Nashville citizens play with development scenarios

4 counties and 1.2 million people - that’s the scope of the study currently underway by the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). What’s at stake? The future of growth and transportation for the area, which includes factors such as land use, development, conservation, and transportation policies. Decisions made as a result of the study will directly impact the lives of Nashville citizens for a long time, so public understanding and input are critical at this phase of the project. The MPO is working to collect feedback on the various scenarios that will determine the direction of future growth.

Traditionally, “reaching out” to the public has meant brochureware, public meetings, and informational pages posted on a website (usually in PDF form). Agencies that make an effort to go the extra mile might even publish surveys online for citizen feedback, or utilize social media for maximum reach. But these modes of communication are limited in their ability to produce effective feedback in today’s culture - after all, how many typical busy citizens are interested in attending a public meeting or reading a long PDF sheet about development scenarios?

Users get instant visual understanding of plan options.

Users get instant visual understanding of plan options.

There is now a better way - a platform that makes it easy to publish interactive, engaging information and gather feedback immediately. Nashville’s MPO is using FlipSides and BrightPages to bring their scenarios and surveys to life in a way that invites users to playfully explore options, choose priorities, and sound off about what matters most to them. From the first page of the interactive website, citizens can answer questions that help determine their preferred scenario for growth and development in the region. Whether it’s better biking trails or redevelopment of struggling urban areas, the users’ priorities are instantly reflected in a responsive chart that shows how those ideas align with certain development scenarios. Playing with different priorities causes the chart to shift accordingly, so users can observe the connections between their preferences and the development options.

Hands-on exploration helps users understand options.

Hands-on exploration helps users understand options.

After spending only minutes on the website, the average citizen can more easily understand the various choices for growth in the area. For more details about the scenarios, users can click through to explanatory pages that include interactive maps, short blocks of straightforward text, and colorful graphs - all of which give clear information in an easy-to-digest format that’s perfect for today’s audience. For example, instead of squinting at a static map in a PDF file, citizens can play with the interactive map on the MPO’s website, clicking to view changes in employment, road congestion, population, and other factors that shape each development scenario. With the information coming to life before their eyes, users are more likely to spend time exploring the rest of the site.

Whether they spend 5, 10, or 30 minutes investigating the options, citizens can give feedback at any time. Response boxes allow for quick rating of scenarios on a 1-to-5 scale, or more in-depth discussion about concerns or ideas. With the feedback options right alongside the information, public input is easier to gather and download for Nashville’s MPO, which increases the chances for informed decision-making. The site is mobile-optimized too, so citizens can access the information on any device and give their input on-the-go.

Interest-based navigation lets users explore at will.

Interest-based navigation lets users explore at will.

When plan documents are transformed into interactive experiences, busy citizens can easily become active participants. For Nashville, this means the future of growth and transportation will be shaped by the voices that matter most - the voices of the people who live there.

“Great Outdoors Colorado” invites citizens to prioritize spending through interactive online survey

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The people of Colorado love their great outdoors. The state is known for its rich outdoor resources, active residents, and recreational opportunities. Because of their passion for maintaining Colorado trails, parks, rivers, and open spaces, citizens voted in 1992 to create Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), a Trust Fund that invests part of the state’s lottery proceeds into the preservation of outdoor assets. Now, the organization is looking to residents for direction in forming a spending plan for the next 5-10 years.

Challenge: Meaningful Dialogue

GOCO owes its existence to the people of Colorado, so public opinion and feedback are essential to its success in channeling funds to the areas that matter most to residents. GOCO has always been in close communication with local governments, conservation groups, and the general public through regular meetings - but as times change, outreach strategies must be updated to reflect the habits and needs of stakeholders.

