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Social Media and Planning, or My Passion and Frustration Story in Progress

During BarCamp, I attended Boris Mann and Mark Busse’s session on Balancing Passion and Frustration – but I stepped out to chat with someone across the room in the middle of the session, and now I’m kicking myself a bit for it. Near the start, I offered the story of how I turned one of my frustrations into passion, but I didn’t quite have the wherewithal at the time to realize I’m actually still quite frustrated. It’s still fueling my passion, but there are still ways in which it is manifesting in actions and reactions that are not constructive or helpful, and this post deals with that. (For the five people I’ve had 80% of this conversation with already — skip to the end, it’s new.)

The example I gave was the frustration around transit that I subsequently channeled into helping organize and dive into thinking about TransitCamp. The frustration I feel right now is about TransportCamp, the rapidly-approaching event which I wrote about a few weeks ago. On the one hand, I will admit to great deal of pure pettiness around my feelings towards it, because the organizers vary greatly in vision and background from Vancouver TransitCamp. Their use of the words “BarCamp-inspired” is deliberate: I don’t see the BarCamp principles baked into the way that TransportCamp has been organized. There are almost no social media “hooks” into the event, no sense of openness.

My conclusion as to why this event was different and why it grated me so boils down to this: we have differing narratives of how change on transportation and transit issues will happen. Will it be the result of many people who spend their days working in transportation and transit-related organizations as part of their professional lives coming together to speak to each other at an unconference, as they are often paid to do, networking and speaking to each other, sharing and reinforcing their passion?

Or does it come from the periphery: from getting these sorts of people together:

  • people who use transit but whose life passion lies in something else
  • people who gauge the depth and breadth of the issues with different yardsticks
  • people who don’t, never have and never will work in the planning or transportation-related industries

…and getting them to explore what their experiences of the city have been like?

In other words — to be the first organized opportunity to speak about transit and transportation, for as many people as possible, by changing the nature of proposition. I’d like to think that that was what me and the other organizers of TransitCamps — in Toronto, in Vancouver, in the Bay Area, in Edmonton — have all been aiming for, and did. Not to say that TransitCamps weren’t attended by professionals – they certainly were! Just not professionals that had anything to do with transit issues. I’ll also go out on a limb and say that the TransitCamps are profoundly interdisciplinary and user-centric by virtue of how they are organized.

My eureka moment came this morning, and as these things often go, I wonder why I didn’t think of it before. Neither one of these approaches is right, and yet both are right.

Each event plays to the strength of its organizers: formal institutional players on TransportCamp’s side, informal conversation participants connected by social networks on the TransitCamp side (probably more so in Vancouver than in other places, where the organizers generally had much better luck getting the orgs out – and why yes, I will take that critique personally too).

But it goes a little deeper than that. I recognize that this difference of methods is probably going to be my biggest hurdle to overcome during my Master’s program in planning as well. Institutions are organized around certain logics: of funding, of hierarchy, of science. While I’m learning about these systems (quite thoroughly and deeply in some places, gaining operational literacy in others), they do not speak to the emotion, or in some cases, passion, which I think, more often than not, fuels the decisions in this area. As experience and some books on interpersonal relationships might tell you, you can’t apply rationality to a person who needs emotional acknowledgment. (This is where I start to feel really badly about having deferred my class on planning history and theory, where I will be learning about, among many others, ideas like Therapeutic Planning.)

So, to summarize, I have successfully identified, if not quite surmounted, my reticence around difference in methods. Phewf. I needed that. So I will try (if I’m not swamped by work) to be representin’ at TransportCamp. I’m torn between doing a session on why TransitCamps/ChangeCamps are interesting and important both in and outside of Vancouver (since this is clearly not a ‘Camp going crowd), and giving my Twitter in Transit presentation one more go before the final curtain — any preferences or thoughts?

7 Comments

  1. Great post! It’s great to wrestle with these demons in public, far better than letting them fester inside right?

    My personal beef with “professional” Transit planners is my (probably mistaken) belief that there’s not enough dog fooding. Do those “professionals” actually take the buses, ride the trains, take the sky train or walk or bicycle when it matters i.e. as part of their daily commuting life? i.e. not just on the weekends for a hockey game or festival once a month?

    Any planner who bicycles for example (to use my current pet personal peeve) on the recently-opened-with-much-hoopla Central Valley Greenway from say Burnaby to downtown would be annoyed and frustrated that the last part has been under construction for months and a sign was put up 2 weeks ago. And the suggested detour is dangerous and will be that way until March i.e. 8 months (I emailed the city about this, we’ll see if they do anything to make Quebec Street safer for those 8 months for bicyclists)

    This is just one anecdote of course. But I bet that anybody who depends on transit or walking or bicycling can name many such examples where those who are heavy users of Transit are inconvenienced (or put in danger) unnecessarily by planners who have no idea because they don’t actually *really* use the system they are planning.

