Event Wrap-Up: Online Engagement for Sustainable Urban Mobility
Roundable discussions stimulated debate about how we can use online tools to build citizen engagement in transportation planning. Photo via Erica Schlaikjer.

Roundtable discussions stimulated debate about how we can use online tools to build citizen engagement in transportation planning. Photo by Erica Schlaikjer.

On June 15, EMBARQ – The World Resources Institute Center for Sustainable Transport (the producer of this blog) hosted 50 D.C. city officials, planners, transport practitioners, technologists, social media mavens and urban advocates for a discussion about online engagement for sustainable urban mobility in Washington, D.C. The event was organized by TheCityFix Managing Editor Erica Schlaikjer, who is also EMBARQ’s online engagement coordinator, as part of the District’s first Digital Capital Week.

We were extremely pleased with everyone’s participation, from the five panelists’ presentations highlighting specific, concrete examples of successes, failures and requests for collaboration, to the fantastic ideas generated in our discussion groups. A big thank you to all of the participants who came to talk about transportation with us. We are already getting positive feedback.

For all those who weren’t able to make it – and for participants reminiscing about creative collaboration and cookies – here is our roundup (the video recording is still pending) of the event.

An interactive Capital Bikeshare Survey will get input from D.C. residents on where the bikestations should be located.

A newly launched interactive Capital Bikeshare Survey will get input from D.C. residents on where the bikestations should be located.

Breaking News!

The afternoon included some exciting announcements.

Where Do You Want Your Capital Bikeshare Station?

Panelist Lance Schine, the chief information officer for the District Department of Transportation, announced a new website – http://links.dc.gov/capitalbikeshare – to allow people to contribute thoughts on where the new Capital Bikeshare stations should be located. Lance reminded contributors to keep in mind that the solar-powered stations will need at least 4 hours of sunlight per day, so no “shady spots”!

Through a deal made with D.C. Public Libraries, Lance also announced that the site will become the homepage on the city’s 600 public library computers. This will incorporate stakeholders who do not have access to the Internet at home or on their mobile devices.

Circulator Gets QR Tags

Panelist Bryan Sivak, the chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, announced that a new QR Tag (QR for Quick Response) designed specifically for DC Circulator Buses will be launched next week.

The tags will have QR Codes – that work like bar codes – to streamline internal efficiencies and improve the passenger experience. By July, the tags should be added to all Circulator bus stops and bus shelters in the city. A smartphone application will allow passengers to scan the QR tag on a bus and see a map of their route, their current location, and the next bus stop. During the first phase of the QR tag roll-out, DDOT will host a contest for developers to create apps using Circulator data, complementing the official Where is My Bus?” app, which tracks real-time bus locations.

Resounding Message: Engage and Collaborate

As pointed out by panelist Nick Grossman, director of civic works for OpenPlans, engagement is a beautiful thing. The resounding message from the afternoon was for everyone to engage and collaborate as much as possible and in areas we might not have considered before.

All panelists gave examples of how their organizations – including OpenPlans, The Washington Post, Greater Greater Washington, the District Department of Transportation and the Office of the Chief Technology Officer – are encouraging civic engagement and collaboration through online tools.

Stories of successes and failures enlightened everyone in the room about what works best, and what may not work; and each panelist’s request for collaboration ensured that everyone in the room will continue working together to promote sustainable mobility in the D.C. area. For more detailed notes, see below.

Panel Presentations: Success, Failure, Request for Collaboration

Christian Madera (Columnist, Next American City)

Christian moderated the panel, emphasizing that involving a wide variety of stakeholders in the planning process is very important for building sustainable transportation systems. Christian noted the success of the first Open Cities conference last year in D.C., which explored how new media can radically shift the way the public interacts with governments and cities, and how participatory tools can change the way the government works.

By outlining how transportation development is an area ripe to incorporate new media to empower and engage people, Christian provided a fitting introduction for the panelists’ presentations.

DDOT's open data allowed Circulator bus route information to be integrated into Google Transit.

DDOT's open data allows Circulator bus route information to be integrated into Google Transit.

Bryan Sivak (Chief Technology Officer, District of Columbia)

Bryan highlighted that the city has comprehensive data for the Circulator buses, including stored snapshots at 15-second increments of where each Circulator bus has been over the past year.

Using this real-time data, the city was able to build a mobile and web app to determine bus locations throughout the city, incorporate the Circulator into Google Transit, and develop the QR tags that will go on the buses and bus stops to help riders find their location and figure out when the next bus will arrive.

