This past weekend, the national conference of the American Planning Association (APA) was held in Boston. As such, students and others associated with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT decided to organize a half-day conference of its own called PlanningTech@DUSP. Because this conference was focused on bringing together a diverse group of people, either working with or interested in the usefulness and application of technology in the field of planning, I couldn’t resist registering. Today, after only one morning at APA, I’m finding that the intimate nature of the event at DUSP was much more conducive to provocative and meaningful engagement than APA. But, I digress... I wanted to highlight one of the presenter’s work from PlanningTech that I really liked. Jennifer Cowley-Evans, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University, presented on her work in collaboration with the City of Austin’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, who was developing its Strategic Mobility Plan.
Evans-Cowley is interested in the use of technology to enhance public participation in the planning process. As such, she was awarded a grant through the Federal Transit Administration Public Transportation Participation Pilot Program to research the subject. Instead of using technology (in this case, Twitter) to explicitly solicit input from the public, they decided to find tweets that were already sharing, engaging, or analyzing the state of mobility in Austin.
To do this, they scraped tweets for “Austin” and words related to transportation. They then employed a team to go through the 49,000 such tweets they found and weed out the irrelevant ones (side note: apparently the boy’s name “Austin” is quite popular right now). Of the remaining 11,500, 8,308 were relevant micro-blogs from the general public, and were then coded on 5 variables: type (sharing, engaging, analyzing); theme (economic development, regional integration, land use, transit system, etc,); topic one; topic two; and positive/negative sentiment.
I’ll let you read the details of the analysis on your own, but the summary provides two main conclusions: the project was both a success and a failure, and serves to demonstrate the next steps for effectively utilizing Twitter (or other social media tools) for public engagement. It was a success in the sense that it proved there is meaningful discussion about urban planning issues already happening on Twitter, and that this meaning can be distilled and translated to decision-makers in the planning process. The main barrier, however, was convincing these decision-makers that the content was valid. It cannot be proven that these tweets come from residents or voters, and so elected officials and others had a hard time incorporating the input into the plan directly. Perhaps further study needs to provide evidence on the fact that those people tweeting about Austin’s mobility problems, without being asked to do so, are likely to be part of the problem and the solution (whether or not they are residents), and as such should be incorporated into the public input process. As these technologies become even more ubiquitous, the hope is that decision-makers become more comfortable incorporating their content into their plans and policies.