A new generation of apps make life easier for urban planners and urban dwellers

No one needs a good app quite like an urban planner.

Sure, smart phones are useful for locating the nearest Starbucks or ruling on bar trivia. But the next wave of mobile applications do more than that—they collect massive amounts of data about how people live, where they travel and what they want to see in their neighborhoods. And they connect all of that with the officials in position to make decisions.

Apps, in other words, offer potential solutions for two of the trickiest parts of the urban planner's job: sharing data and engaging citizens.

"You're having the opportunity to engage new audiences, because a lot of people don’t have time to go to a public meeting," says Jennifer Evans-Cowley, a planning professor at Ohio State University. "The nice thing about social media is really that the time frame of participating is quite brief. You can put in your two cents without necessarily putting in a whole dollar."

As a resident, you can weigh in on a local zoning dispute without getting sucked onto an voluminous email list. You can report a downed stop sign or graffiti outbreak without wandering the automated phone maze of City Hall. And paperwork? Paperwork can now be filed by phone.

Evans-Cowley makes this case in a new paper on the app’s potential for urban planning. Most of the ideas she corrals fit into two categories: apps that allow the public to readily access data held by planners, and apps that enable planners to collect data from the public.

"Hopefully we can have hybrids that achieve both outcomes," Evans-Cowley says. "It's both data sharing and making something that's user-friendly and helpful to the public, while at same time allowing people to use it for input."

Several city apps are already doing many of these things:

  • MyColumbus – This app from the city of Columbus allows users to submit 3-1-1 service requests about abandoned vehicles, loud animals, damaged fire hydrants and uncollected trash.
  • You The Man – New York City’s transportation department developed this one to curb drunk driving. The app includes a blood-alcohol calculator, games to help determine the designated driver, and a mapping tool to find the nearest public transit from the bar.
  • myDelaware – From the town of Delaware, Ohio, this app allows users to send a photo of a code violation directly to the city. The report is tagged to the location, and users can request to receive updates on progress with their complaints via text message.
  • Citizens Connect – The city of Boston created this one to encourage residents to be the "eyes and ears" of their neighborhoods by flagging potholes, graffiti and other nuisances.  
  • SitOrSquat – This app – sponsored, naturally, by the toilet paper producer Charmin – helps citizens in multiple cities locate and share information on nearby public restrooms. It also identifies changing tables and handicap accessibility.

Evans-Cowley envisions yet more sophisticated apps that could layer time, proximity and movement on top of all this data. Residents could consent to have their commutes tracked by live app to help planners make public transportation more efficient and improve connectivity. Apps could warn a passing planner of nearby reported violations. They could even one day alert you to other people in your neighborhood worried about the same potholes – while you’re standing right in front of them.

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