A revolution in online consultation

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In countries such as the UK (which has eighty-nine percent digital saturation), online communication is increasingly used in public participation because of its accessibility: its ability to reach people at all times, with immediacy, through a variety of means: its ability to overcome language restrictions, access ‘hard to reach’ groups (particularly commuters, families with young children, the elderly and disabled) and break down social hierarchies. Features such as voice recognition, directional controllers, use of screen readers, ensuring that websites are compatible with speech recognition software and providing ‘translations’ of complex technical documents can potentially address specific accessibility issues.

Technological change impacts on the amount of information in circulation, the speed with which it travels and the potential for a message to spread. Online, a ‘level playing field’ reduces hierarchies: communication can be on a one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many basis and the ‘filter’ of traditional media is removed. Sophisticated communications tactics can allow for the formation of ideas or concepts, a more iterative approach, more responsive dialogue and a greater flexibility. Furthermore, new methodology enables efficient and extensive analysis.

The American University Center for Social Media identified internet usage as falling into five categories: choice, conversation, curation, creation, collaboration. In a planning context, these behaviours might be described as follows:

Choice: finding information on strategic planning, policies and planning applications though search engines, recommendations (on or off line), news feeds and niche sites.

Conversation: entering into debates on discussion forums, blogs and microblogs, taking discussions into new forums by sharing links and mobilising action.

Curation: selecting and drawing together information on blogs to form powerful arguments, carefully targeted to specific groups; posting and reposting views and suggestions and sharing links.

Creation: posting brand new multimedia content, including text, images, audio and video.

Collaboration: creating groups of support or opposition for the purposes of campaigning both online and offline.

Writing about change in methodology for my first book in 2016, I identified that online consultation fell into three categories: via social media (primarily Facebook, Twitter and YouTube); using ‘off the shelf’ consultation websites (Citizen Space, Bang the Table), and through bespoke consultation websites (either produced in-house or using an adaptable template website such as ConsultOnline, possibly with additional third-party plugins and widgets such as Sticky World embedded). In just four years, the selection of dialogue methods available has proliferated to the extent that there are now infinite categories.

Consultation websites are no longer single dialogue methods. ConsultOnline, for example, provides a range of tactics including polls, forums, infographics, videos, blogs, vlogs, blog posts and podcasts which offer immediate and very effective means of analysis. Data collected both online and offline can be processed via the online platform, thus creating a consultation report instantaneously.

In addition to websites, consultation apps are now increasingly used in consultation.

Give-My-View, created by Built-ID, is a web-based platform which encourages collaboration data-sharing. It connects development teams and local communities through a visually appealing and highly accessible website app and enables a development team to guide and educate the community as a project evolves. An interactive timeline manages expectations while a newsfeed enables the development team to counteract the spread of misinformation. Other features include polls, questionnaires, and ‘quick facts’ which provide information in relation to specific questions. Geofencing (the use of GPS technology to create a virtual geographic boundary) provides the ability to restrict online interaction to a specific geographical areas. To encourage use among younger audiences and simultaneously benefit relationships between the developer and the community, the app provides the opportunity to earn points in return for engaging and sharing. Points translate into money for a selection of local charities. Community members are able to browse ‘influenced decisions’ from previous phases which assists in building trust between the developer and the community.

The principles of gaming are increasingly incorporated into public participation. A consultation carried out by the University of Dundee’s Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience successfully attracted young people to planning through the use of the popular game, Minecraft. A youth camp was held at the University, where secondary school pupils worked together to develop hypothetical visions for the Dundee waterfront through interactive sessions using Minecraft. Each participating school team was given an individual plot on a model of the Dundee waterfront and encouraged to develop a vision. At the end of the day, a winning team was presented with a Future Planner Award. A central aim of the Youth Camp was to encourage young people to think differently about their communities and to help them understand their potential to influence change. Minecraft classroom edition enables pupils to work as a team and engage in a co-production of knowledge in the design of shared spaces.

CHLOE (Conceptual Hexagonal Land Use Overlay Engine) is an online mapping and reporting tool developed by David Lock Associates to enhance engagement and improve information capture during community and stakeholder workshops. In small groups, participants are encouraged to create conceptual masterplans for potential growth locations by populating an empty grid, tile-by-tile, with a selection of land uses. An aerial photo overlaid with local constraints helps to inform the group’s discussion on where development can and cannot be placed. As development tiles are added to the grid, CHLOE feeds back live alerts to guide the group through the design process, allowing them to make informed decisions. Adjustable parameters, including residential densities, are combined with open space standards and demographic data (specific to each local authority) to highlight the impact that housing has on associated land use composition. Different scenarios, based on changes to the parameters, can be tested, recorded and compared. CHLOE has proved extremely successful in enabling stakeholders to discuss and consider development that is appropriate, proportionate and represents the existing community’s needs.

A tool which uses similar technologies is VU.CITY, the first complete fully interactive 3D digital model of several international cities. Through VU.CITY, consultees can visualise proposed developments within the existing context of the area. VU.CITY can overlay the model with transport data, sightlines, wind modelling, pollution and sunlight paths. Dropping down to street level further helps consultees understand the proposed new developments in context. VU.CITY also incorporates information in relation to protected views and both existing and consented developments.

The logical extension of 3D modelling is augmented reality projection of proposed schemes onto actual landscapes. Along with a vision of how a new scheme could fit with existing infrastructure, augmented reality could enable the user to access additional information data-tagged onto the projected image.

Public participation which utilises modern technology is evolving rapidly and over the next decade we expect to see increasing use of large format touchtables and touchscreens which use geospatial data, weblinks and videos to provide additional information. Walk-through 3D models and virtual reality theatres will enable a shared experience of a digital representation in a planning workshop. Online ‘story maps’ which link text and images to a map have the potential to provide information about a proposal either though a desktop app or as part of a walking tour, supported by information on constraints and current land uses and proposals for development. Increasingly photorealistic, high-resolution representation of proposals will have the ability to depict alternative scenarios almost equivalent to reality.

Although it does much to benefit consultation, online consultation is not a panacea: this new selection of tactics presents a new set of risks. The fast dissemination of information online, although beneficial in many circumstances, can also be a disadvantage. In cyberspace, information can fragment quickly and become used by pressure groups to reinforce opposition. The extractive sector in the Arctic has been targeted by headline-grabbing activists and protestors from around the World who can rapidly spread news of their latest protests as well as misinformation regarding the extractive sector globally. The internet should be consistently monitored and procedures put in place to respond to concerns and misinformation.

Furthermore online consultation, particularly social media, can be seen as superficial and lacking in the emotional power and empathy that face-to-face communication can bring. Online profiles can mask identities and if measures are not put in place, it can become impossible to monitor the geographical origin of comments. Standardised response mechanisms which give online consultations a bad reputation should be avoided in most circumstances. And despite the increase in online communication, a digital divide still exists, particularly affecting rural, indigenous and older groups.

Certainly online consultation should not be used a means to reduce costs or labour. As with any tactics, the decision to use online consultation should relate directly to the consultation’s overall objectives, including the need to produce meaningful analysis.

As the capabilities of the internet, along with digital connectivity, grows, the opportunities for involvement within each of these categories will undoubtedly increase.  Individuals’ power to use the internet as a means of protest will increase and therefore prospective developers must adapt and respond to this changing communications landscape.

Penny Norton’s third book Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice was published in March 2021.

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