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Public Engagement Through Web 2.0

A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation with Dustin Luther of Move.com and Rain City Guide at the annual conference of the California Chapter of the American Planning Association. Last week, I gave a similar presentation for the Caltrans Division of Transportation Planning. The topic: Public Engagement Through Web 2.0. I have uploaded my presentation from the CCAPA Conference in PDF format for download here (2 MB). I will also share the original PowerPoint or OpenOffice.org presentation file upon request.

I really enjoyed giving the presentations, as I had never spoken in public on this particular topic before. I think it is something that I’ll likely continue doing considering the positive feedback we received. Communities and agencies are constantly looking for new ways to reach out to the public. I figured that the Web 2.0 topic would scare many people away, or that we’d only attract a 20-something aged audience. This was not the case. We had several planning directors and heads of private companies in the room. That tells me that agencies and individuals that are not necessarily technology savvy are ready to take the next step in internet public engagement.

Dustin Luther did a fantastic job presenting. He brought a really interesting perspective to the presentation—from the real estate angle—demonstrating how much of an overlap there is between industries when it comes to Web 2.0.

Dustin discussed our presentation in a recent article: social networking around geography . In this article, Dustin brought up a question that came up during our question and answer session— if we set up a blog to communicate to our constituents, how do we reach the 30% or so that do not have access to the internet? I think the easy answer to this question is that blogs and internet public outreach should only comprise one part of your public outreach. In fact, I wouldn’t want to be the agency that only used the internet as its form of outreach… and was consequently sued. They’d probably have a strong case against us. Any public process should have multiple methods of outreach.

Blogs and syndicated feeds allow you to potentially reach a large number of people through a simplified format that in some cases will allow authors to receive instant feedback. However, the fact of the matter is that Internet-savvy users do not reflect the general breakdown of the population. There is a disproportionate amount of younger and non-minority blog and social networking users.

Getting the 30% access to computers and the internet is very challenging. It’s just as challenging to get that same group to public meetings and events. Let’s face it, even if more people started to go to their public libraries to access the internet for free, I doubt they’re going to be logging on to see whether their local planning department updated its blog. They will likely check e-mail, log into Facebook, research jobs, or something else. So, in reality, there is a particular demographic you’re inevitably going to reach using Web 2.0 technologies. That shouldn’t prevent you from doing it. In my personal opinion, syndicated feeds and blogs are the way that the internet is going to go and everyone is eventually going to be on board—or they will fall behind.

After having some discussions with Caltrans staff, we’ve brainstormed a few ideas of things we could potentially do using web feeds. For an agency of 23,000 people, it’s not going to be easy to implement. But the very fact that we’re having the discussion shows that the time has come to make information more easily accessible to end users.

I know this is quite an intriguing and confusing topic for many, so if you have any questions, please feel free to ask me or Dustin. Do not worry about asking a dumb question—there’s no such thing when it comes to Web 2.0!

{ 5 comments… add one }

  • John Hughes October 24, 2007, 10:00 am

    I’m curious whether any Sacramento Regional Transit people were at your seminar. RT has begun a Regional Transit Master Plan (an extension of the SACOG effort) and next week they say they will start a Web site to solicit public participation in the drafting of the transit plan. The initial site will be fairly static, but they say they aim to add a number of interactive elements to provide opportunities for more people to participate in the transportation planning process. I don’t know what the new URL will be. I assume RT will have a link from sacrt.com

  • Carolyn Gjerde-Tu October 29, 2007, 8:32 pm

    It is an interesting question about communicating with the other 30% that aren’t “connected”. As someone in the private sector, I don’t worry about the non-internet users, the numbers are smaller and smaller all the time but I don’t have an obligation to try and reach the entire population. I think that most people understand that the world has moved online. Maaybe offering technology liasons who could help users navagate their way to find the information that a particular individual is looking for?

  • Albuquerque real estate November 2, 2007, 2:56 pm

    Really interesting. I think this is a trend we will continue to see in the future.

  • Louisville real estate December 16, 2008, 12:35 pm

    Should be about time for an update to this article. :) We’ve seen a strong shift in the past year toward more and more persons moving over to a social networking business platform. It may not be the “main” driving force behind their business, but it is definitely becoming more important. Customers seem to be embracing some of the more popular social media outlets like facebook, twitter, etc. which is a good thing, as it gives us more opportunity to interact with our clients (and friends).

  • Eric Fredericks December 17, 2008, 3:31 pm

    I agree that there needs to be an update. And yes, I agree that the real estate industry has really jumped on board with Web2.0/social networking type technologies, but, my profession (urban planning) is barely scratching the surface still—it is seemingly only advocates right now and a few businesses here and there. For instance, Twitter is hardly being used, and when it is, I don’t think there’s much value-adding at this point. The real estate industry is probably leading the way on all of these social networking platforms (outside of the tech industry of course). Although, maybe it’s out of desperation. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

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