Tying into research: a survey getting help from PlaceSpeak

Colleen Hardwick, the founder of PlaceSpeak, holds a Ph.D. in geography, a factor that I think gives a methodological robustness to much of the PlaceSpeak model.  Her organization’s partnership with higher education has continued, and recently PlaceSpeak decided to promote a survey regarding online public engagement processes.  Here’s the summary from the researchers:

Participation through online platforms is increasing while internet use, literacy and connectivity spreads through our society.

We are running this survey as part of a University of British Columbia graduate student research project to find out about your preferences and experiences with online participatory processes in general, and more specifically in regards to your experiences with PlaceSpeak. On average, respondents are taking 9 minutes to fill out the survey.

We are trying to reach out to as many PlaceSpeak members and users of participatory web platforms as possible. The more you share this topic and invite people to take the survey the better. Thanks in advance for going the extra mile.


We need much more research on why and how people use online public engagement tools, and it’s likely that online public engagement platforms that build partnerships with research institutions are going to have stronger and sounder methods for improving online public participation.  Kudos to PlaceSpeak for helping to widen knowledge, and we’re glad to help spread the reach of this researcher.

You can learn more about the study and take the survey here.  I hope you will.


Demographics? Who needs them demographics? (hint: maybe you) (Bang the Table)

This post from Bang The Table was particularly good, from my perspective, because of the advice in the following paragraphs.  Regardless of what platform you’re using, you should probably give some decent thought to the kinds of demographic information you need to know to make your data legitimate — or might need to know in the future.  Read the BTT post for the full thing if you’re interested.

When you set up a new site, put time aside to really think about what kind of demographic information you require. Suburb, age and gender are more common ones, but there are also registration forms that ask for participants’ general interests, their household set up and even income range. The more data you collect during the registration, the more you will be able to segment your online community later and find out what part(s) of your community you might need to target more to build a diverse audience.

While it is tempting to ask for as much information as you can think of, the signup form should not be so long or intrusive that it creates a barrier to participation. To avoid this, consider making questions optional and telling your prospective participants why you collect the data and what you are going to do with it.

If you already have an existing site and you feel like it is too late to start asking some demographic question, be aware that your participants at any time can update their profile. You might just have to show them where…

Test you: a quiz about the real and perceived differences between residents and officials (from MindMixer)

I frankly haven’t decided what I think of this myself, but I think it’s too interesting not to share with you.

MindMixer launched a “quiz” this week that I think is intended to get public official types thinking about what residents really want out of public engagement.   It’s a fascinating exercise, but I can’t tell at this point if it’s a marketing tool or if they’re actually gathering information to try to identify trends and commonalities (MindMixer tends to be better than many of the smaller firms at compiling and analyzing user trends across projects, in part because their projects are relatively consistent and in part because they have the bandwidth to do so).

When you take the quiz, you get presented with five statements, and you have to identify whether the person who said that was a community official or a resident.  At the end of the questions, you find out whether you were “right” or “wrong” and then given a little extra information.  My own problem is that the actual source of the quote is never identified, so even though the introduction says that all the quotes are from real people, the lack of citation sort of underctuts the believability.  Plus it’s assuming that one person’s single quote reflects a very large population.  None of which negates the information attached to the feedback, but the more competitive among us (ahem…) are probably inclined to complain about test and argue with the teacher over the grade.  Fat lot of good that does, but it is a little distracting.


My Type -A issues aside, the information in the feedback makes it worth a small bit of your time.  Without giving you the answers (teacher!!), here’s a couple examples of the explanations:

two people talking

from MindMixer

Every year, just 9 percent of Americans attend in-person meetings. Just like you, people are busy, and taking the time to go to a meeting where they might only get a few minutes at the microphone – and no promise of getting anything in return – is too high a barrier.”

“To a certain extent, community leaders and community members are most concerned with outcomes. You work toward goals. So with everything you do, the payoff is in seeing its positive effect. For Meg Kelly, project manager with Bluestem Communications, long drives and longer days of working with locals and leaders in the Lake Winnebago region of Wisconsin paid off when she observed people with varying backgrounds, on different corners of the lake, coming together online to improve their quality of life.”

So you get an easy mix of facts, arguments in favor of online public engagement and leads on examples that might help you make the case in your community.  Probably a worthwhile way to spend a few minutes…just don’t worry too much about your “grade.”



