Crowdsourcing Plans

Scott Page's picture

Many thanks to Wired's Jeff Howe who's 2006 article "The Rise of Crowdsourcing" put an effective label at what the internet was doing to business.  Building from Web 2.0 applications focused on social media like Facebook and on-line communities, it's become a popular and controversial term in tech circles.  For those not as familiar with the idea, let's consult the most often used example of crowdsourcing – Wikipedia.   "Crowdsourcing is a distributed problem-solving and production model. Problems are broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions. Users-also known as the crowd-typically form into online communities, and the crowd submits solutions. The crowd also sorts through the solutions, finding the best ones." To boil this down in the case of Wikipedia the content is fully created by the crowds.

I'm certainly not the first to link this idea with planning.  Fellow blogger Chris Steins posted an excellent summary of Web 2.0 applications, including crowdsourcing, with direct relevance to city planning in 2009.  The fundamental idea is that the crowd (or broader public) is an active collaborator in developing the plan.  This is more than writing notes on a flip chart or map at a public meeting (still important by the way), but a process where the public has a larger hand than traditionally given to shape a plan's specific content and implementation priorities.  

There have been a growing number of experiments with different tools that specifically explore versions of the crowdsourcing idea whether it's in planning for bicycles, designing bus stops, or ratting on public officials' parking habits.  Pittsburgh used a wiki to gain insight and comments on major planning initiatives and President Obama's Urban Policy has been up for voting for some time.  Crowdsourcing is even being used in the Broadmoor neighborhood in New Orleans as a means to guide actual bricks and mortar development  (all credit for this example comes through the CoolTown Beta Communities who have made crowdsourcing their raison d'etre).  

A skeptic might browse these examples and feel that this is really just "public outreach on-line" or, if he/she was feeling generous, a more robust version thereof.  Further, what about those not on-line?  Is this only for the digitally adventurous? 

No, but new technologies certainly make the concept a lot easier to explore.  We've been developing on-line collaborative maps tied to our planning work to encourage residents to generate ideas.   However, given the environments we are typically working in with relatively low numbers of people on-line, we have also created accompanying large-scale, hard copy versions of that same map installed in highly visible community spaces.  The point is that crowdsourcing, or the use of any specific on-line tool like Facebook or Twitter, cannot replace traditional face to face interaction but augment it.  They are simply another tool to get the word out and foster communication, which is what I believe planning is grounded in.   

Other skeptics have even suggested that there are not really any "crowds" in crowdsourcing.  How can you be sure you're tapping a good cross-section of a community through on-line outreach activities?  There's certainly some truth here.  A large amount of on-line activity whether it's in writing Wikipedia entries or contributing ideas to a local plan is often generated by a group of really motivated individuals.  But this will sound familiar to anyone that has been a community organizer.  It's often the few really dedicated people that devote their time and energy to a cause and motivate others to support them. 

There are other challenges to consider.  Tapping the wisdom of crowds means managing them.  Large-scale efforts to crowdsource will require time to facilitate content – this will be difficult at large scales where potentially thousands of people choose to get involved.  Of course, there's also the potential opposite challenge - a lack of interest in the plan or cultural and/or language barriers could result in too few participants which limits the potential of crowdsourcing. 

But with some of the challenges noted, the benefits are pretty obvious.  By activating residents to truly participate and contribute we [those that are in charge of managing the plan from City officials to consultants] foster transparency and a real connection to the public who will ultimately be impacted by the plan.  Equally important, we benefit from the value of ideas and insights we could not know, or easily learn, ourselves.  The result can be a more grounded and meaningful plan. 

It might sound that if you opened a planning process up to crowdsourcing, that we would essentially erase the planner's authorship.  I don't believe so.  The final plan, it's technical information and understanding of implementation activities still need to be managed by someone trained in those skills.  Our ability to creatively edit the information and ideas from the crowdsourcing process will be an important skill to further develop. 

