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Blogathon 2009 – Open Source Planning Meets Open Source Community Management

Blogathon 2009 Vancouver for Vancouver Public Space NetworkThis blog post is part of Blogathon 2009, in which I am blogging for 24 hours straight in order to raise money for the Vancouver Public Space Network, an entirely volunteer-run organization who do advocacy and education on the public realm in my home of Vancouver, British Columbia. Please consider supporting by sponsoring me with a pledge, leaving a comment or contacting me to contribute a guest post.

The future of urban planning is open source,” declares Erick Villagomez, founding editor of re:place magazine, in the title of a April 30th article in that same publication. I certainly agree with him, though, having less experience working with municipal governments, I’m grateful that he can argue it a smidge more eruditely. He argues for more decentralized decision-making, decrying cities like Vancouver in the comments for essentially micromanaging the growth of their cities to their detriment. His ideal…

integrates the older, bottom-up flexibility of past cities with more specific top-down methods based on the handful of positive lessons we’ve learned within the past century. It is a model that must strive to make fewer, but more intelligent decisions.

I’m particularly fond of his point regarding community engagement:

It’s worth saying, as well, that open source planning goes beyond the community engagement workshops and urban design panels currently being practiced. While these are definitely a step in the right direction, they are still trapped within the larger outdated model of urban planning described above, and as a result are not being fully mined for the creative potential that this inclusiveness brings.

I’d like to mash up Erick’s points on urban planning with some inspiration from David Eaves, who argues that the primary determinant of success in open source software development communities is their success in community management. David’s also been a huge supporter of the recent Vancouver City Council motion for open data, open standards and open source.

Firstly, I think it’s instructive to compare the language. Open source and online communities generally talk about community management. Meanwhile, people working in communities tend to be known as community activists, community advocates, and (as popularized by the Obama campaign) community organizers. I think there’s something to this. While there’s more overlap between the terms organizer and manager than between any other terms, there’s still quite a salient difference. This is certainly debatable, but when I hear organizers I think that there is something more political or advocacy-oriented than something that is being managed, which could just be a matter of coordination or cooperation for all we know. I’m willing to concede that this might just be semantics, but community management sounds much more akin to something one does as a part of work, while organizing has associations with either unions or politics. It’s interesting to note that the conflation of these two terms may simply be a further blurring of the boundaries between one’s work and personal or community life.

I find this interesting to think about, because the prospect of things being “work” is what gives things their professional rigor: the domain of the planners. Open source currently has an image problem, where “free software” makes people think of contributors coding on their off hours, not coders contributing to a community development process as one of their primary tasks, as a priority of the company or firm.

I’d like to refer to an idea I’ve previously used, called participation on-ramps, which make multiple levels of participation and types of contributions readily available to users at any skill or commitment level. For something like open source planning, I can imagine that there will be agencies and planners who will be able to participate in a professional capacity, as well as other professionals (like cartographers, IT infrastructure specialists, user researchers, etc.) who will be there as part of their day job. But they will need to become adept with negotiating and accepting the contributions of non-professionals, who do it because they are passionate about it or because they have a vested interest in seeing the project succeed.

Open source communities (I must admit, I am most familiar with Drupal which I’ve heard from others is quite unlike most other open source projects) are for the most part struggling with how to integrate and properly recognize the contributions of non-coders. Coders have a pretty solid means-test for accepting whether something is contributing value. In other areas, these lines are less clear cut: the quality of a contribution might not be revealed until quite down the line in the process, and it may be very hard to identify early in the process without specialized talent.

Ultimately, I think the proposition of open source planning is not so much a lowering of professional standards, but a “getting down of brass tacks” about who is best suited to do what, and being actually and brutally honest about that, as well as finding a role for those in a non-professional standing, for the reason that they are participants and members of the community that may be affected by what eventual action is taken.

One Comment

  1. Tina

    Only two hours to go! Hang in there!

    Posted July 26, 2009 at 3:11 am | Permalink

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