The Crowdsourced City: at SFU City Program, and Open Gov West 2011

Some late reflections on The Crowdsourced City, which describes two things: first, it was an event at SFU Vancouver on May 10th; I then repurposed it as the departure point for an unconference I proposed and led at Open Gov West 2011 in Portland on May 14th.

CrowdSourced City: the SFU City Presentation

This event was put on by the SFU City program. Attendance at the session appeared somewhat poorly forecast by the organizers — many attendees, such as myself, were standing behind the back row of seats and sitting on steps and in aisles, pushing the limits on the fire code. I also recall being somewhat surprised by how slim the turnout was from those who I would consider to have more of a tech background than an urban planning background. I was delighted to see people like Stanley King not only listening in but commenting too — his work on inclusive and open processes for urban design are low-tech but incredibly empowering, and it’s precisely that spirit that I’d want to see tech tools infused with for the future.

This event consisted primarily of walkthroughs and presentations from the makers of three tools: CrowdFlower, Crowdbrite, and PlaceSpeak.

CrowdFlower told the story of its work collaborating with Ushahidi, Mission 4636, and a handful of other projects and initiatives to support relief efforts after the earthquake in Haiti last year. (They have a retrospective post examining this work on CrowdFlower’s blog.) I walked in having missed the first half of this presentation, but from what I can gather on their website, CrowdFlower works on mobilizing individuals to contribute effort in the form of incentivized “micro-tasks”, and have created a platform to regularly and repeatedly engaging large numbers of people in simple tasks, and to coordinate that work into a cohesive whole. Though I haven’t had any exposure with to it, offhand it sounds a little like Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Crowdbrite presented next. Crowdbrite’s CEO, Darin Dinsmore, started by declaring that public hearings are a huge problem and for almost everyone involved — they put citizens in awkward positions and waste great deal of people’s time, resulting in little if any significant progress for anyone. At one point, Darin spoke of how he did some back-of-a-napkin math on how many city staff were being paid to sit for the length of a public hearing and pointed out that thousands of dollars were going into a meeting format that hadn’t been tweaked or changed for decades. The Crowdbrite platform aims to save time by allowing the public’s feedback to be collected online, with references to what it is they are commenting on, be it a map or a plan. The key to their interface is the idea of the “virtual stickynote”, where people can submit their comments. Other users of the system can then respond to those comments, and they can also be compiled into reports. It has the potential to save huge amounts of time and resources which are currently spent on transcription and processing costs. Darin also wisely spoke that it is just a tool — and that its success is still dependent on a clear and well thought-through engagement process.

PlaceSpeak was the last up. Their public engagement platform is based on the perspective that what you say about an issue is connected to where you live. The site uses various geo-verification techniques to let you “claim” where you live and to associate that location, in a fashion accessible only to the City and not to the general public, with what one says online. Since this session, the site’s plug-in has been integrated with the TalkVancouver.com online public forum site. Out of all the tools, PlaceSpeak struck me as being most interesting in terms of there being a clearer connection to community-based activity. But I also voiced a concern, that where I live now may only scratch the surface of the places I care about. I think there’s a whole can of worms involved, which I won’t crack open here and now, but there were a few people who voiced agreement with me on this point. PlaceSpeak has also since launched a contest called Tag Your Hood.

CrowdCity: the Unconference Session at Open Gov West 2011

I was really intrigued by some of the questions I was discussing with people after the Crowdsourced City session in Vancouver, so I borrowed the title of the session and topics for an unconference session at Open Gov West in Portland, because I felt like it would be a topic of interest for people in attendance there. Despite a few bumps, I hope it was an informative session.

I was hampered by a few things at OGW 2011 which, to me, made the session not all that it could have been. One big piece was that there was no projector in the tent, which meant no hands-on look at any of the three platforms, and unfortunately I wasn’t familiar enough with the three of them to answer questions.

The bigger challenge was a bit of a weirder one, which was understanding that the audience at the SFU City session was primarily planners — people who understood the legal requirements and the functional frustrations of public consultation, and who saw that activity within a larger process. The audience at Open Gov West was looking at everything as an entirely different group. Some of them were government staff but who worked outside of planning. Some of them were from municipalities smaller (and, if David Eaves is to be believed, more agile in rolling out change) than places like Vancouver. To them, the technology was, frankly, completely uninteresting.

And I can understand that. I think the technology that is most interesting and cutting edge is always going to be 5 steps ahead of the technology that is sanctioned or has enough process around it to be comfortable for government. I also think the fact that no one had seen the technologies in question also hampered the discussion a great deal, and that was a combination of me being ill-prepared and just the nature of the particular beast that day.

The biggest lesson for me is that I’m making a nice cozy brain-niche studying the differences between how staff view public engagement in planning, and how the public views those attempts at engagement — but it’s something I need to work harder at articulating for myself, because my work in open government and public engagement in planning is bringing me in contact with different audiences who fundamentally care about different things.

The discussion in this session picked up a bit when I talked about something which really matters to me, which is the fact that all three of these tools appear — it’s early days, granted — to be built to work within what I would consider to be a traditional government procurement process. I don’t know nearly enough about RFP processes to say this is problematic, but looking at government budgets, it doesn’t seem to me that smaller places have the money to buy these kinds of technologies — their need to effectively engage their citizens online is no less pressing. What might open source models bring to this space, or affect how companies envision developing technology for government use? How do models like Code for America, or other cross-gov partnerships (like OpenPlans’ OpenTripPlanner), fit into this space? This was the conversation I personally felt was missing from the SFU City session, and which I was glad to have been able to voice (though in a limited way) at Open Gov West 2011.

Hoping to continue these kinds of conversations with those working in planning in Vancouver, on-line but hopefully off-line as well!

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for posting this. I was one of many frustrated applicants that were unable to gain admission to the SFU event – even after they increased the venue accommodation.

    I wholeheartedly endorse the criticism by Crowdbrite of the the current public hearing system. I have been on both sides of this – as an official and as a concerned citizen and it is indeed disfunctional. I have also been around on-line discussions to be very wary of how easily these can be taken over by those determined to impose their views on others.

    We must do better at getting public involvement in decision making. The current – and growing – level of cynicism is very bad for civil society. I am not enamoured of technology for its own sake, but the current format – let’s run an open house where no-one is allowed to make speeches – is clearly only helping those who run “public consultation” as a way to check the boxes, not actually listen to what people are saying.

    Posted June 8, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Jean Hébert

    whoah – brain overload, and that’s a good thing. I’m doing a study (as you might know) in participatory design, mobile media/ubicomp and Greenest City Conversations. The formal research hasn’t started yet, but if you have the time, I’d love if you could participate – seems you are tuned in to the same problems that I am…

    Posted June 8, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Permalink
  3. Hi Karen:

    We met at OpenGovWest ;-). Nice work on the post. CEOs for Cities (and a bunch of foundations also developed a platform that uses a “stickynote” approach. I like it because it supports short, frequent engagements on a variety of subjects (Memphis, skills; Chicago, bikes, etc.). I’m not sure about impact yet (might be too early), but the idea is compelling) and you can see the FB shares on the page itself – you could feed info by topics to different people who could use it. We wrote about it here:
    http://enhancingworkforceleadership.org/post/give-minute-commuity-engagement-around-skills-and-whole-lot-more

    Posted June 10, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

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