    Posted October 17, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink
  2. Roland,

    Having gotten to know more and more students who are entering the profession via my program, which is a limited subset, I would say that planning as a profession is not an exception to typical variations in temperament, politics and kickass-ness. IOW, there are many who walk their talk and bike and walk and take transit, but there are many who don’t, and that distribution curve within the organization might not differ much than that for many others.

    So there are many that are still in the mindset that it works for other people and not for them. (For instance, TransLink CEO Tom Penderghast moved to Coquitlam when he took over the job in August 2008. Is he bussing or biking over to Lougheed or Braid to catch the train to MetroTower II? I doubt it but he’s willing to say otherwise, I’d be happy to hear it!)

    I think increasingly it comes down to questioning exactly who is it that’s doing the asking when it comes to making lifestyle changes related to sustainability, and citizens becoming increasingly skeptical as to whether those people who are asking have ever actually tried it and experienced, as you say, Roland, the challenges involved. I was reading the Fraser Basin 2009 Snapshot and the last page is a big ginormous laundry list of things you can do to help maintain the health of the region. It nearly made me sick to read, mostly for that feeling that I know absolutely nobody who could conceivably do all of those things.

    Back to the topic at hand: if the people at the organizations can’t bring themselves to “eat their dog food” and make the change they’re asking others to make, are they the ones in the best position to be contributing at an unconference asking how we can convince people to build more vibrant communities — because that’s what their job title says they’re good at doing? Right now, this is all hypothetical — I know few of the people who are attending and I don’t mean to accuse them of anything — but the divide between amateurs and professionals has become and remains one of my obsessions. It comes back to the idea that in a two-way conversation, we want to ask questions of the institutions who are talking to us. We want to question their motives and their ability to cast judgment on our consumption habits as “unsustainable.”

    And for me specifically, I want these conflicts made front and centre at unconferences, because confronting, negotiating through and overcoming them advances the work and the cause.

    Posted October 18, 2009 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  3. Hi Karen,
    Thanks for writing this post. I did not read your earlier one on this topic.

    First off, I am glad you are taking the time to work through these issues. If I put myself in your shoes, I could see there being some resentment towards what we’re trying to do with Transportcamp.

    But I wanted to address some of your points.

    First, a little history – Transportcamp came about as an addendum to the North American car sharing conference, which is being hosted by the Cooperative Auto Network for two days leading up to Transportcamp. We’ll be hosting, I believe about 22 – car sharing organizations from around N. America — with a couple from Europe and one from Australia and Brazil. All mostly cooperatives.

    Transportcamp came about out of the desire to add a one day public event onto this car sharing conference. We wanted to highlight our conference, and share it with the publics, and also to have the car sharing organizations exposed to our various publics here in the lower mainland.

    Transportcamp was my idea. I’m a Director at the Car Coop, a sustainability and social media guy. I thought it would be a much more participatory forum than the usual boring old conference with old white guys reading from their power points – the tired old schtick.

    At first we had hoped to have a more social media-esque bent to it, and to really try to attract the blogging community — which I should say, doesn’t neccessarily imply openness to me.

    Adding social media tools to an unconference can create a huge barrier to entry for non-tech saavy people. Even the barcamp wiki is a big barrier for some people, or signing up via Eventbrite. Livestreaming and live blogging is really honestly for a very small majority (is it greater than 1%?) of the population.

    I’m friends with Steve Williams from Business Objects, whose advice it was to consider facilitating training sessions for non-techy people prior to the event, if we planned to go heavy on social media. Business Objects even offered up some infrastructure for this training.

    In the end, like in so many situations, time constraints dictated outcomes. Being mostly volunteers, and none of us being more than arm chair bloggers ourselves, we opted out of this route, implicitly – it feel by the wayside.

    As for the expert bent to the conference, this wasn’t ever an intention. It seems to just be an emergent property of two organizing factors 1) Our personal networks on the board and at the coop consist largely of sustainability minded folks 2) We don’t have an advertising budget, nor the time to take to the streets, that would require reaching out to a targeted group of non-experts.

    In short, the whole exercise has been organic and volunteer driven. We don’t carry much ideology about the unconference format, though it does align with our cooperative principles of democracy and openness.