Introducing Citizen Space user group meetings (Delib)

User group meetings are a valuable tool in the technology worker’s box — they give the participants an opportunity to not only ask questions of the developers, but learn how their peers are using the tools — new ideas, hacks or workarounds that weren’t part of the orginal plan, issues that he or she might hit in using the tools in a different situation or on a project with a higher level of complexity.  And they’re golden for the developer — not only do they build a personal relationship with their users, but they discover new uses, hear about emerging needs, and get the ability to explore how their product actually works or doesn’t work from the point of view of the users themselves.  Most of the major technology platforms, including consumer aps like Evernote and Box, as well as most of the programming platforms, have either online or in person user groups, or both.

At this point, the use of user groups in online public engagement is rare overall, probably due to the bootstrapped nature of most of these firms and their often huge geographic coverage.  Bang the Table does an annual conference for its Australia users,  but most of the rest are more limited.  As I said, in a lot of cases I think that can be chalked up being small, spread-thin firms, but it’s also possible that the ones that come out of a consulting background might have less exposure to the use of user’s groups, or less willingness to share the reins with their users.  In those cases, the firms are probably not helping themselves in the long run.

Delib just made an early foray into establishing user’s groups, focusing on an in-person meeting format close to their home turf, and sponsored by a couple of longtime clients/collaborators.  Relying on an in-person model means that this user group is not going to reflect the full range of Delib users (who are all over the world).  But it’s a good start — and like most things in technology, it’s better to take an imperfect crack at improving something, learn from that experience and use that to figure out prudent expansion, than it is to do nothing.

Here’s Rowena Farr from Delib:

After a few months in the making, we finally have two user group meetings planned this year – let’s all meet up and get to know one another!

BIS Digtial Engagement

Who are the user groups for?

Digital leads, analysts, policy leads, communication managers – anyone using Citizen Space or interested in digital engagement. We’re hoping the groups will be a mix of people with different skills.

What should I expect?

Sessions on all things digital engagement. Including the following:

  • Show and tell of recent or upcoming engagement exercise. Review of the process and challenges of how you do consultation
  • Example from an analysis team and/or input from Delib on tools for analysis in Citizen Space
  • Citizen Space roadmap – we’ll talk through our plans for development of Citizen Space and garner your input
  • Top tips and best practice examples

Tell me when it is and I’m there with bells on!

The first is a central government user group meeting on the afternoon of Friday 29th August, hosted by Department of Health in Whitehall. Focusing on specific examples from central government.

The next is a full-day user group meeting hosted by Birmingham City Council in late September/October. This will include some useful workshops as well as discussions around benchmarking and collaborative working, amongst many other things.

Interested in attending? Contact one of our Account Managers – Louise (louise@delib.net) or Rowena (rowena@delib.net) or give us a call on 0845 638 1848.

In Their Words: Touch This Image!

The Crowdbrite platform touts itself as being highly interactive — it allows participants to put “sticky notes” with comments all over a graphic.  Recently Crowdbrite apparently figured out that it could turn that approach around and use it as a way to allow people to navigate a complex situation, like the pros and cons of various site improvement alternatives in an Environmental Assessment.  There’s been something of a micro-movement in online public engagement lately toward using these tools to present planning information in a more manageable way (I’m a planner, and  don’t even want to read most of the fat existing conditions and other report s that we put out!)

This interface gives an mix of information, embedded site photos,  links to documents and a simple poll.  It’s a little hard to sort out without having this graphic in a larger context, but it’s an interesting new model for how to make the information-sharing part of a physical project a little easier for a layperson to digest.  Since it’s interactive, I can’t embed it, but you can play with it yourself here.



In Their Words: Placing It on a PlaceSpeak

One of the ongoing challenges in online public engagement is the question of how to make maps as useful and intuitive as possible for non-map users.  This is often hard for people in the community professions (planning, economic development, city management, etc.) to get their heads around, but many laypeople have some trouble translating a familiar place into a two-dimentional drawing.  Orienting themselves to the map, navigating it, and figuring out what all those abstract marks mean in real life… if you have ever run a public open house where you’re trying to show people information on a map, you know what I am talking about.  There’s a very rational reason why most people tend to find their house on the map first — doing so if often the quickest way for them to connect the abstract thing to a real place.  I have an operating theory that the prevalence of Google Maps might be making the general public more map-literate, but I haven’t seen anyone studying that question yet.

