Closing the Digital Feedback Loop

It’s all well and good to ask your community for their input, but neglecting to close the feedback loop can have an acute impact on the relationship between constituents and local government. Agencies and their consultants are often pressed for time and resources, resulting in prioritizing getting feedback over sharing feedback. We’ve recently released new features that integrate unique and simple ways to close the feedback loop with your community, helping you activate public participation and maintain high-quality interactions with constituents.

Results of an affordable housing survey in Boulder County

Draft Development Standards in Albany, NY

Live Data Charts

EngagingPlans now supports public facing live results charts, allowing participants to see an overview of aggregated community sentiments. These charts work in conjunction with surveys and Points & Paths mapping, helping people see how their preferences compare to others’ and taking agencies out of the messenger role to give users an intuitive view of overall community sentiment.

Draft Document Review

As projects progress, teams must distill public feedback and incorporate it into proposed objectives and strategies, leaving room for inadvertent omissions or misinterpretations. EngagingPlans now has a built in draft review feature, allowing communities to review a PDF document within their browser window and offer reactions in an embedded form alongside the draft document. This feature makes it easy for project teams to present draft iterations to the public, ensuring a late-stage opportunity to vet insights and how they are incorporated into proposed solutions.

Users Are People, Too: The Next Frontier of Digital Engagement

This article was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of Planning and Technology Today from the American Planning Association's Technology Division.

When digital engagement first piqued the interest of civic agencies in the late 2000s, it was an aspirational but somewhat impractical notion. As technology capacity has skyrocketed over the last half-decade, online participation has become more feasible, but there is a danger of development for technology’s sake rather than for user benefit. While the possibilities may seem limitless, it is the end user experience that is the true measure of success for digital engagement. Citizen experience is enhanced through the use of intuitive imagery and design, integrated content and feedback, and by creating input opportunities during every project phase.

Highly visual economic development strategy in Pennsylvania 

Meaningful participation involves educating the community about relevant issues and opportunities to create context for their feedback. Planners must distill inherent complexities and help people understand how participation now could impact their quality of life in the long term. Visual elements like icons, infographics, and imagery draw users into the engagement experience and improve comprehension of technical details, decreasing the knowledge barrier required for meaningful participation and broadening the potential audience.

Integrated content and input opportunities in Fort Collins, CO

Advancements in technology now make it simple to ask for input beyond open ended questions like how can we make the city better? Consider, instead, an activity that consolidates complex information and presents alternatives in a clear, appealing format alongside targeted questions about the alternatives. The user is empowered to offer specific, actionable insights, transforming a potentially frustrating experience into one focused on problem- solving and bottom-up engagement.

It is easy to envision an early stage, digital engagement tool that asks big picture questions and places the responsibility for ongoing participation on the user. As projects progress to later stages involving alternative scenarios, design concepts, and trade-offs, feedback tools must modify engagement activities to reflect this increased complexity. Interactivity becomes paramount, helping users understand the impacts of their preferences through trial and error.

Digital participation tools hold immense potential for reaching and engaging broad audiences, but attention must be paid to the public experience of those tools to ensure constructive, meaningful interactions with government. By focusing on visual context, integrated content and feedback opportunities, and consistent calls to action throughout the project, digital engagement tools have the power to elevate user experience and improve the quality of civic interactions.

Colorado Resilience Planning Goes Digital

The Colorado Department of Local Affairs (CO DOLA) recently led the development of a guide to help counties and municipalities across the state prepare for and mitigate hazards by integrating resilience and mitigation principles into plans, codes, and standards related to land use and the built environment. Working with an Advisory Committee composed of representatives from state and federal agencies, local government, and other subject-matter experts in hazard mitigation and land use planning, this guide includes information from Colorado’s leading experts and represents varying community sizes, locations, and values. Recognizing that an online resource would both scale to broad audiences and reduce barriers for use, CO DOLA asked UIS to create an interactive website that presents the guide in an intuitive, visual format.

The interactive Planning for Hazards guide distills technical content to assist users in sifting through and processing a wealth of information. Users are offered a variety of options to access the guide on the homepage, allowing them to read through distilled web content linearly, navigate directly to specific sections of the guide, quickly access hazards, tools, and existing community models, or download and print the full PDF. Should the user want to find a specific section at any time, a prominent Table of Contents block is present on every page.

Planning for Hazards focuses primarily on identifying and assessing the risks associated with various hazards in Colorado, the tools and strategies available to help mitigate those risks, and model policies for implementing those tools. As such, UIS designed those three areas of the site to visually connect and reinforce their relationship through the consistent use of icons. Each hazard links to the related tools that can be used to mitigate it, and every tool page identifies the hazards addressed and links to applicable model policy language and commentary. Through these connections, the interactive guide facilitates ongoing use by making it easy to explore and identify the appropriate strategies for individual communities and relevant hazard concerns.

