Online tools for urban practitioners – part I

Jamie Mackay

By Jamie Mackay, on February 21st, 2019

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Political journalist, Jamie Mackay, takes a look at URBACT’s choice of digital tools, a fundamental part of how we work today.

Innovation in urban development is first and foremost about people, about how citizens imagine the future of their local communities, and how specialists realise this. It is, by extension, a question of organisations, of institutional ambition, patience and flexibility.

Online tools, it’s sometimes forgotten, are not just an add-on to this mix. They have a fundamental role in mediating the process. The systems most of us use habitually – email, Facebook, Gdocs etc – can sometimes be stifling. For all their benefits in terms of usability, or really familiarity, they also prescribe certain ways of thinking, and limit creativity.

As part of URBACT’s Action Planning Networks, cities have experimented with a vast array of alternative platforms, softwares and interfaces for mapping stakeholders, analysing territories, planning budgets, brainstorming and much more. The following list gathers some of the most popular examples, all of them tried and tested by participants in the URBACT III Programme.

Project management tools

In the seemingly infinite sea of productivity and management interfaces it can be hard to identify the most appropriate for a given project. Two in particular have stood out as particularly effective among participants in URBACT.

Trello is one of the most intuitive and user-friendly. Its ‘global view’, featuring an ergonomic drag and drop interface, is well suited for keeping deadlines and ensuring larger goals stay on track. For early stage projects, with less clear aims, Slack is a good alternative for shaping conversation and debate into a coherent plan.

Citizen participation

Very often urban innovation means reaching out to the public in new ways, empowering citizens to make decisions in collaboration with municipalities. For many cities and organisations this is a new experience.

Loomio is an online platform that can help in the early stages of bridge-building. Its web-based interface is constructed around principles of transparency, designed to facilitate empathy and mutual comprehension. Cities in the sub>urban network, which explored regenerating the urban fringe in collaboration with citizens, found it a useful hub which can be used to host polls, debates, and organise events.

Stakeholder mapping

KUMU is a data visualisation platform which enables users to map complex systems in order to analyse them more effectively. Some of the cities involved in the BoostInno network made use of it in order to make the interactions between city stakeholders clearer. More than just a pretty interface, it enables the user to focus on different levels of relationships within a network, to identify leverage points for change and where new collaborations might be possible.

Simulations

Produced by the MIT Media Lab in Boston (USA), the City Scope Project gathers a series of interactive urban models, which enables users to test the consequence of possible interventions – for example in traffic flows for housing construction – against a realistic algorithmically generated simulation. The latest versions use augmented reality to generate an immersive and visually impressive testing ground. For a good example of its practical use, check out the URBACT case study from Hamburg (DE), where the municipality used it to assist in allocating refugee housing.

Participatory budgeting

Thinking beyond polls and debate, one increasingly popular initiative among innovative municipalities in Europe has been to use technological solutions to give public a voice on how local funds are spent. Cities across the continent, from metropolises, like Paris (FR), to small cities like Baia Mare (RO), have succeeded in doing this by using digital databases as a mechanism for participatory budgeting. StanfordPB, an open source platform, is one of the base softwares for implementing this kind of measure and is supported by a global community of users.

File Transfer

More and more institutions are taking privacy seriously, using encrypted emails, and masking IPs to ensure discussions and potentially sensitive meta-data are kept away from poorly regulated corporate bodies. One of the weak points in many networks regards file transfer. Onion Share, an open source tool, is a free service which enables the user to send and receive files of any size in guaranteed anonymity, with no data provided to third parties.

Event planning

Pathable is a ground-breaking and often overlooked software tool which, in under an hour, lets users design and personalise a mobile app for a given event or conference. It functions as a digital programme, with all the possibilities this implies. Users can add text, maps, directions, CEU tracking, QR code tickets, session check-in facilities. Advanced features include participatory and gamification components to encourage active participation.

Something missing? Do you have any tips on great software solutions that have helped in your work in urban development? Write to us at communication@urbact.eu and we’ll include your strongest suggestions in part II.

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