For GOCO, this meant it was time to re-think the typical ways of presenting content online. More residents are likely to give online feedback than attend a public meeting - but the challenge for organizations is in creating content that holds the attention of an audience and facilitates dialogue. Traditionally, plans and reports are presented as long, static PDFs - like GOCO’s current strategic plan - which are cumbersome for the typical citizen to absorb. Public feedback, if it happens at all, is completely separate from the online content, making it hard for organizations to get meaningful dialogue started. In formulating a spending plan for the upcoming years, GOCO sought a solution that would transform online content into an engaging experience, increasing citizen understanding and feedback.

Solution: Interactive Online Content

GOCO's website features easy-to-digest information.

GOCO's website features easy-to-digest information.

Breaking away from linear reports and static content, GOCO turned to BrightPages for creating a vivid, user-friendly website that audiences can explore and interact with. Led by compelling infographics and short blocks of text, citizens who are not familiar with GOCO’s mission can easily discover essential facts about the organization and the focus areas for the budget (such as conservation, wildlife, or outdoor recreation). Interest-based navigation allows users to explore at their own pace and click for more information if they have time - so more people can get involved without having to wade through excessive amounts of content.

The interactive survey makes feedback simple and fun.

The interactive survey makes feedback simple and fun.

The main purpose of GOCO’s new engagement website is for the organization to gather the collective opinions of Colorado residents about priorities and projects. BrightPages makes it possible for public feedback to happen seamlessly, right alongside the published content. After learning a bit about the issues, participants can click through to the interactive survey, which is simple and gamelike. Users can click and drag to designate the priorities that matter to them - such as protecting farm and ranch land or providing nature education opportunities for kids. To encourage meaningful discussion, response boxes are provided with leading questions like “What do you think the biggest barrier is to achieving your top priority?” and “What’s a priority that you think should be on the list, but isn’t?” The survey experience could be completed in mere minutes, but folks with more time can get further involved on the next page of the site, which is personalized to facilitate in-depth responses about the top three priorities originally selected by the user. Upon completing the survey, participants can compare their responses to the others received, and also share their results and opinions via social media.

Benefits

BrightPages brings online content to life for the organizations and agencies that need to communicate important information to citizens and stakeholders. For GOCO, this means Coloradans will see themselves as part of the process in deciding which outdoor projects are most important and how to best achieve the collective goals of the community. Responses that come through the website can be downloaded and analyzed, empowering GOCO to draw from the ideas of the people of Colorado and to build a plan that meets their needs. BrightPages sites are mobile optimized and the GOCO site offers Spanish translation as well, ensuring participation from the widest possible audience.

The interactive elements and bright graphics of GOCO’s website are attractive and engaging - like the other online content that people ingest daily. For organizations in charge of vital information and community-changing projects, the old methods are not as effective for presenting bright new ideas. BrightPages brought vitality to GOCO’s outreach efforts - a website as alive as Colorado’s love for the great outdoors.

Australia's largest university uses interactive photo map to engage students

It’s the start of a new semester. College students in Australia are signing in, posting photos, taking fun quizzes, jockeying for position on the leaderboard, commenting, rating, and sharing. But they’re not doing these things on a social network as you might expect. It’s an engagement website for their school, and it turns “student involvement” into a playful, approachable experience. It’s also a brilliant example of a prestigious institution reaching out to connect with students at their level and in their “language” - using the interactive, social, place-based, interest-guided elements found in the most meaningful online experiences today.

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The Learnery, just launched by The Australian National University (ANU), is an involvement website where students can help “cultivate the learning experience” by sharing photos and feedback about what makes an ideal learning environment. ANU is Australia’s largest university, but it wears its prestige lightly, maintaining an approachable online presence that encourages exploration and communication. The Learnery was launched as a photo contest and is already filling up with the images, comments, and thoughts of the student body that will be frequenting ANU’s campuses this year. The submissions will be used to help shape the school’s environment to best suit the needs of students.

