The Near Future of Open Data, Apps and Planning

I had the great pleasure and fun of moderating a great session at the American Planning Conference in Atlanta earlier this week.  The session was called “Open Data, Apps and Planning, and it featured four of the brightest minds in the field.  So I could introduce them, sit back and shoot some video of their comments, which you’ll find below.

Here’s a few of the bright insights that came out of this session (in a very, very dark room…)

  • We’re starting to realize the critical importance of not just creating an online widget thing, but making sure that it’s designed and presented in a way that makes it usable and accessible to the general public.  That sounds self-evident, but there’s a lot of online tools out there that only make sense to you if you’re an insider (for example, the person who designed the thing).  The importance of what tech people call the User Experience (UX) came through in comments from Brad Barnett, Director of the Decision Lab at PlaceMatters, who noted that we have to start designing for “layered learning” — the realization that people need to be able to start at an accessible place, such as a high-level overview or an issue that’s directly relevant to them, so that they can get a mental toehold, look around and understand their options for proceeding.  Think about how that differs from some of the things we often do, such as provide an online map with a lot of parcels and layers and other data.  No wonder people start looking immediately for their house — we haven’t given them a toehold or an orientation, so they go in search of one.

 

  • Just putting the thing out there is no where near enough, which is something we should have learned after decades of making jokes about legal notices.  Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans notes that “how will you promote the tool?” is one of the first questions they ask new clients — if you’re not going to promote it adequately to the people who need to know about it and use it, you’ve wasted your effort.  Similar to the issue raised in the previous bullet, this is such a critical element of effective public engagement — of this type or any type — that we really, simply, just have to do it.  We just do.  I don’t know why we’re so often reluctant to effectively promote our public engagement opportunities — whether we just don’t know, or we think that’s somehow too “commercial” an action for a civic event, or what.  But the fact of the matter is that we have to.

 

  • Several of the speakers demonstrated that use of technology-enabled tools and open data isn’t just a cool thing: propertly designed and enabled, open data and online tools allow residents to directly impact the things that they need — the things that make a community better.  Michelle Lee of Textizen told the story of how newly-integrated parcel and tax data was used to overcome an old assumption that chasing delinquent taxes would cost the city more than they would get — a realization that allowed the city to capture more of the tax money they had been missing, and lessen the burden on everyone else.  Frank also told a powerful story about a neighborhood in New York that responded to children being hit by vehicles to crowdsource a map of places where people felt unsafe — and then shared that map with local police officials to help them target speed enforcement.

 

  • Michelle also encapsulated the important relationship between open data and apps better than anyone I have ever heard: she described the need for apps to function as the “ViewMaster” for open data, which in
    View Master and photo discs
    From http://cultureeveryday.com/

    the form that we get it is usually unusable to anyone except for the hard-code coder.  As she put it, “the data is like the disc with the photos on it.  You can hold it up to the light or throw it at your brother, but unless you put it in the ViewMaster, you can’t really benefit from it.”   And most importantly, when we can see the data through the ViewMaster, we can use it to create a meaningful outcome that will last.  This is one of the issues that I think the open data movement has struggled a little bit with so far, but all four presenters were able to clearly demonstrate the power that open data, combined with a good user interface app, can create.

 

  • Along the same lines, Alicia Roualt of LocalData very articulately noted that communities can actually use data to bridge between governments and citizens.  In describing LocalData’s work with blight surveying in Detroit, she pointed out that the on-the-ground surveying was done by people who live in the community using an app on a phone or tablet, and that the data in the main project databases and maps was updated in real time.  This allowed both staff and advocates trying to deal with the messy, multi-moving-piece, often immediate issues of the city’s vacant and abandoned buildings to understand the situation with the highest level of accuracy possible.

Videos of each presentation are embedded below.  By sheer dumb luck, this session was followed by another conversation about the larger issues of technology in planning.  Stay tuned for some selections from that.

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