Bryan asked for collaboration on the “Circulator Open Data Challenge,” specifically:

  1. to create any kind of public-facing application based on the new QR tags, application programming interface (API), or both, which will publish all the codes that the tags decode to.
  2. to help with two specific apps to improve the Circulator’s internal efficiency, i.e. a management consul showing the real-time location of buses, and a clever visualization of the Circulator, showing how it interacts with city and the rest of D.C.’s transit system.
The OpenTripPlanner, developed by OpenGeo, is an open-source software that plans true multi-modal trips combining walking, biking and transit.

The OpenTripPlanner, developed by OpenGeo, is an open-source software that plans true multi-modal trips combining walking, biking and transit.

Nick Grossman (Director of Civic Works, OpenPlans)

Nick emphasized the need to get as many people as possible excited and interested in sustainable transportation. His organization, OpenPlans, based in New York City, has already convened a strong following of sustainable cities advocates through its highly popular StreetsBlog and StreetFilms media networks.

Nick highlighted OpenPlans’ strategy of learning from some of the world’s most successful engagers: open-source developers behind projects like Firefox, Linux and the Android platform. One of the most important lessons from developers, he said, is to take advantage of third-parties to amplify your work.

Now, OpenPlans is working with the D.C. government on developing an open protocol for doing 311 services online. The Open311 Standard has already been supported by San Francisco.

OpenPlans has also demonstrated the importance of third-party collaboration through its OpenGeo project, which helps bring open-source geospatial software to governments and other organizations. Recently, OpenGeo helped create an open source multi-modal trip planner in collaboration with Portland’s TriMet (and other individuals, transit agencies and non-profit organizations), based on the successful experiences of apps like Graphserver, OneBusAway, and FivePoints. Now, after just six months, OpenTripPlanner has become the largest open-source transit project in the world, and it has received bug reports and code contributions from Spain, Poland, Hungary, Uruguay, and the Netherlands, along with many U.S. states.

But with success, comes failure, and Nick was able to explain some of the challenges and mistakes of trying to build an online social network from scratch with its former Streetsblog initiative. Nick highlighted that rather than focusing on new technology, it’s better to focus on content and processes that support and extend existing online activity, rather than trying to start something new. The result of this learning experience is the new Streetsblog.net, which aggregates activity from more than 300 blogs across the sustainable transport community.

Currently, OpenPlans is seeking collaboration on a new project with the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) to build greater transparency and participation into the transportation planning process. This will include bringing online transparency into the process by helping agencies learn how to blog about plans and interact with stakeholders, publish proposals online, and finding the best ways to get feedback from stakeholders.

To do this, and make effective use of all the data that’s out there, how much technology is too much? Where are the best opportunities for collaboration, to get people to work together on these issues? Where can NYC learn from other cities and partner with other cities working on similar projects?

To collaborate, join the Google Group and catalog relevant info!

David Alpert writes about his online campaign to help save the H Street streetcars.

David Alpert writes about his online campaign to help save the H Street streetcars.

David Alpert (Blogger, Greater Greater Washington)

David highlighted the growing contingent of young people who are relocating to the D.C. area and committing themselves to make it “greater.”

He noted the fantastic success of Greater Greater Washington in alerting area residents through social media and local blog outreach about D.C. Councilmember Vincent Gray’s decision to cut the H Street Streetcar program from the budget; this led to enough citizen complaints that, by noon the same day, the project’s funding was restored.

A challenge is to take this sort of engagement between local stakeholders and officials to a larger scale, involving state governors, for instance, or the National Park Service, which controls many parks in the area but often doesn’t manage them from a pro-neighborhood perspective (e.g. they don’t allow the Circulator around the Mall or bike-share stations at memorials).

So how can we engage these officials? David asked for collaboration in this area, along with building a greater following for the blog. He also noted that everyone needs to collaborate to ensure that open data – such as WMATA’s newly open data – is presented in a useful way.

And one particularly pressing issue is the design of a new bus map to give a more realistic understanding of accessibility around the city at any given time. Currently, the bus map gives the appearance of an extensive, frequent network of service. But a more accurate depiction might be represented by thicker lines for the busier routes, for example, to visualize the true nature of the system.

The Daily Gripe

Sites like The Daily Gripe encourage local residents to engage with their city officials through interactive mapping.

Justin Jouvenal (Web Editor, Postlocal.com)

Justin remarked that The Washington Post has always had a huge demand from readers for very local reporting – for instance, stories on overflowing sewers or bus-lane failures – but didn’t have the capacity to cover these issues in a meaningful way before recent, innovative online collaboration.

Now, thanks to an interactive SeeClickFix widget, the Post has developed an interactive column, known as The Daily Gripe, where area residents can register complaints about city issues that will then be sent directly to the officials responsible for fixing the problem.