The photo contest is powered by VividMaps, a tool that allows organizations to easily launch collaborative maps for promoting local places. Visitors to The Learnery can explore pinpoints on the zoomable map, click to find out more about a particular photo and read the comments, or filter by the daily themes. It’s mobile optimized too, so students can discover what special spots are nearby when they’re walking around campus - connecting online and offline experience. The photo map combines social, mobile, and gaming elements that together create an engaging start-of-semester activity.

Read all about the project right here at EngagingCities.

Webinar: New Communication Strategies for Effective Public Engagement

Want to learn how to put complex documents online in fun, engaging ways that help your audience understand and respond to the content? Register now for our Friday webinar:

MARCH 8, 2014 from 1:00pm - 2:30pm

Planners currently use a variety of engagement tools for gathering public input. But reports, drafts and published plans all are still communicated in very traditional forms - long, jargon-filled documents with limited ways to explore or comment. Even beautiful and well-designed PDF plan documents can miss communicating the true findings, because they are stuck in one dimension with long, dense blocks of text. Interactive media, instant publishing, and social media have changed the way people consume and process information - raising expectations for how planners should communicate. Think about the New York Times’ long-form journalism: short videos, interactive maps and charts, and other rich media. What if we communicated plans like that?

During this webinar, we will:

1. Begin by exploring inspiring possibilities for communicating complex topics, scenarios, and plan documents in simple, intuitive ways; this overview draws from strong engagement principles and summarizes “what you need to know” when planning and budgeting;

2. Specifically discover how interaction design, gamification, and publishing for different devices can reach more (and more diverse) audiences compared to traditional media;

3. Share examples of data visualization techniques to more effectively showcase findings and results; and

4. Open the “floor” for participants to share their experiences, challenges, and ideas. Each focus area will be presented around promising examples of recent planning projects from around North America and feature key takeaways that planners can start using today.

We hope you can join us on Friday - register here!

Transportation study aims to update a major thoroughfare - and also its plan documents

College Avenue - the most traveled thoroughfare in the city of Fort Collins, Colorado - is being transformed from an aging avenue to a world-class street. “Midtown in Motion” is a transportation study, the second phase of a broad plan by the city to increase mobility, safety, and beauty along this corridor. The majority of the street design is over 50 years old, it’s time for an update.

The concept of staying up-to-date is also true for the documents used to communicate such plans to the public. After all, if great design and modern technology will be key drivers in making College Avenue accessible and user-friendly, the materials used to convey and discuss these changes should be defined by the same elements - especially when public feedback is desired. Too often, momentous project plans are presented as a list of static PDF links and text-heavy web copy, which fail to convey the excitement and vitality of the plan. Public input is usually collected separately, and getting feedback can be difficult, as most citizens aren’t up to wading through long documents that require time to download and decipher.

There’s a better way. Like College Avenue itself, the online documents for the transportation study will be in keeping with the times. That’s because the City of Fort Collins is using BrightPages to present the plan content in a fun, engaging way - ensuring maximum citizen comprehension and participation. Instead of being overwhelmed with pages of information upon entering the project website, users will see bright infographics and simple headings that make it easy to navigate to areas that interest them. Whether walking, biking, or driving is their preferred mobility focus, they can jump to parts of the plan that contain those elements. Or they can explore how the plan will affect certain districts and intersections, making use of zoomable maps and colorful renderings that make the information easy to digest.

Most importantly, feedback happens right alongside the information on the project website - definitely an update from the old methods of creating forums or surveys separately, hoping people will follow the links and offer their opinions. “Midtown in Motion” is more than a transportation study - it’s a conversation between planners and public, offering feedback opportunities on every page. Questions like “Does this improve College Avenue?” and “Do you like this part of the plan?” give citizens a chance to comment immediately on specific aspects of the study, with no need to exit the website or do anything other than join the conversation. Oh yes, and it’s all optimized for mobile, too.

Just like the streets, town centers, and systems they aim to improve, plan documents need to be brought into the 21st century. They need to be made accessible, fun, and beautiful. Plan documents come to life with BrightPages - which helps beloved public spaces like College Avenue come back to life, too.