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Thread: Internet based public participation

  1. #1
    Cyburbian ruralplanner's avatar
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    Internet based public participation

    Our county will soon be embarking on the development of a County Comprehensive Plan. Up until this point we have spent the last five years working with individual municipalities with the development of their individual comprehensive plans. The methods of public participation we have used were limited to paper surveys, vision sessions, open houses etc. The general demographic responding to these types of public input methods are generally 50 and older.

    In an effort to reach a younger population when doing the County Plan, we are seriously considering internet based public participation methods. On the slate for consideration would be a forum somewhat like Cyburbia where I would serve as the administrator. In addition to the forum there would be a gallery where folks could post their pictures of what they like and don’t like about the county (with narrative), and finally we are thinking about holding video workshops around the county where we would record people and what they had to say and post the videos on the county website.

    Again, we are considering this approach to get input from a younger generation and to make the county planning process as transparent and real as possible. Yet there is some apprehension that going down this road may open up doors we may not be able to close—as in create massive amounts of trouble and problems. On the other hand it may offer the support and credibility we need to incorporate ideas like LEED certification, carbon dioxide caps and reductions, billboard prohibitions etc since these are the kinds of things younger people are thinking about (myself included).

    So my question to Cyburbians is whether your community has used web based public participation and if so what is your site? Pros and Cons, what has worked and not worked and why? And do you know of any other communities that have done this?

    We are definitely going to use the web based method. We have to get new and progressive ideas. So we’ll see. I am sure I will have updates as we go along.

  2. #2

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    This sounds very good - I am working on a project that is planning on using a web-based survey as a way to collect mode choice data from a student audience, so maybe some of the issues will be the same for both of our projects.

    Is there not a worry that the response you get will self-select (for the portion of the entire population who like to spend a lot of time on forums) and not be a representative sample of the entire demographic you are after? Outspoken critics and those with an axe to grind may monopolize your forums and may scare off quieter people who have something valid to say. Or is it that the outspoken people are who you want to talk to?

    Not that I'm saying this happens on Cyburbia...

    Also, I hope being the admin does not take up all your time, if your site starts being abused by idiots.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Plan 9's avatar
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    As long as the internet based stuff isn't your only method of public input. But if you use it with other forms it can only improve your public input.

    But if it is your only method of input, you will be excluding many older citizens and those without computers at home (poor).

    Also, I would be concerned with how you keep from getting responses from people who have no interest in your town except to cause problems, or the local billboard company to have all their employees, friends, business affiliates, and even national associations all write about how billboards should be allowed anywhere and without a permit process thereby slanting the apparent "public" opinion.
    "Future events such as these will affect you in the future."

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    Sorry if this is long....

    I am currently working on a concept to use the internet for participatory planning in Egypt (surprise surprise!). We have had to face several questions, at least one of them brought up by Plan 9 - how do you filter out all the people (not necessarily spoliers) who have no legitimacy participating, from doing so?

    Have you considered the extreme cases - when South Africa invited the world to provide inputs to their new Constitution, they had to handle over 10000 responses. That was before the internet had caught on. Can you handle the case in which everyone in your county responds, plus myriads of others? The other extreme is that virtually nobody responds. Then, again as Plan 9 says, you'd better have other means of participation in parallel.

    You've obviously understood that you'll need a next to full time coordinator just for the web site. One good and simple start is to use the website to inform the county residents of the planning program, various events and milestones in the process, and how they can be involved.

    To get any response you have to inform them that the website is there. And you have to do that with some means other than the net. In my community the council sends out information to everysingle household by mail.

    We have been using a variety of the Asset Based Community Development approach. Begin with getting people to tell you all that is good, all that is working well, all their non-tangible assets (environment, talents, intersts, social networks, etc.). Next, get them to tell you where they'd like the County to go, based on these assets - their vision or dreams for their county. Third, get them to set priorities for long term goals and short term objectives. Fourth, determine with them what is holding them back from achieving the vision - the preconditions, hindrances and constraints. Then ask them for inputs to strategic interventions, identifying what they can do, and what they feel they need support from the county or state for. In each step, try to get them to give you the spatial dimensions (where?) so that as much as possible can be put into maps and diagrams.

    All of this can be done through a variety of means, step by step on the net. You can have questionnaires, forums, present maps which they can annotate, drafts they can comment on. But it takes some technological knowhow, it takes a good deal of preparation for dealing systematically with the responses within the timeframe that they expect you to keep. If most everyone is in general agreement there is usually no problem. But how are you going to handle the case where there are so many different opinions and ideas and priorities and comments that it is hard to see any pattern? This kind of situation may not be common, but you have to have a plan to deal with it if it happens. And remember, if you have a lot of response, you have a clear indication that you have raised enormous expectations - and you'd better be ready to meet them, or meet a lot of flack afterwards.

