality for which a project is for in order to obtain a copy of the plans, adding another layer of bureaucracy to obtaining information that should be readily available. The City of Boston and City of Somerville will also typically email detailed plans upon request.

For some recent larger projects, MassDOT has set up project-specific websites (for example the Charles River Bridges, Casey Arborway, Methuen Rotary, etc) which contain additional information about each project along with the meeting presentations. This is still the exception rather than the rule though. Most MassDOT projects have a single public meeting which is announced for about a month prior and remain on the website until 10 days after. The only information posted about each project is a standard handout with approximately 1-2 pages of text describing the project. This handout occasionally contains a cross-section diagram of the project, but not usually. There is also a searchable database of planned and current MassDOT projects, but the information provided is generally only timelines and project stages and contains virtually no details about the design.

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter have been embraced in the past few years by state and municipal agencies. Most commonly, social media is used to publicize upcoming public meetings and to announce milestones in a project. However, it is also being used to respond publicly to questions asked by citizens about a project or issue.

In terms of gathering input, as would be expected, state and municipal agencies accept verbal comments at public meetings as well as written comments through the mail. Most accept comments via email as well, but not all. In fact, MassDOT typically only accepts official comments regarding public meetings via snail mail and not via email, although for larger projects they have sometimes been providing email contacts as well.

Becoming more common though is the use of other online tools to get input and feedback from citizens. The City of Boston’s Boston Bikes Program used online mapping to crowdsource their citywide bicycling map. When creating the official map, they asked bicyclists to mark their commonly used routes and rank the difficulty of the route (beginner, intermediate, advanced). The City of Somerville has been using online surveys through SurveyMonkey to get detailed feedback about particular pieces of a project (for example the Davis Square revitalization), asking citizens to rank certain issues or solutions and giving them opportunities to provide free-form thoughts about the project.

There is more that can be done, however. Being in the same room as planners and other citizens allows for activities such as discussing different ideas in small groups or ranking certain issues as more important than others. Recently, one of the most useful exercises that the City of Somerville did with the Davis Square project was to have attendees at one of the charettes mark up individual maps using colored markers with the routes they commonly took into and out of the square along with the mode that they most commonly used (walking, bicycling, transit, or car). They also had people mark a larger map with problem areas and specific ideas they had at particular locations. But those who did not attend the meeting missed out on these exercises. Perhaps online tools could help to bridge this gap.

Imagine if each transportation project had an interactive website associated with it that contained detailed plans, timelines, and explanations about current conditions and proposed solutions, along with plentiful graphics and maps. Imagine if that website also had tools that would allow citizens to mark up the plans or maps to show where their areas of concern are or to propose different solutions at specific locations. And what if that website showed the input, comments, and ideas of other citizens as well as one’s own? Furthermore, imagine if there was also an interactive forum for citizens and the project team to discuss different ideas and answer each other’s questions. The project would evolve with continued public participation online, with information and ideas easily flowing back and forth between citizens and planners as a project continued through the design and construction process. Missing a public meeting would no longer leave people in the dark about what was going on.

In addition to the prior examples of technology being used by agencies in Boston today, there are some other innovative uses of technology happening outside of transportation. Earlier this year, the Boston Public Schools recently tested an online platform called Community PlanIt which lets users play a misson-based game that lasts between 3 to 5 weeks long where they answer questions about their community. The more questions they answer, the more influence they have in the planning process. PlanIt was used to help the City to map the future of the Boston Public School system by getting direct input from the public. In 2011, a project called Participatory Chinatown was launched in which citizens could play a 3-D immersive game where they would help to influence the master planning of Chinatown. Each participant would act as a resident of Chinatown in the game, walking through and commenting on proposed development sites.

Technology has a lot of potential to increase citizen participation in transportation projects, but only if we fully leverage it. Increasing the amount of information available online, providing additional tools for providing input, and better connecting citizens with project teams and other citizens would go a long way to reaching this potential.

What do you think? Are agencies using technology to its full potential to share and gather information from the public? How could they do better?

Technology Examples and More Information

Charles River Basin Projects: Bridging the Charles River MassDOT

Casey Arborway Project MassDOT

Public Hearings Page MassDOT

Project Database MassDOT

Western Ave Project City of Cambridge

Boston Bikes Community Input Map City of Boston

Participation by Design: Community PlanIt in Boston Public Schools PlaceMatters’ Blog 23 March 2012

Participatory Chinatown

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Joe Beckmann September 16, 2012 at 12:23 PM
Just now the Somerville-4-Schools list is discussing why the School Department is using 28 year old science textbooks, in much the same light as your observations about planning: we've got lots more tools to use than we're using, and - when MassDOT wants to restrict communication to written only - we might as well be forced to write on parchment! There are loads of tools available - for planning, education, and health - and many, many of the readers of Patch and similar news sources are aware of them, use them, and, typically in this community, improve on them. Why don't we create a library of them, and a Google Group (free!) to collate new recommendations and productive applications? It should take no more than a half-dozen "experts" to set up the site in less than a month; no more than 50 "users" to suggest improvements to that site in less than three months; and by Christmas we could transform the systems in the city in transportation, health, and education. Might even save some lives, get some kids college credit before they finish high school, and...goodness... make the Green Line begin to pay off before construction begins!
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