Data, Technology, & Engagement: Highlights from Day Two of NPC20 @ Home

And day two of NPC20 @ Home draws to a close. Sessions focused on planning in the digital era, from engagement to data to technology.

"Planners have had to pivot very quickly how we do our business — we cannot stop serving the public."
—Debbie Lawlor, FAICP, PP, AICP Commission President

Keynote: On the Frontlines of Pandemic Response and Recovery

Attendees heard a sobering view of how every municipality, regardless of size, will be impacted because of COVID-19 from National Association of Counties (NACo) CEO Matt Chase and National League of Cities (NLC) CEO Clarence Anthony. Both speakers emphasized the importance of local government, and cited recent studies stating that 70 percent of Americans believe the federal government is responsible for helping local governments recover.

Planners can play an important role, according to Chase, in helping to understand the available federal funding sources and how to target those to the places with the greatest needs. At the same time, we are charged to come together with other local government professionals to advocate direct, flexible federal relief — the future of our communities and our livelihoods depend on it.


Technology is more important than ever — not only to stay connected but to continue needed planning work. Panelists in Virtual Tools for Co-Design and Community Engagement offered the following tips:

  • Align technology with the goals
  • Know your audience and their capabilities
  • Make sure it is intuitive
  • Less is more for design
  • Minimize hardware needs

Of course, it is also important to remember that technology is just the start of the conversation. "As planners, our natural role is as facilitators. I think the key skill we need in any kind of technical situation is to be able to calmly facilitate a conversation," said panelist Nikolas Koschany.

Following the session, attendees migrated to Public Engagement Networking where they shared tips and solutions to the challenges with public engagement both during the pandemic and with hard-to-reach audiences. Suggestions included: exploring multiple access points and accessible recordings options; creative methods for getting the word out by engaging with unofficial local planning interest groups, such as a transit enthusiasts Facebook group; and incorporating "library time" during both in-person and virtual meetings to ensure attendees have a few moments to read important information.

Public engagement networking on Zoom at NPC20 @ Home.

NPC20 @ Home networking session on public engagement.


Panelists in Contextualizing Big Data discussed how it is dangerous to rely on any one data source, and it is necessary to combine several data with "thick data" — stories, emotions and interpretations along with on-the-ground observations. "This is a big piece of what we do as planers, to marry data with stories and use them for maximum impact and to help support strategic change," according to panelist Mindy Watts.

Access to current, reliable data is necessary to help during recovery planning, and its hard to get when you are in immediate post-disaster mode. The lesson from Rockport, Texas, in How Post-Disaster Data Can Inform Planning, is not to wait to safeguard the data you will need in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Have a cloud backup of housing inventory, permit records, and appraisals. Share data across all departments. Finally, look at existing plans and see how they work together or how policies might conflict or contradict each other.


Rethinking Smart Cities Holistically introduced a connection between smart cities and rethinking land use, especially for prioritizing nature and green space. Putting people first in the smart cities conversation — when prioritizing green infrastructure, analyzing the current global pandemic, identifying the place-based conditions that affect health outcomes, or ensuring inclusive civic participation — was the central theme for the panelists and the questions from attendees.

"We will be increasingly moving bytes, not bodies," according to panelist Tom Fisher, and large-scale investment in internet and broadband as essential infrastructure is needed. But planners also must remember to center and support the 70 percent of jobs that cannot be done remotely and are often filled by marginalized and less affluent populations.

The topic shifted from moving bytes to a focus on drones, robots, and autonomous deliveries in Live-Work-Play-Dispatch: Designing for E-Commerce. Panelists discussed how the pandemic has exposed flawed assumptions and is accelerating change like automated delivery systems (including both automated warehousing and delivery). Planners play significant roles in helping communities adjust by staying up to date on the frequent regulatory changes and by thinking about how autonomous delivery will impact land use and the public right-of-way.

For more on e-commerce land use impacts, check out Planning magazine's interview with panelist Lisa Nisenson.

The concepts of technology, data, and engagement converged in the afternoon session, Planning Education and Digital Evolution. Data is never neutral, explained panelist Weiping Wu. It comes wrapped in the biases of whoever generated it. For that reason, she urges planners to apply two questions to their work: Who are we counting? And who is allowed access to that data? These considerations are especially important when it comes to analyzing COVID-19 testing, transmission, and death rates, Wu said, because they are all impacted by deep-rooted socioeconomic conditions.

Thanks for joining us for another NPC20 @ Home day. From our location to yours, we'll see you tomorrow!

Top image: Illustration by metamoraworks/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Reports compiled by APA staff.

April 30, 2020