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What is mobile participation?

4 Mar , 2015  

What is mobile participation?

Mobile participation refers to civic engagement in urban governance using mobile technologies, phones or tablets. Citizens participate using applications (apps), which can be installed on one’s phone. Mobile participation is one innovation in the field of electronic participation. It is based on two components: citizen participation and mobile/ smartphones.

Citizen participation first surfaced in the late 1960s. Central to participation is the idea that those affected by a decision should be included in its development process and implementation. In practice, case studies show that citizens’ engagement has had challenges. Too often, citizens are involved too late in the plan; their views could only improve the plan marginally. Many countries require those responsible for urban governance (local authorities) to involve citizens in the decision-making process. Civic engagement holds great potential to improve a plan: when citizens (those holding informal knowledge) and urban planners (those holding formal training) collaborate, share ideas, and mutually learn, a plan is enriched to include the needs and wants of a number of citizens. Urban planners have used public meetings, panels, consensus conferences or surveys to engage citizens. These methods have some shortcomings such as sample representativeness, lack of interest on behalf of the citizens, organizational issues (requiring citizens to be present at a specific time and place), or time-consuming collection of citizens’ views.

With the introduction of information and communication technologies, urban planners diversified their toolkits. The first trials using geographic information systems (GIS) failed, even though they held great potential. These systems were highly complex, made and used by experts. In the beginning, citizens lacked the digital skills needed to use them. As access to computers and the Internet increased, citizens gained the skills required. Experts gathered most of the information collected in GIS, while citizens could only access them to reach informed opinions. The next step was for citizens to collect their own data, which most of the time complemented existing data.

Mobile participation started with SeeClickFix, an app supporting civic engagement. After downloading and installing the app, citizens can send a report to a partnering local authority. Reports consist of geo-tagged photos that are directly sent to the city’s back-end office. The city administration can use its resources targeted to fix citizens’ requests, as is the case of potholes, street lamps, garbage bins or graffiti. Mobile participation gives urban planners one additional engagement tool, without claiming to substitute more traditional forms of engagement. It is believed that mobile participation is especially attractive to young adults, a demographic underrepresented in traditional participation.
Mobile participation’s biggest advantage lies with accessibility: we carry phones with us at all times, and now citizens also have the opportunity to participate on the go. One no longer needs to attend a public meeting set at particular time and place, but can contribute on one’s own terms. Mobile participation helps citizens support their contributions with hard data. There is a range of sensors embedded in smartphones, like the camera, microphone, GPS, or accelerometer. In addition, auxiliary sensors measuring e.g. aerosols can be added, thereby extending smartphone’s affordances.

The next examples showcase how apps engage the public in urban governance:

CycleTracks – collects and uses geo-tagged cyclist routes, which are then used for transport simulation in San Francisco

VTT Finnish Technical Research Center – introduced an augmented reality app, which uses 3D models of proposed buildings. When citizens find themselves at the location where the plan is proposed, they can see the 3D object through their phones’ camera and assess how it fits with the surrounding environment

Zoner – can be used to retrieve zoning codes in New York. Citizens become informed about the zoning requirements of a plot.

WideNoise – collects noise samples, which are then displayed on an interactive map. The samples are collected using the microphone.

StreetBump – is an application that geo-tags differences in height, measured by the accelerometer and GPS. The app requires little handling and the information is send to the city’s maintenance office

iSpex – monitors aerosols in the Netherlands using an auxiliary sensor attached to the phone. The data is used by the National Institute for Public Heath and Environment, among others.

Mobile participation needs to be grounded in inclusion: all citizens must be given the opportunity to participate. Urban planners can choose which method is appropriate given the particular situation and type of input needed from citizens. Textizen is a SMS service, used in Philadelphia for civic engagement in preparation of the 2023 master plan. Citizens are asked to answer a particular question addressed on a billboard placed at a public transportation stop. Follow-up questions are sent to citizens, creating a meaningful dialogue between them and the planners.

Zooming out, mobile participation and a host of other digital services are constituent parts of smart cities, which use technology to advance citizens’ wellbeing and city competitiveness.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on mobile participation. Would you try it if an app were available to you?

Titi Ertiö is a geographer, PhD candidate in economic sociology and project researcher passionate about the potential of technology to solve complex problems. I tweet at @TitiErtio

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