Champion City Part 14: Watch and Learn

How reviewing hours of recorded city council meetings inspired our data-driven design.

James is a thirty-year resident of New Rochelle. As a cab driver, he knows the ins and outs of New Rochelle’s traffic laws as well as anyone — where you can and can’t make a legal left turn, which streets get congested at what times of the day. In July of 2018 he attended a City Council’s Planning Meeting to share his insights on how a proposed development would impact the flow of traffic.

But before this project comes up for discussion, another issue moved him to take the podium.

“I can’t even understand what the project is, because I’m sitting in the back of the room,” he said. “You have this big screen there for you to see, but the public can’t see! … We need to see it! The public needs to see it!”

The audience in the room erupts into spontaneous applause. There are a lot of people, it seems, who feel the same way James does.

If you follow our posts, you already know that IDEA New Rochelle is trying to use immersive technology to help with just that. Rather than erect a single larger screen as James suggested in that meeting, we are building a platform that would allow people to see development proposals on their own smaller screens — their phones.

We are developing an AR app to help explain proposals and collect feedback from citizens about the urban planning projects underway in their community. (Be sure to look for our coming conversation with Nitzan Bartov, our lead AR developer, in which she explains how she is approaching the software design in greater detail.)

Our goal is to develop an app that can broaden certain elements of the community review process, help people better understand projects, and make it easier for them to communicate their opinions directly to the city. By lowering the barriers to entry we hope to broaden the conversation and drive up civic engagement — opening it up to more people.

As Steven, another New Rochelle resident, put it in a July 2017 planning meeting, citizens are hungry for more “meaningful opportunity to participate in the discussion and debate,” that the current way of doing things does not afford.

“Right now, drawback #1 is that people have to get in their cars and go down to a meeting,” explained Suzanne Reider, senior project manager with the city of New Rochelle. “Meetings only take place at a certain time, and if you can’t make that time, then you don’t get to comment. With the app that IDEA is developing, people can envision the project and provide feedback without having to leave home.”

City Historian Barbara Davis, who is also the library’s community relations coordinator agreed. “When I attend meetings, I always see the same faces.”

In the process of developing this app, we watched hours and hours of footage from New Rochelle City Council and Planning meetings — like the ones that James and Steven spoke at — to evaluate comments using metrics that we developed with the City to rate their usefulness and gauge how informed citizens were: How knowledgeable was the speaker about what was being discussed? How relevant were the speaker’s comments? How feasible were their proposals, and how timely? (All of the meetings we reviewed are available to view online as public records.)

This provided us with a base of information with which we could evaluate if the tools we were exploring would better inform the process and expand public engagement.

After reviewing tapes from dozens of meetings we noticed a common thread: there is a real communication gap between the public and the developers.

Most ordinary citizens seem to have limited access to the details of proposed developments. People aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the planning process. It’s not always clear how residents can have meaningful input in the process. This means it is common for people to bring up concerns that are not relevant, or that are valid but that come at the wrong time to be actionable, or requests that fall outside the scope of the project.

By presenting people with informed possible scenarios, laying out meaningful alternatives and tradeoffs, and asking them to choose between them, an app such as ours can solicit feedback on options that better meet our goals of being relevant, actionable and timely.

The app can include important information in a form that is easier for a general audience to understand. “Most developers present project materials in a ‘site plan’ layout,” Suzanne explained, “flat documents with no way to really understand the true impacts on the land and surrounding neighborhood… The public is going to have an easier time seeing these things through VR/AR as opposed to flat [planning] documents that require special training to interpret.”

While we believe an AR app such as the one we are developing can be hugely beneficial to communities, we see the project as augmenting the existing process, not replacing it. It’s vitally important for communities to have different venues to evaluate and register their thoughts on alternatives and even bring up concerns that city planners may not have thought of.

We hope that by making some parts of the planning process more expansive it will open up more opportunities for conversations that identify the community’s desires early in the process.