Towards Data Driven Urbanism

We’re a city of nearly 800,000 people, and we’re basing the public involvement part of the decision on 80 comment forms and 15 interviews? I truly believe more people want to provide feedback, it’s just too difficult to do so at the moment. Mack Male, in a blog on Public Involvement.

A recent blog post in the discussed the idea of DYI Revitalisation, where a bunch of citizens, business owners and associations get together to host evens such as the 104 Street Block Party.  There are several benefits that arise from closing down a few blocks of a downtown street that include building a sense of community, connecting citizens with the local business, artests, musicians, each other. While the 104 Street Block Party is an awesome event that highlights what a place can be, it is a shallow way to engage citizens in a meaningful discussion of urban planning and development. In my view there are four practical "levels" that citizens can be engaged on: (1) a Charette where citizens attend municipally sponsored meets that address specific issues such as the Walter Dale Bridge Project, or the Arena; (2) DYI Revitalisation such as the 104 Street Block Party; (3) Tactical Urbanism, and ;(4) Data Driven Urbanism. We need all four to successfully engage citizens and municipalities, but we are currently operating at the first and second levels.

Tactical Urbanism (TU) is much like open source software development which seeks to produce consistent but incremental change over time.  This requires frequent releases involving input from all who are interested in specific local projects. TU is implemented in an urban environment through experimentation (i.e. a single $500 bench rather than $10000 worth of benches) that supports (requires) feedback from citizens. Citizens are also empowered to claim their own space with paint and small infrastructure improvements (putting in a local bike lane, speed bump). The goal is to get people involved with the local through "a deliberate and sometimes experimental phased approach to instigating change. The result is the development of desirable locations and social capital between citizens, local government and businesses."

Data Driven Urbanism (DU) recognizes that the world of citizen engagement is changing with mobile devises proliferating our urban fabric even as the GeoWeb develops as a platform that enables crowdsourced mapping.  DU recognizes that truly participatory planning must go beyond drawing on flip charts and maps and  requires a plethora of open data sets, a platform of engagement and building long term relationships with developers and engaged citizens.  What would it look like if we could GeoTweet a downed tree in a river valley path such that the River Valley Rangers received it; that these tweets were mapped?  Now imagine if we could use the tools in our pockets - iPhones, BlackBerries and all other GPS, camera and connected mobile devises to provide feedback to our Municipality on what works and what does not.  While there are privacy and behaviour concerns, these concerns are navigable and can be addressed.

The gap, as I see it, is a City wide strategy to address public involvement using new technologies and approaches.  As great as the IT department is (and they are great!), they are too few to enact widespread change within the City of Edmonton bureaucracy. Immediate improvements that could be made tomorrow include higher standards for developers.  For instance, why are they not required to produce 3D files for Google Earth that would allow citizens to engage with a developers vision? Why are public consultations limited to old style Charette, surveys and questionnaires?  It is possible and desirable to engage with citizens via an on-line map that supports geo-located comments, wikis or discussion forums.

Within geography it is commonly understood that people are experts of their local environment.  Lets engage with all who would have something to say about their locality via different and varied channels that include face-to-face meetings in addition to web-based consultations. The combined technologies of smart phones and the web as a consultation platform would offer a data driven approach to urbanism that might provide insight into what makes a location a place.