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New Technology Informs and Engages Residents

Terry Amsler is program director of the Collaborative Governance Initiative for the Institute for Local Government (ILG) and can be reached at tamsler@cacities.org. The Local Government Commission also contributed to this article. For additional information on ILG’s Collaborative Governance Initiative, visit www.ca-ilg.org/cgi.


Public officials are finding that information technology can enhance their communication with constituents and expand ways to engage the general public in planning and problem solving. Some of the most successful tools and techniques are described below.
Versatile and Interactive Websites
California cities and towns are using their websites in increasingly innovative ways to both inform and educate residents as well as to invite greater community involvement.
The City of Richmond has a site devoted to the development of a general plan up-date (www.cityofrichmondgeneralplan.org), which describes the purpose of a general plan, provides information on the planning process and offers ways for residents to get involved. Content is available in both Spanish and English. Such websites can serve as online community organizing tools, complete with current announcements, avenues for public comment, discussions boards, and uploaded maps and reports that keep the interested public well informed.
The City of Santa Monica’s website (http://www.smgov.net/) provides a budget suggestion page where residents and businesses can offer their thoughts on critical issues and funding needs facing the city. As part of Menlo Park’s priority-driven budget process, residents could respond online to a questionnaire asking for ideas to create a balanced budget based on desired service levels, fees and taxes (www.ci.menlo-park.ca.us/homepage/priority_budget.html).
Increasingly, municipal websites are making video and audio records of public meetings available online, often through local government access channels. For example, the City of Fairfield provides live council coverage as well as video archives of past council meetings on channel 26. Morgan Hill features past and present council and planning meetings on its channel 17. Burbank’s site not only offers council meetings and other public interest programming on TV6, but also provides online videos on topics such as downtown parking, police recruitment and fence height regulations.
Many cities have added interactive maps to their website. Viewers can call up in-   formation related to the general plan, land use, zoning, addresses and assessor parcel numbers, subdivisions, police beats, fire districts, environmental hazards, water and wastewater lines, school districts and more.
Cities are also making their entire website available in translation. Fresno provides instant translation of its website (http://www.fresno.gov/default.htm) into Spanish, Chinese and 10 other languages. On the home page, users click on flag icons that match the desired language.
Data and Design Innovations
Computer-aided drawing and design, global information systems (GIS) and advanced two- and three-dimensional graphic software have made it possible to connect data with place. These computer technologies visually display large amounts of information and the meaningful relationships between different kinds of data. Computer simulations can translate conceptual plans and descriptions into pictures that show what a proposed development will actually look like. Such simulations can continually adapt to design changes, and are particularly useful in demonstrating and evaluating alternate choices in design. This enables residents and policy-makers to make more informed planning decisions.
In Los Angeles, the Trust for Public Land used GIS-based software developed by the Orton Family Foundation to identify neighborhoods that would benefit most from a new park. The software enabled staff to create maps integrating site criteria such as the percentage of low-income children, high population densities and low park densities. The trust used these maps to communicate with the public and as a site selection tool. GIS-based analysis and real-world 3-D modeling help people to envision land use alternatives and understand their potential impacts from environmental, economic and social perspectives.
The City of Emeryville assembled a data- base to map the geographic distribution of groundwater contamination by parcel. Staff packaged their map analysis into two online GIS interfaces to educate thecommunity and developers about the problem’s manageability and to track institutional controls. (For more on GIS tools, visit www.lgc.org.)
Simpler Approaches
Officials provided digital images and photo enhancements of proposed building and streetscape designs to charrette participants in both the collaborative planning process for the Pleasant Hill BART station and the revitalization plan for the San Pablo Dam Road and Appian Way corridor in El Sobrante.
The cities of Anderson, Redding and Shasta Lake, along with Shasta County Department of Public Health, used a community image survey in their efforts to build healthier and more livable communities. The survey is a series of slides (available on CD) that present contrasting images of the living environment, including streets, houses, stores, office buildings, parks, open space and key civic features. These visual images help people to better understand crucial planning elements and make more informed decisions about where they want to live, work, shop and play. In Redding, the survey was used to lay the groundwork for discussions about the kind of development the community wants to see in the future and the connections between planning choices and healthy lifestyles.
Ideas to Come
There are always new ideas on the horizon. A Bay Area organization is developing an e-mail-based communication system that will allow officials to poll their constituents’ policy choices and summarize those choices in useful charts and tables, without necessitating individual replies. Elected officials will also be able to notify constituents when issues of interest are up for debate, conduct online polls to gain insight into constituent attitudes, and respond efficiently to electronic communication from constituents.
Duarte is one of the first municipalities to use podcast technology to deliver audio news and information about the city to virtually anyone in the world with access to a computer. Podcasting is a method of broadcasting audio or video programs via the Internet. Listeners can visit thecity’s website at www.accessduarte.comand click on the orange POD and MP3 buttons to download podcasts of interest, which can be stored on an iPod or MP3 player for playback at any time.
These various tools to enhance public officials’ communication and collaborative planning capacity are evolving quickly, and cities will be pressed to stay current and ensure that they are choosing the right tool for the job at hand.