Digital Community Engagement: Unlocking Local Knowledge

Digitalization is undeniably intertwined with today's interactions. But when it comes to digital community engagement, is it a "yea" or "nay"? Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer; it depends on factors like community preferences, demographics, and project goals.

Nevertheless, digitalization has proven to be an important part of the modern community engagement toolkit, extending beyond traditional town hall meetings, public hearings, or workshops. What unique benefits does a digital approach offer that traditional methods lack?

Distinctive Benefits of Digital Engagement

Digital community engagement offers flexibility and accessibility. The web-based approach overcomes geographical and temporal constraints, allowing community members to share experiences, suggest ideas, and voice concerns at their convenience, regardless of when or where. Using a mobile-friendly, accessible, and multilingual platform ensures reaching more diverse groups as well.

Transparency is another way to boost participation. A digital community engagement platform simplifies communicating plans, hosting surveys, displaying project timelines, and sharing results in one place, fostering accountability and genuine community buy-in. Visual elements like maps, photos, and GIFs enrich the experience, creating an extra layer of engagement.

Data analytics tools in a community engagement platform offer valuable insights into collected community preferences, helping planners spot and understand patterns and adjust projects accordingly. Resource efficient is also notable, with digital tools engaging more people, providing more precise datasets, and streamlining the process within a similar budget.

Shifting to a digital approach can bridge the gaps in traditional methods, and it may seem to make all the difference. However, the key is to complement, rather than replace, these methods. This involves collecting data not otherwise available or integrating digital tools into workshops or public hearings.

Taking a Step Further With a Spatial Approach

The practicalities of handling community insights in planning projects can be challenging. Associating local knowledge with a location makes it more usable. So, when embracing digital community engagement, using a platform with map-based functionalities, such as Maptionnaire, opens a door to collecting and analyzing local insights and demographics as rich GIS-backed datasets.

A spatial approach also provides a visual representation of information, making it more accessible for both participants and planners. It allows residents to actively participate in shaping their surroundings by sharing well-informed feedback about local development plans, commonly used routes, or neighborhood recreation areas to support decision-making.

Participants can highlight places of interest or local challenges by marking them on the map. The process can be even more engaging through gamification. This is easily implemented with advanced interactive map-based survey features, such as response-activated location jumps, branched narratives, or geobudgeting.

Versatility of digital community engagement in planning

Digital community engagement is applicable across various urban planning projects:

Master planning

Integrating digital community engagement into master planning processes empowers residents to shape their city's future, ensuring public buy-in in the later stages. Collected data supports informed decision-making, aligning priorities with community needs. In a campus planning project, for example, digital surveys allow diverse groups of students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding community to share their preferences on the proposals and contribute ideas for improvements to buildings, green spaces, and infrastructure in one place.

Mobility and transportation

Map-based community engagement enhances access to citizen-provided information about mobility preferences, enabling inclusive transportation planning. Interactive maps visualize routes, patterns, and infrastructural changes, allowing residents to voice their well-informed insights. The collected data aids efficient resource allocation and informed decisions for effective mobility ecosystems.

Green spaces and recreation

With a spatial approach, it's easy to communicate proposed landscape design concepts, visualize improvements, and allow residents to highlight their favorite spots, recreational activities, and trails needing improvement. The gathered strengths and potential opportunities inform what qualities attract locals and help create lovable green spaces.

Interested in learning more about digital community engagement?

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Maarit Kahila is a PhD in Urban Planning and the co-founder & CEO of Maptionnaire.

Maptionnaire was born when a group of urban planning researchers and professionals based in Helsinki discovered an emerging problem: there was an increasing need for cities and urban planners to engage the public and to get real input from residents.

However, the methods in use at the time were not enough to take people's opinions into account in a large-scale and actionable form.

When cities began to contact us about our work with PPGIS — the use of opinions and subjective data in GIS applications — it became apparent that there was a greater demand for our solutions than what could be offered through university projects. Anna and Maarit, the founders of Maptionnaire and both doctors of science in land use and planning, decided it was time to venture onwards.

Our company, Mapita, was founded in 2011 to provide a solution for anyone to create their map-based questionnaires. Since then, Maptionnaire has developed from a map-based survey tool to an entire platform for community engagement. Throughout the years, the whole Maptionnaire team has been working hard to develop the service to what it is now.

March 26, 2024

By Maarit Kahila