PlaceSpeak has staked out a very particular spot in the online public engagement space: if you have to know for certain that the feedback you get is coming from people who live within a specific area, PlaceSpeak is the one who can pin that down for you.  Their process requires more information from the user than some of the others, and that may not be for everyone, but the result is that their process identifies pretty much exactly where the person who is participating is doing that from.  When I log in to a PlaceSpeak, it puts a dot on my house in Ohio.

PlaceSpeak now has an additional capability for site-specific commenting.  Within a PlaceSpeak initiative, a user can attach comments or respond to questions with regard to a specific location.  Here’s what they said:

PlaceSpeak recently released Place It, a new interactive mapping tool. Place It allows users to post comments on maps within specific geographical areas. It combines an easy and accessible mode of PPGIS (public participation geographic information systems) with PlaceSpeak’s existing suite of online LBS (location-based service) tools to obtain verifiable feedback data for informing decision-making and policy development.

About Place It

Screenshot 2014 07 29 11.01.38 Announcing Place It—An Interactive Mapping Tool

Place It is a easy-to-use tool for enhancing location-specific online consultations. It allows participants to place points and comments on a map indicating preferences. Whether it is determining the best site for a park or a bike lane, the tool allows participants to contribute their feedback and vote on the contributions of others.  Proponents of consultations can easily set up the interactive map as part of their PlaceSpeak consultation topic page, and export reports in a variety of formats.

Place It and PlaceSpeak combine to open up the deliberation process, allowing people unfiltered access to the ideas, opinions and preferences of others who share their interests in a particular topic, development or initiative.

As I noted, I think people’s ability to navigate an interactive mapping interface has been greatly improved over the past few years, and I’ll be interested to see how this plays out.    I’m particularly interested to see how easy people find the interface — whether people feel like they can post or respond without having to think too hard about it or without fighting too hard to manipulate the controls.  One of the ongoing challenges for all online public engagement providers is that they can create a different version of the barrier that public meetings sometimes present — instead of shutting out the person who can’t speak at the microphone, we might shut out the person who can’t figure out how to manipulate a map.  That’s a user interface question, and it can certainly be addressed.

You can watch some video demonstrations of the Place It / PlaceSpeak platform here.  If you have used it, please let me know what you think!

In their own words: Taking Public Feedback Beyond Social Media

“We don’t need another website thingy.  We have a Facebook page!”

I’ve heard that.  A lot.  There’s a tendency to assume that one online thing is basically the same as another, and as long as your residents can get something to you via their computers, that’s good enough, right?

Then, after the wide-open, uncontrolled nature of the Facebook page comments generates the nasty comment from Crazy Troll Land, the next thing I hear is “Oh!  We can’t do online engagement!  It’s too scary!  We’re going back to our old ways.  Hand me my quill pen.”

We have rules in any kind of public setting — we want to think that people behave because they are all nice and civilized, but that’s foolishness.  We behave because if we don’t there will be consequences.  But if I can make inflammatory comments with relative (or real) anonymity, then there’s no consequences, right?  Time to rumble!

That’s a Cliff-notes version of the argument in favor of the kinds of online public engagement tools that this site presents (I wrote a more detailed version at the Wise Economy site, and a version of that is also in the Local Economy Revolution book).

Granicus, which provides a broad platform that ranges from document management to video streaming of your meetings, understands this issue very well – and more importantly, that the quality of our public engagement  depends on having a robust structure.  Granicus wrote recently:

Social media is an effective part of many government agencies’ citizen engagement strategies, but it has its limitations. While sites like Twitter and Facebook make for great avenues to get the message out, they don’t do quite as well cultivating the quality of feedback that government agencies are looking for.

In order to develop a richer conversation with citizens, it’s important to have an online platform that encourages thoughtful conversations rather than the quick and short responses of social media. It must be a place where feedback is heard by government officials and it is constructive, focused, and actionable.

Last week, we held a very popular webinar on this topic: A New Level of Public Feedback: Going Beyond Social Media, featuring Jordan Gilgenbach, the Communications Coordinator for the City of Edina, MN, myself, and Thao Hill, VP of Sales at Granicus. We discussed why social media sites for government agencies are best used as informing tools, and what it is that makes a dedicated online engagement tool more effective for generating insightful citizen feedback.

You can learn more about what Granicus discussed and hear a recording of the presentation here.