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Cities are beginning to benefit from crowdsourcing methods to gather input from residents and apply the information they receive to make tangible improvements to communities and neighborhoods. Some cities participate cooperatively in initiatives led by the private sector through web-based platforms such as SeeClickFix and Revitaliz. Others are taking the initiative to license tools and apps that bring local residents into the ideation and decision-making processes that lead to developments and actions to improve communities.
Creative Community Collaboration
One city that is seeing the power of collective community input is Bristol, Connecticut. The developer of a vacant 17-acre former shopping mall site, Renaissance Downtowns LLC, turned to a crowdsourcing consultancy — Cooltown Beta Communities — to roll out a “crowdsourced placemaking” campaign. The initiative — dubbed Bristol Rising — included an open call to people who work or live within an hour of Bristol to be part of defining and deciding what would be built on the 17 acres. The process empowered residents to suggest and vote on ideas that would then be presented to the City Council for approval.
The technology behind Bristol Rising initially combined the use of the online community platform Ning and an online voting tool called Bubbly to create a visual idea-sharing platform that managed submissions and votes. The best ideas “bubbled” to the top, and ideas with over 200 votes were taken to the next level of vetting — in which they were assessed for financial feasibility — and eventually presented by Renaissance Downtowns to the appropriate city agencies.
There are currently more than 900 people participating in the project. The leading ideas, voted on by Bristol residents, include a piazza, performing arts center, river walk and bookstore with a cafe and performance space, though the final ideas are still being refined based on community input.
The effectiveness of the project led the developer Renaissance Downtowns to form a new company with Cooltown called Crowdsourced Placemakers, and together they are rolling out three new community-powered development projects in Hempstead and Huntington Station, New York, and Nashua, New Hampshire. The project names will also be crowdsourced in each community.
“Cities need to crowdsource ideas and then crowdsource the implementation of those ideas,” says Neil Takemoto, founder of Cooltowns. “But very little gets done without the private sector’s involvement.” Takemoto believes the real power lays in the hands of economic development agencies that are focused full-time on facilitating private sector projects. Getting cities on board with crowdsourcing for community improvements and development is still a new process that has yet to really take hold.
A Contest for Community Improvements
While gearing up for its 50th anniversary, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham held small-group meetings and one-on-one conversations in 2009 and 2010. From those exchanges, they learned Birmingham residents were interested in a “cool, vibrant city center.” The foundation then implemented an online contest called Prize2theFuture (P2F) to leverage Internet technology and source creative ideas for a city development project.
“We have a long history of listening to the community, and Prize2theFuture put that process on steroids,” says Karen Rolen, senior vice president of grants and initiatives. “Almost 3,000 people registered online to participate in Prize2theFuture and tell us their best idea to create something cool on this city-owned parking lot in downtown Birmingham.”
P2F’s online system, developed by Idea Crossing, launched on January 13th, 2011, and of the 3,000 individuals registered, 1,115 official entries were submitted by March 11, 2011. Anyone could participate as long as they were 18 years of age.
“This process truly was a community workshop,” says Tom Leader of Tom Leader Studio, designer of Railroad Park and head of the judging committee that reviewed submissions from 39 countries and across the state.
All judges reviewed and commented on the submissions online through the contest’s web-based system. Winners were announced on May 5, 2011, and 10 cash prizes were awarded — $50,000, $20,000, $10,000 for first, second and third place, and $1,000 to each of seven finalists, for total of $72,000 in prize money.
The top winner was “One Birmingham Place: An Eight-Part Celebration of Community and Social Reengagement” by Colin Coyne from Birmingham. His idea was to construct a multi-use facility with eight detailed sections, including a computer lab, a performance venue, a outdoor projection wall, a café and a “hub” for collaboration between community organizations.
Prize2theFuture is now in the Feasibility and Design phase, which will include an open call for teams with the specific skill sets, such as design and engineering, needed to take the idea to reality. The Community Foundation, City of Birmingham and representatives of the community are still part of the process, continuing the collaborative nature of the project.
As part of the foundation’s 50th anniversary, they created a fund called Community Catalyst Fund. P2F is the first investment of the fund and is covering all expenses of managing the first two phases of the competition.
“When we get the design and are ready to make it happen, we’ll invest the first million dollars toward cost of construction and implementation,” says Rolen. “Of course, total costs will probably far exceed that, so financing plans, phasing, etc. will have to be part of the winning proposal.”
Community 311 for Smartphones
Councilmember Pete Constant of District 1 in San Jose, California, recalls what he said the moment he slammed his fist on the table during a meeting with his staff.
“We were having a staff meeting — all staff members have iPhones, as do I — and they weren’t paying attention but were playing on their iPhones. I told them until we have a District 1 iPhone app, they had to put away their iPhones. Then I thought ‘Why don’t we have an iPhone app?’”
Constant challenged his staff to come up with an app that would be useful in their day-to-day work, which led to an idea for an app that would allow residents to report non-emergency problems in their district. Then Constant happened to meet an app developer who had been toying with a similar idea. Their handshake agreement led to Constant signing on as a charter client for CitySourced, and District 1 piloted the app’s deployment.
That was 18 months ago. Today the San Jose Mobile City Hall mobile app acts as a constituent outreach portal and is available for free download for iPhone, Android, Blackberry and Windows. When residents launch the app, they can take a photograph of anything from litter to code violations to other kinds of neighborhood blight. They then choose a classification, add notes and the location of the complaint is tagged via the phone’s GPS. When a user hits submit, a staff member monitoring the app’s web-based dashboard can review and act on the complaints quickly and efficiently. Complaints are completely anonymous.
Once a problem has been resolved, anyone with the mobile app can view the status of his own reports and all reports submitted throughout the city. Constant says that his staff fields complaints in other districts throughout San Jose, handles them, then notifies the appropriate district once everything has been handled. Of 1,114 issues submitted since January of this year, 90% have been resolved.
In addition to streamlining response to citizen complaints, Constant’s staff also uses the data to help deploy volunteers twice a year during their illegal sign clean-up to clear away illegal fliers and hand-made signs tacked onto telephone poles.
“This app allows us to get rid of the middle man, the person answering the phone who is trying to figure out what someone is complaining about,” explains Constant who says that the cumulative information received from constituents helps better assess the problem to deploy the right person or team to solve it. By aggregating data submitted by constituents, Constant’s office can get a visual picture – literally pins on a map – to assess what is happening in their district.
“With government being as financially screwed up as they are, we have to continue to find better, cheaper ways to provide service,” says Constant, who bypassed a prolonged procurement process by licensing the software on a quarterly basis.. “This application has really met my expectations in the fact that it allows me to serve more people more efficiently for less money.”