Launched in the beginning of June, The Daily Gripe is clearly satisfying a latent demand for these services. More than 200 complaints have already been registered. And one of the greatest successes so far has been the near-instant repair of a mistimed cross-walk signal near a school in Alexandria, Va.

The Washington Post had previously to build its own customized mapping tool to report problems related to the D.C. blizzard. But the editors realized that it is important to use available tools that are already out there, rather than trying to create your own, hence the partnership with SeeClickFix.

Justin asked for greater collaboration from stakeholders and government officials in using The Daily Gripe to build a safer environment for sustainable transportation.

Lance Schine (Chief Information Officer, Department of Transportation)

Lance highlighted DDOT’s Transportation Access Portal (DTAP), which now details more than 300 transport projects and allows stakeholders to check the status of a project online. He said he is currently working on making DTAP more dynamic.

Lance also announced the launch of the crowdsourcing site – http://links.dc.gov/capitalbikeshare – which will allow users to suggest where they would like Capital Bikeshare Stations located. This will eventually be visualized as a heatmap, showing where the solar-powered stations should be installed. Lance requested everyone’s collaboration on this project.

Lance also announced a new project to develop interactive displays at bus shelters, especially for multi-modal public transportation hubs, to show information about routes, arrival/departure times, and nearby transport alternatives. The technology already exists in Europe and would be easily replicable in D.C. using local data.

WMATA's Asst. General Manager Nat Bottigheimer led a discussion group about how to encourage relucant agencies to open their data. Photo via Erica Schlaikjer.

WMATA's AssistantGeneral Manager Nat Bottigheimer led a discussion group about how to encourage relucant agencies to open their data. Photo via Erica Schlaikjer.

Roundtable Reports

Roundtable #1: Open Data

Facilitator: Eric Gundersen (President, Development Seed)

Focus on incentives for governments to open up data, particularly because of the internal efficiency that open data generates. View opening data primarily as a great way to improve efficiency that will benefit everyone.

Example: Using open data, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital identified major inefficiencies, and almost overnight, claims for overtime pay dropped by 46%. This could also be applied for landlords registering properties in D.C. Better knowledge of available apartments would be useful in a crisis and would create more revenue for the city.

Roundtable #2: Government Transparency & Civic Engagement

Facilitator: Harriet Tregoning (Director, Office of Planning)

Make riding the bus the “New Normal” through social media and networking: We need to change people’s perceptions about what constitutes “the good life.” Barriers include the stigma associated with riding the bus; confusing routing/schedule information; few east-west routes (because of few east-west roads); and the increasing number of new neighborhoods, giving a sense that public transit service isn’t keeping up with shifts in population.

What DDOT’s Circulator has done right: smaller system, so you have to know less; 10-minute headways; clarity. With NextBus app, WMATA has shown a good model for predicting bus arrival times – now, the Circulator’s Where is My Bus? app should also focus on letting people know when the bus is arriving.

Focus on getting transit agencies to create a bus-rider community around particular bus lines: Maybe there should be a button or T-shirt displaying your favorite route – this could encourage people to talk about routes they regularly ride.

Roundtable #3: Government Transparency & Civic Engagement

Facilitator: Nat Bottigheimer (WMATA)

We need to define open data in a way that it is in an agency’s strategic interest, and describe the information in a way that is supportive of an agency’s mission. This could mean presenting open data as a tool for managers to see how different parts of the system are performing, and otherwise show how accountability is something positive for the agency opening data.

We need to create a “menu” of applications and analyses of current data for developers to tackle. Create the expectation that if we use data, it’s “peer-reviewed,” to create accountability among data-users.

Roundtable #4: Blogging and Citizen Journalism

Facilitator: Dan Silverman (Prince of Petworth)

Digital Divide: Many new transportation innovations revolve around computers and smartphones. D.C. has lots of people without either. It is important to utilize other avenues for citizen engagement, like town hall meetings, and underutilized services, like providing the Capital Bikeshare online survey at all D.C. Public Library computers.

Role of Citizen vs. Role of Expert: We need to make sure that all of this interaction remains a two-way street. We need citizen engagement, but also need experts to respond about what can or cannot be done, and why.

Roundtable #5: Citizen Collaboration

Facilitator: Philip Ashlock (OpenPlans) and Zvi Band (FixMyCity DC)

There are different types of communities/tools/and processe. There will never be one tool that will make sense for everyone. We need to constantly think of ways to “cross-pollinate” radically between different types of tools. In what sense does the government play a role in supporting these tools, and how can you sustain that?

Reach out to existing communities, i.e. OpenPlans identified cyclists with bikes locked up illegally to posts and gave them flyers to attend a forum to suggest where more official bike racks were needed.

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