And of course, there are limitations.  A large number of people in a community can identify one vacant property as the key priority for development but if that property is privately owned, in some kind of legal limbo, or simply lacking access to capital to make the project work - no amount of voting or collective concern can change the facts.  Crowdsourcing is not a process of writing down whatever community members say and calling it a day but rather openly managing, and editing, active community input such that the end plan is also realistic. 

Ultimately, the major factor impacting whether crowdsourcing is a workable idea in any given location is if the sponsor of the plan be it a neighborhood group, city or MPO truly takes it seriously.  You can't have true participation and a collaborative planning process if the end result is already in mind. 

Scott Page is the founder of Interface Studio, a collaborative design office based in Philadelphia.



A few considerations

I thought this was an excellent, thoughtful piece, and I'm happy to see it written.

I come at it from another perspective, as a communication consultant conversant with planning issues. First, I think that people are smart enough to understand, especially if explained to them, that not every idea will work. Second, many of the obstacles (language barriers, lack of computer access) are easily overcome.

For example, I'm in NJ and have helped with public outreach in several communties. At these quasi-charettes, I saw half-empty rooms filled with middle-aged white men - surely not representative of the community. So I developed a microsite out of my own funds to supplement these efforts using Web 2.0 - it had features that would allow people to post comments, to upload and comment on photos of what they liked and didn't like, and a much more simplified map using pushpins, also allowing comments, as well as a survey. In addition, it offered functionality in any language the town wanted to use in addition to English. Well guess what? I couldn't find any takers. In one town where I was working, they were so horrified at the notion of opening the planning processing to that degree that I think they were ready to fire me!

As for access to computers, the divide is not as wide as it once was. There are also libraries and nonprofit groups who would assist with this. In addition, most people have mobile phones, and more and more are using Smart Phones as the prices come down -- another possibility for crowdsourcing.

I think the bigger hurdle to overcome is getting buy-in to use this technology at the top -- not just from planners but from elected officials reluctant to open the gates wide to public participation.

And, if you'll pardon a plug for the Rutgers Professional Development Institute (an advertiser here--see top right corner), I'll be doing a series of learning labs for them later this spring on this very topic. I'm still wrestling with the question of what to do when the "boss" says no. Any thoughts about that would be appreciated.

Joni Scanlon
Director, Strategic Communication
Digital Willow, LLC
E-mail [email protected]

From crowdsourcing to open data


Thanks for writing this post. I must admit, I'm heavily biased as this topic is the reason started exploring a career in planning at all, so I'm very interested in sharing insights and experiences around leveraging the benefits of online tools for collaboration between planners and citizens.

I'm especially appreciative of your approach to using of online tools in addition to traditional face-to-face methods. I really feel it's about harnessing the breadth of our online tools to augment the depth of our in-person conversations, not about substituting one for the other. Crowdsourced communities also have an interesting ability to self-moderate through features like "Flag as inappropriate" or voting up and down.

For those interested in international examples of using these tools in planning, the City of Melbourne, Australia, worked with a group called CollabForge on a visioning process called Future Melbourne. CollabForge's description of their work and the Future Melbourne wiki-based collaboration environment are a great case study in re-imaging the process to try out the strengths of social media in planning issues.

Finally, I notice that while the American Planning Association 2010 Annual Conference has a number of sessions around social media, social networking and using social media for events like design charrettes, there are no scheduled sessions which focus on the impact of moves to open data (like the Apps for Democracy example cited above) on planning activities. This is understandable, perhaps, given how recently it's gotten attention, but I'm interested in finding others who are interested in this and convening an informal session during the APA Conference on open data. If this sounds up the alley of anyone reading this, please get in touch.

Thanks again for writing on this, Nate, and looking forward to seeing how this topic develops.

Karen Quinn Fung
Master's Candidate
University of British Columbia, School of Community and Regional Planning
[email protected]

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