Creating the guide was the first phase of a statewide outreach program related to resilience and hazard mitigation. The Planning for Hazards team has already presented the guide at the American Planning Association’s national conference, and they will also present at a variety of state conferences throughout the year. In addition to hosting regular webinars to introduce the guide, the team is emphasizing distribution via academic and agency channels to ensure the resource is available to those who most need it.

The next phase of the project will include pilot implementation projects, using the guide as a tool to provide technical assistance and facilitation to select Colorado communities to help them develop relevant mitigation or response programming or regulations. These pilot projects will help the Planning for Hazards team assess the effectiveness and utility of the guide, ensuring that it stays current and applicable to the agencies that it is designed to support.

Community Benefits Survey Informs Atlanta’s Turner Field Redevelopment

In the fall of 2013, the Atlanta Braves announced they would be leaving their longtime home stadium, Turner Field, at the end of the 2016 season. This move will leave 77 acres of public land available for redevelopment, making it the biggest project in the area since the interstate highways were built in the 1950s. As closing day approaches, community concern for the future of the area has increased, and the Turner Field Community Benefits Coalition (TFCBC) was created to advocate for inclusive planning, transparent development, and community benefits in proposed future uses. In 2015, the Coalition commissioned a comprehensive neighborhood survey to inform an area planning study funded by the Livable Centers Initiative (LCI), a program of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

The survey had multiple goals: build a neighborhood resident database; inform the LCI planning study and subsequent master and conceptual plans for the site; become the foundation for a Community Benefits Agreement that would be presented to the winning development team. To help meet these ambitious goals, Sycamore Consulting took the lead on developing, implementing, and evaluating a robust survey, bringing Urban Interactive Studio in to provide the online survey platform.

The team used an EngagingPlans website to digitize the survey, allowing them to offer a branded experience as respondents answered questions about priorities, preferences, and concerns related to the redevelopment site and surrounding neighborhoods. To improve response rates, volunteers took tablets door-to-door and asked for participation directly on the digital survey. The simplicity of the responsive interface made tablets an easy way to both get input on the spot and eliminate the need for data entry associated with paper surveys. The community also offered suggestions via an Idea Wall, where users could add thoughts or Like other ideas, giving the team a quantitative view of how much support there was for any given submission.

All told, the survey received nearly 1,800 responses, and more than 300 Idea Wall comments were submitted on the EngagingPlans website. Neighborhood priorities for the new development were incorporated into a Community Benefits Platform, emphasizing:

  • A need for mixed-use development
  • Improved and ongoing neighborhood safety
  • Access to transit, education, and public services
  • A need for local business, restaurants, and a grocery store

In December of 2015, the County Recreation Authority announced the winning development team would be led by Georgia State University. The GSU team will transform the baseball field into a football stadium, adding student housing, apartments, and retail. The sale is currently in negotiation, and on February 18, 2016, the TFCBC presented the Community Benefits Platform with the recommendation that it be included by the County as part of the sale.

Interactive Strategic Plan Sets Industrial Region on a Path to Vibrance

The Southern Alleghenies region in Pennsylvania has a rich history in coal mining and steel milling. However, the decline of these industries in the 1980s prompted a need for economic diversification that would start the region down a path toward long-term financial stability. The Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Coalition (SAPDC) recently created a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) that is designed to bring together public, private, nonprofit, and educational sectors in collaborating with the community to create a roadmap for strengthening and stabilizing the regional economy.

In 2012, the SAPDC completed a CEDS that included an action plan with five key goal areas, outlined and described in a lengthy PDF that was cumbersome for both professionals and the community to navigate. With the current update, the SAPDC made a commitment to public participation and innovation that ensures the revised Strategy remains a living document that can be continually reviewed, evaluated and modified.

UIS supported the transformation of the CEDS into a visually compelling online experience using the Interactive Plan app from the EngagingPlans App Suite. The web app makes it easier for citizens to review and offer meaningful feedback on elements of the Strategy, giving the community a sense of ownership over the plan. On the landing page, infographics depict the results of a SWOT analysis and various population projections, simplifying the complexity of background information. Users can also review each goal area of the plan through short summaries, bite-sized text snippets, and graphics and charts, and each goal has a detail page that can be explored either sequentially or via the landing page overviews.

On each detail page, rich media and graphs outline the plan elements and drop-down menus allow users to easily view the associated objectives and strategies. Every detail page also has a feedback opportunity, encouraging users to offer their thoughts and ideas as they navigate the plan. Sections of the complete CEDS PDF are bookmarked on each goal detail page, and users can read content in a window optimized for browser viewing or download the full PDF. All of these features combine to offer a unique, interactive participation opportunity that promotes continued input throughout implementation.

As the SAPDC team continues to use intuitive digital engagement to inform its strategies, the Southern Alleghenies region is setting a precedent for how rural areas elicit feedback and community insights on economic development initiatives.