This month’s Planning magazine features a story about the uses of technology for urban planning that features quotes from me. (Planning is the monthly member magazine of American Planning Association.) The article describes the blogs, video and photo sharing, survey, and other online now available to activists and government planners alike. While a good overview, particularly for busy professional planners, the article did not address two major issues related to online work: moderation and the digital divide.
Anytime planners create interactive forums — whether accepting comments through a blog or third party vendor — they should adopt a clear participation and commenting policy. This is just as important as deciding who will moderate and resolving conflicts at a public meeting. Some online forums go so far as to require participants use their real names and limit posting to one per day, while others adopt more flexible approaches. The proper policy depends on the intent of the forum and the tone desired.
Although the gaps have closed significantly in recent years, there remains unequal access to computers and the internet. Nonetheless the biggest gap faced by government websites is not technical, but practical: even the people with computers generally aren’t visiting. Instead of thinking of online access as a public utility that either reaches the home or not, governments should think of their websites on a sliding scale of use. The more widely known the website is, the easier to use, and the better the services offered, the more citizens will seek it out. In reality, online access features many shades of grey, with varying levels of technology at workplaces, homes, schools and libraries. The reasons why millions of people use MySpace and YouTube (for example) and not their local government websites is not primarily technological.
The only other topic the article omits is the rise of consulting firms offering integrated consultation and document management services, such as Limehouse Software. Tools like theirs allow a fundamental shift to digital-centric processes both in the office and on the web, a path already charted by some of our friends abroad. This shift will have a more profound impact on the field than the tools in the article — but is also more difficult to achieve.