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Web app tracks needs, maps community's future


June 09, 2010

The design of a city often includes urban planners, architects, construction workers and engineers, but rarely are the final plans the ideas of residents.

How can the public leverage technology to participate in the decision-making process that affects their lives? This is the question that graduate designers Kyle Larkin and Dan Wandrey asked themselves.

“Channels for community participation in urban design and planning are written into many city laws, but this process can be complex enough to discourage even the most committed community advocates,” Wandrey said. “The analog methods employed in current neighborhood planning processes to gather community feedback result in singular, static and irregular interactions with the public.”

With guidance from professor Mookesh Patel, director of the visual communication program at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, and the help of programmer Ryan Spicer, Ph.D. candidate from the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, the designers began looking at the current tools most city governments use to communicate with residents, their planning processes and ways to improve public conversations.

Larkin and Wandrey began developing a web application that integrated visual storytelling with live data, allowing advocates, political officials, developers and community members to use information to clarify problems and offer solutions.

“By creating an application that could dynamically visualize community needs over time, architects could gain design inspiration, planners could pinpoint areas in the community that needed specific help, and city officials would gain a clearer understanding of how their laws, regulations and projects were affecting the residents of a community,” Wandrey said.

The prototype application named Community Futures Project was strategically developed using a map and GPS information of Manhattan Island, New York.

“One of our major concerns was collecting enough data to visualize," Larkin said. "As New York is one of the most densely populated cities in America, we chose it as a starting point to collect the largest amount of data in the shortest amount of time.”

Visitors to the site can click on the issues that matter most to them and submit their own entries. From education and safety to housing and employment, the site identifies a user’s location and associates the entry to an issue.
Each issue can be independently highlighted on the map and the number of entries determines the priorities for a community over time.

Larkin estimates that adjusting the application to mobile phones will not only increase data gathering but also make the tool available to a greater audience.

“A mobile application would also allow users to contribute information immediately if they see a project that is thriving or something that concerns them,” Larkin said.

Although it is not complete, this project has already received international attention. Larkin and Wandrey will be traveling to England at the end of June to present their site at the Create 10 Interaction Design Conference at Edinburgh Napier University.

To catch a view of the application, visit communityfuturesproject.com.