    When i was researching for this task I was referred to "piece of software (called Limehouse publisher - limehousesoftware.co.uk) which allows us to publish all our planning policy documents online and allows anyone to log on and make comments / representations on the document. This can either be set up so that people can comment on any part of the document or in a way that comments are only allowed on certain key parts of documents to get more targetted responses." (personal communication). I cannot vouch for this software, but you can certainly have a look.

    Cairo is going out to its 16 million residents with a questionnaire. Since it's in Arabic you probably won't be able to read it. But their national planning authority has already published hundreds of completed plans from communities around the country on their website. This is post factum use of the net, and not close to the participatory planning that you are after, but it shows that lots of places around the world are moving in this direction.

  5. #5
    Out of interest for the topic, check this link out for Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Actually shows people some the impacts of their choices.

    http://guelph.ca/living.cfm?subCatID=1615&smocid=2193#

  6. #6
    Cyburbian ludes98's avatar
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    I think it will become increasingly popular and expected. Access control will be key. It is the major stumbling block to overcome. State law here is geared to landowners in any land use matter so they have standing. Not so much for tenants. Keeping track of landowners is tricky even if you have a good system due to the myriad of sales in any given area. If you can control the beast it could be a great tool, though not the only tool as mentioned by previous posts. On another note, some smaller munis I have worked with like questionnaires in their water bills.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian ruralplanner's avatar
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    Thanks for the detailed responses and insight. I should clarify that the net based forms of public participation are intended to augment the traditional forms. So we will likely still have a paper survey anyway. I envision that our vision sessions will not include the typical charts and stickers to vote for the ‘top’ issues, but rather the vision session will include a series of computer stations with each station representing an interest area. This way the planner does not have to stand in front of the crowd and blah blah blah at them all night. It should help mitigate the problems we have with our more colorful people as well as the interaction will be in small groups and with a computer. And finally, the results of the visions session can be posted on the web almost immediately.

    In terms of the forum, I have not really thought through how we will control the more vocal characters, however there will be ground rules that everyone posting will need to follow and once violated they will be barred from any further posts. The posts would also be limited to residents or landowners in the county and when people sign up, we would require some form of proof of residency. In a smaller county of some 55,000 people, this should not be too difficult. There could also be a possibility that we would create the threads to make sure the discussion stays more or less on topic.

    I guess I don’t know what I am in for in terms of administration. The tech side would be handled from another department, however. In terms of administration I am figuring on many hours in the beginning as people sign up, but from there I anticipate that the administration will consist more so of monitoring. While I would have to commit time to it on a daily basis and possibly on weekends, I don’t think it will be a full time job. I may, however find that I am sorely mistaken.

    I noted the Asset Based Community Approach suggested by Monamogolo. I’ll have to think about this more as a possible way to achieve our participation objectives while creating a structured environment for people to contribute ideas.

    Lots of good ideas and thoughts. I think that the responses have helped me think through this approach a bit further. I think that the bottom line for any community considering this is that they just need to jump in and try it. There is really nothing to loose Luckily the County I work for places a high emphasis on public participation, so I have no doubt there will be support from my oversight Committee.

    And who knows, if the forums work maybe it can continue after the planning process so that people can have continued input to all of the functions of county government and in the end may empower a new and progressive generation to take the reigns.

  8. #8
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ruralplanner View post
    ...

    In terms of the forum, I have not really thought through how we will control the more vocal characters, however there will be ground rules that everyone posting will need to follow and once violated they will be barred from any further posts. The posts would also be limited to residents or landowners in the county and when people sign up, we would require some form of proof of residency. In a smaller county of some 55,000 people, this should not be too difficult. There could also be a possibility that we would create the threads to make sure the discussion stays more or less on topic.

    ...
    Proof of residency can be tricky if you are really wanting to make this purely web-based. You might look at using IP addresses for at least initial sign-up. It might not be perfect and I'm no technical guru when it comes to this.

    We considered programming a "second life" destination type thing for the City for the Downtown Master Plan, as well as MySpace/Facebook profiles, but decided we didn't have the staff resources to handle something like that. Had we thought of it earlier in the process, we might have pulled it off.

    Also, I suggest taking information to where that demographic is. We've been discussing setting up a booth near a large strip of bars in downtown frequented by local college-age students on "Thirsty Thursday". So I guess my suggestion is to do things on "their" turf, which is kind of what you are doing with the web-based stuff.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

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