Best Practices in the Use of Technology in Engaging Underrepresented Communities in Planning

“Civic Technologies” are gaining increasing interest as a way to engage hard-to-reach populations in community planning and decision-making. Low income people, as well as people of color, immigrants, people with limited English proficiency, and youth are often un- or underrepresented in these processes. Reasons for this lack of engagement, according to earlier research by the non-profit OpenPlans, include limited city budgets and staff capacity, absence of awareness of opportunities to engage, limited language skills and reading comprehension, and previous negative experiences resulting in mistrust or hostility towards government. While not a panacea, we believe that civic technologies enhance the toolkit available to planners and decision-makers who want to broaden public engagement.

However, little has been written to date about how civic technologists focused on reaching underrepresented communities can most effectively approach their work. In response to this issue, PlaceMatters conducted best practices research, with support from the Ford Foundation. We are pleased to release “Engagement Tech for All: Best Practices in the Use of Technology in Engagement Underrepresented Communities in Planning” today.

Mobile: An emerging frontier in civic engagement

Widespread adoption of mobile technologies is enabling some households to leapfrog the “digital divide.” The Pew Research Centerreports that as of May 2013, 91% of American adults had mobile phones, including 86% of adults with lower incomes. Pew further reports that African-Americans and Latinos use social media slightly more than whites (non-Hispanics), and are more likely than whites to want the government to post more information on social media.

Case studies highlighted in the report illustrate how planners can leverage this widespread use of mobile phones and social media to engage a broad audience. Mi Parque, for example, is a bi-lingual mobile smartphone application that gathers input about a 23-acre park being developed over a former Superfund site in Little Village in Chicago. The application was created by an all-women team including Motorola and several students and faculty affiliated with the Open Youth Networks from Columbia University, mentored by engineers from several tech companies. The report also describes #VizLou, a Twitter-based social media tool and website, developed by Living Cities in partnership with OpenPlans, which invites youth (“Visionaries”) in Louisville, KY, to engage around civic issues.

Emerging Best Practices

General best practices that emerge from the report include the following:

  • Members of the target population should provide input on tool development, to ensure the tool will be accessible to and used by the community.
  • For underrepresented communities in particular, new tools or add-ons should be built based upon tools and technology these communities are already using.
  • Visual communication, including graphics, short videos, and images are often a more effective means of communicating and engaging underrepresented groups that have a variety of language and educational backgrounds.
  • Tools that track user demographics can help practitioners evaluate the effectiveness of the tool in reaching target populations, and demonstrate the value of the tools to sometimes-skeptical public decision-makers
  • Regardless of the outreach method used, the most critical determinant of success (real and perceived) is whether the input gathered is reflected in decisions, actions, and outcomes. Quick implementation of on-the-ground changes, even small ones, can demonstrate the responsiveness of public agencies to community input and needs.
  • The most effective examples of technology-based tool use take advantage of social networks, community groups, and trusted advocates that already exist in the real world, and use these tools to support, rather than replace, face-to-face interaction.

Our report concludes by noting that, while communities are using technology to effectively engage typically underrepresented groups, rigorous evaluation of these efforts has been limited. In some cases, communities need to collect additional data to more accurately determine who is participating, and to meaningfully compare the costs and benefits associated with different tools or outreach methods. For example, better information on demographics and cost per participant associated with hosting public meetings versus engaging residents through online or mobile technologies can help communities use limited resources more efficiently, and to target more expensive outreach methods to specific groups that may be difficult to engage otherwise.

You can download the main report and related appendices:

Engagement Tech for All: Main Report

Engagement Tech for All: Appendix A

Engagement Tech for All: Appendix B


This post also appeared on the PlaceMatters blog.