    And as I mentioned, we only learned of Transitcamp after most of the main organizing had been done. So, I’m sorry we didn’t engage your or the other organizers of Transitcamp – there just wasn’t time, and most of the major decisions were complete once we learned about your event.

    But I do think the current roster of participants looks impressive. There will be no shortage of opinion, discussion, debate, and collaboration.

    We’re excited about how it’s come together – and excited to have you there as well; to lend your voice positively to an important and timely topic – sustainable mobility.

    Posted October 18, 2009 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  4. Jeremy,

    I’m glad — giddy, even! — that you were able to take the time to tell the story of the unconference. It is honestly what I’ve wanted to hear the most, since I first heard about the event, i.e. where does it come from? Why are you passionate about it? and so forth.

    What you’ve described – a more public shoulder to a larger undertaking relating directly to your organization’s outcomes – is very common; in fact, SmartGrowth BC’s Gaining Ground conference has an unconference open component to it as well.

    Allow me to split hairs for a moment with your comment here:

    At first we had hoped to have a more social media-esque bent to it, and to really try to attract the blogging community — which I should say, doesn’t neccessarily imply openness to me.

    I both agree and disagree. The way that many BarCamps are typically organized, things like the organizer meeting times are made publicly available, as well as things like the budget, or telling the aforementioned story of why you – you specifically – are doing it and want to see from it. This is one layer of openness. It makes it possible for people to participate and get involved in ways that, as core organizers, you may not and (a unique experience of serendipity of social media), can not anticipate, because people can identify contributions that they can make that you might not know you wanted.

    It may not be open in the sense of diverse, the way demographers and planners might define it, such as by age, by technical ability, by ethnicity, by housing tenure, or by time spent in the city. But it’s a level of online transparency that makes it accessible, at least, to the people (yes, often bloggers) who might care to pay attention, and it enables word of mouth among the people at the edges and periphery of your social network. (That’s the hope, anyhow.)

    I want to reiterate that I have absolutely no animosity or resentment to you or other organizers of Transport Camp — I’ve played that game before, it wasn’t pleasant and I’m not going to do it with you. But I would like to differ with you on another point though: even if most of the “major” decisions about the event have been made, I’d like to think with two weeks out that you could still be reaching out and including a different crowd, and building bridges between the one you’ve got and the one that’s possible.

    In my mind, the central difference between a conference and an Internet-enabled unconference, is the fact that for the latter, at least in intention, it aims to get the conversation and the connecting started before the conference, and to carry what is said during the event, into subsequent conversations and actions that happen after the event, and beyond event participants. Attracting more people who are familiar with some of the ways to do this, doesn’t seem to me the kind of thing that could hurt.

    …That said, you have a better picture of your resources and your team than I do. But it seems a great opportunity to make the event more awesome. I hope we’re able to make it happen.

    Posted October 18, 2009 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  5. Thanks Karen for a very thoughtful post.

    I have to be honest, I would love to reach out to a different audience in the next two weeks. We still have 57 tickets left.

    But I am incredibly time constrained this month, and there just isn’t any extra room in my calendar for extra to dos.

    But! More than happy to hear any ideas you might have, or any easy wins in this regard. And certainly glad to have any help in achieving this worthwhile objective.

    Jeremy

    Posted October 18, 2009 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  6. Hi Karen

    I just found your website via a posting from Robert Goodspeed on Planetizen.

    I am working on a project that tries to encourage citizens to help make public transport better. It’s called Bus Meister and you can read about it on my website:

    http://www.andynash.com/projects/busmeister/index.html

    The information there is a bit dated now, I have lots of ideas that need to be added, not least is making it a bit larger – to include a more comprehensive street design rather than just improving public transport …

    Also, I wrote a paper for the US Transportation Research Board on the use of Web 2.0 applications in transport planning. I have posted the paper, and a couple updates, on streetswiki for people to comment and edit (although no one has added to it last time I checked). Here’s the link to my home page with the links to streetswiki article:

    http://www.andynash.com/projects/web2transport.html

    This is all to say that your ideas sound very interesting and I would be happy to hear any comments you have about Bus Meister and my paper.

    Thanks

    Andy

    Posted October 22, 2009 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  7. Andy,

    Thanks for getting in touch and sharing your work on Bus Meister! It looks really exciting, and I will do my best to get you some feedback and to learn more about it! I only recently learned that the TRB has some projects rolling on social media / web 2.0, which is great and exciting to hear. Offhand, I wonder if the cases from TransLink (such as their recently 10-year plan consultation process) will be worthwhile to you? Looking forward to checking it out in greater depth!

    Karen

    Posted October 24, 2009 at 8:19 am | Permalink

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