I will be attending the annual meeting of the American Planning Association (APA) next week in Boston.  In my preparations for the conference, I discovered MindMixer, and online community engagement tool meant to encourage more participation in local urban planning. MindMixer is one of a handful of community engagement tools I’ve heard about in the last year or so.  It attempts to overcome the traditional barriers to idea generation and prioritization in matters affecting the community.  For years, the “rational planning” model has been employed in cities all over the world to try to gather input, prioritize concerns, and choose the most suitable combination of opinions for the basis of decisions regarding community growth and change.  Because the process involves subjectively developing “weights” to prioritize concerns, some have criticized the process for being deceivingly correct or just.

It’s unclear to me exactly how MindMixer deals with these concerns, or if it does at all.  However, it does promise to engage a wider base, which is probably always better than nothing.  The challenge for tech solutions in community engagement is similar to that faced by researchers performing telephone-based surveys – each engagement/feedback tool is biased toward a particular section of the population.  Telephone interviews miss the whole section of the population who either have no phone (tend to be low income) or who only have a mobile phone (tend to be younger).  In the case of MindMixer, I worry that while it will help engage some members of the community who don’t have time to make it to community meetings, but will not reach the elusive lower-income, sometimes immigrant, often highly-transit dependent population.

All in all, I’m a fan of these solutions, and will keep an eye out for how they approach this challenge, and how municipalities augment its functionality, in the future.

­-Terra Curtis