— Jason Rose at the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, talking about doing open data right.
If Gothamist took over a city planning website… Philadelphia Planeto covers the planning beat, including a running series on the forthcoming revised zoning code. Getting props from Technically Philly for “making zoning actually feel exciting”. Here’s a taste:
Q: As a militant bike messenger and I SEPTA Philly spokesperson, I hope you’ve banned all personal vehicles from Philadelphia, forced all attached garages to become rumpus rooms, and required surface parking lots to become spraygrounds and dog runs. Oh yeah, and streets are now giant green bike lanes with some Bus Rapid Transit. Tell me my self-published manifesto has come true.
A: Whoa there, cowboy. Or girl. Personal vehicles, delivery trucks, and other motorized transportation are a necessary and vital part of a healthy city. Off-street parking regulations help make sure that there is a safe and adequate flow of traffic, encourage development of land, and ensure that parking areas are designed to be safe and efficient. So, no, we are not banning all personal vehicles in the new code. And, sadly, there are no rumpus room regulations either.
However, the new code does acknowledge and encourage multi-modal transportation such as bicycles through new regulations and mass transit with the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Overlay and new density bonuses for connections to transit concourses in CMX-4 and CMX-5 (high-rise development). And we’ve also removed the residential parking requirements for our densest residential zoning districts.
Two more challenges for civic engagement, ahead of #tech4engage.
Information transfer. Getting tools into the hands of people who can use them. How can directories like Civic Commons scale up but stay useful? What other info transfer tools are needed (‘tools for tools’)? Do directories even work? What techniques can we learn from organizing or marketing?
Recipes. Tools are only part of the challenge. People need to know how to use them. Take mapping - us tech might people consider basic mapping a solved issue. Not what you hear when talking to community organizations. Where are the recipes and cookbooks for civic engagement, and how do we maximize their spread?
On the eve of Knight’s Tech for Engagement at MIT, Nick Grossman asked the attendees to review the agenda with two questions in mind. Our goals for the event, and what questions or topics are front and center for us. Thoughts on goals here, some long thoughts on the second question below.
What questions or topics are front and center for you?
How can we convince skeptical cities and communities that an entirely open approach to planning cities is going to succeed?
How do we trade the short-term pain of revealing more with the long term payoff of an entirely different form of engagement?
a.k.a how do we get over worries about unplanny valley?
Much of what we do is based on a hunch. We think that better communities can be created by giving more power to individuals, which necessarily means taking power away from someone else. We think that local data and tools can transform local decision making.
We think there’s a completely different way to organize cities, driven by communities and many individual small projects and open source thinking, which will ultimately replace our broken current system and change society.
I talk a lot about the “virtuous cycle”, where access to tools leads to better decisions which leads to better outcomes, which leads to greater engagement - upwards and upwards. We ask planners to believe that putting information out earlier and with less caution will lead to better outcomes, even if their public interactions right now are not encouraging.
I’m confident that everything we’re proposing is defensible. The inverse has already occurred - take neighborhoods and remove civic institutions, take away income and mobility options, avoid passing on any information or empowering anyone to contribute to a better place. Watch those places crumble and enter a spiral of decline.
So the virtuous cycle should be a valid concept. And yet, it’s not as obviously solidly true as I’d like. Civic empowerment tools get lost in the noise of bigger social factors. Letting go is hard.
A rational, evidence-based person who attends a lot of public meetings might not agree with the ultimately-optimistic view of the chart above - do we get stuck in “engagement collapse” (pessimistic view), or can we skip the Unplanny Valley and go straight to the uplands beyond (my view)?
Nobody is arguing against civic participation, but experts are still setting the agenda and making policy, and only a small group knows how to move those levers. Given the state of civil discourse, there’s justifiable skepticism about putting more hands on the levers. Getting from here to a different system is a big jump, and we need to be better at articulating the case for it.
This is a different challenge to the open data movement, even though there are some surface similarities. Open data makes sense because data is more valuable to society if more people use it. The arguments for not opening data are weak dead ends. Not the same in planning - there are excellent examples of leadership and top-down systems that deliver good outcomes.
My argument assumes that you share my belief in the utterly-transformative power of these tools - if you only consider better civic engagement to be an incremental improvement on the current system, you might not even agree that these are concerns. But for me, they tie into a lot of the themes for the conference — moving beyond potholes, measuring our progress, connecting the dots, etc. Looking forward to these discussions about what we do and how we talk about it.
On the eve of Knight’s Tech for Engagement at MIT, Nick Grossman asked the attendees to review the agenda with two questions in mind. Here are my answers to the (easier) first question: What do you want to accomplish at the summit?
Events like this are incredibly useful for understanding the constellation of engagement and tech projects. It sounds very shallow to think of this as networking - but it’s important to spend time with people who are otherwise on parallel tracks.
One of the joys of working on cities and open source tools are the gigantic, fragmented, jumbled communities of interest. Every day, someone is forking your project or another one, or starting a new group, or doing something cool and unexpected somewhere new. You literally can’t keep on top of all the projects around cities and tools.
This is how it should be. If our collective output was less productive, we’d be a sorry lot. But the firehose (to use a tired, locally-relevant metaphor) is hard to keep up with. Events like this give some clarity - they are a slice through the stack, exposing new surface and new layers.
So my goal is a modest one: to listen and discuss, then to use the event as a different lens to revisit what I’m trying to do and how I do it, and exchange those ideas and insights with new and old faces.
(My biggest complaint with events like this is their inherent limits on size - we need to replicate the mind-taxing conversations in other formats, to allow everyone to press reset occasionally and explore their role and mission. Something I’ve written about before).
Here’s an impressive transcript of my lunchtime talk at the Center for Future Civic Media at MIT — useful to review what you actually say during the excitement of presenting. Definitely some places to tighten up.
Every parcel you send has a tracking number. 311 gives you a tracking code. Every edit to OpenStreetMap has a tracking number. Every commit to a git repository. Every tweet. How long until you get a tracking number for each contribution you make to planning processes?
Obviously, this gets complicated pretty quickly. But for a simple process - like giving comments on a local plan - why shouldn’t you be able to see how your input made its way through the process and contributed to the outcome?
This idea came up during a conversation last week with John Raskin, who has an interesting project underway around organizing transit riders. Imagine a debate around transit service changes, where you could easily see how your participation mattered - not just as filler to bulk out a list of signatures, but individually as meaningful input. And not just your participation, but everyone else’s.
This problem is not technically trivial - just look at OpenStreetMap, which has the data, but still has a challenge making individual or local contributions easy to follow. For example, check out how many of these edits aren’t actually relevant to the map in view.
But we’re heading into an era of big data for city decision making - so why shouldn’t public participation be run through the same processing tools? This fine-grain tracking maybe sounds unfeasible now, but it will be easy soon enough - likely in more powerful ways than we can imagine.
Are all the implications beneficial? Exciting, certainly - imagine if we had tools to work with public input in a way that preserved the genesis of each contribution. There’s a powerful transparency argument to building our participation infrastructure to preserve individual voices. The personal cost-benefit implications of getting involved in your local plans could be very different.