Planning June 2014

We Built This Technology

When it comes to cities, no one knows them better than planners.

By Jennifer Evans-Cowley, AICP, and Brittany Kubinski

Cities are hot in the technology community. Techies, many with a genuine interest in improving our cities, are talking about civic hackathons, crowdsourcing, urban prototyping. 

Citizens, too, have totally bought in, and certain apps have become common tools to help shape their experience in cities. When's the last time you went to a new city — or somewhere unfamiliar in your own town — and didn't map a route on your phone?

Techies and citizens alike are using technology to engage and improve urban environments and experiences. It leads us to certain questions: What is the role for planners? Why should they be engaged in civic technology? How are planners creating new technology? How can planners better influence the creation, use, and end results that come out of new technology?

What we found is that planners indeed are engaged in civic technology — and that interaction is growing. Planners are taking their own data (or their community's data) and opening it for others to use, they are partnering with technology firms, and they are even starting their own tech companies.

Not all planners need to learn how to code and become technologists, according to Karin Brandt, a planner who launched a start-up, CoUrbanize, after she saw how technology could help address a common challenge: getting people to planning meetings and helping them understand the complicated issues presented there. But she suggests that planners do need to take a leadership role in the civic tech movement.

"If we want civic tech to solve complex community issues, we need to understand bureaucracies, the history of place, and implications on equity," Brandt says. This is where planners fit in. There's no shortage of software developers looking for interesting problems to work on, and planners have no shortage of interesting problems to tackle. is a civic crowdfunding platform with a mission to connect communities with new funding sources, companies with new earned media opportunities, and citizens with the community projects they care about


The newest generation of planners are digital natives; they have grown up using and adapting to new technology. A handful of tech-savvy young planners, willing to experiment and possessing an entrepreneurial spirit, are creating their own companies to solve planning problems. Here's a peek at how four recent graduates have taken their passion for technology and knowledge of planning to launch their own start-ups.

Sean Connolly is a cofounder of, which he helped start after graduating with a degree in urban planning and urban design at the University of Missouri–Kansas City in 2012. Connolly created at a time when crowdfunding was becoming a mainstream concept in many places. The crowdfunding platform provides local governments with a fundraising toolkit that empowers communities to help pay for the things they truly care about.

Residents can vote with their dollars to support civic projects that directly impact their lives, such as parks and bike trails that may not score well among government decision makers but are immensely important to individuals. In Rockledge, Florida, helped supporters raise awareness — and more than $20,000 in funding — to add an off-leash dog park within an existing city park. 

Karin Brandt is another planner who has made the transition into civic tech. With a master's in city planning from MIT in hand, she went to work in 2010 for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Working for that group, she realized that not only do very few people attend planning meetings, but also that the complex issues presented in those meetings are difficult for everyday citizens to understand, resulting in emotionally driven rather than fact-based discussions.

Brandt saw that technology could offer a solution and began to learn basic coding. Along with two other MIT grads, she built a prototype, which the team used to raise seed funding and join an accelerator program in Boston called Techstars. Techstars provides funding from venture capital firms and angel investors, as well as providing intense mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs. The result was coUrbanize, a platform that aims to help communities and developers build better cities together.

The goal was to bring more transparency to the planning process and, in turn, to produce better development outcomes. The coUrbanize platform allows for the distribution and visualization of project information and easily gathers online feedback. The result is an easy-to-use system that encourages participation.

Dominick Ard'is started with a simple idea while he was in graduate school at Florida State University studying urban and regional planning. "I grew concerned with my generation's disconnect and lack of sustained engagement with civic life, and I thought, ‘How can I change that?'" he says.

Ard'is wanted to find a mobile communication solution that would engage people in every facet of the city. He started talking to planners and technologists and, as an active member of APA's Emerging Professionals group, he made presentations at APA conferences. Soon, he began to figure out a solution.

After graduating in 2012, he started a tech firm called The Town, where he is the mayor and user experience architect. He is just getting started trying to grab Millennials' attention by developing a mobile application, TownAhallic U (or TAU), that will launch this fall at multiple universities in Tallahassee, Florida. The app is designed to get university students engaged, connected, and informed about what is happening on their campus. Eventually, he'd like to expand the concept to cities.

Pogoride is yet another planner-built app. After graduating with his master's in urban planning from Harvard in 2011, Ryder Pearce took a position as a transportation planner. There he recognized a clear opportunity: matching up drivers and nondriving travelers in Washington and British Columbia — and helping them to save money getting from here to there. The regional ridesharing website, Pogoride, is currently in beta testing.

Open-source planning

A number of nonprofit organizations also are working on open-source technology tools that can be used by planners. The open-source development model for planning tech is the same as in other fields: It offers universal, free access, allowing not only the use of the product but also inviting improvements (likewise available to all) to its design and function.

OpenPlans, based in New York and Philadelphia, is developing tools that make communication and collaboration between planners and citizens easier. One of its projects, Plan in a Box, like coUrbanize, allows planners to share information on planning projects and to engage the public. The goal is to make planning user-centered and easily disseminated via social media and in the physical world.

"We're on a mission to make planning more open, more efficient, and more fun. We do this by creating online tools to gather public input and share information, working with progressive cities and forward-thinking planners," reads the group's website. Planner Frank Hebbert is OpenPlans' director.

PlaceMatters, a nonprofit think tank for civic engagement in planning, is partnering with WalkDenver to develop WALKScope, an open-source online data collection tool that will create an inventory of pedestrian facilities and conditions in neighborhoods, as well as pedestrian count data. Planner Brad Barnett, the director of the PlaceMatters Decision Lab, has been working to make WALKScope as easy as dropping a pin on a map, answering a few questions about pedestrian counts, and commenting on intersection and street quality. We are currently testing WALKScope as part of Ohio State University's Comprehensive Transportation and Parking Plan.

I decided to delve into civic tech myself by creating an open source planning tool. After experiencing the time-consuming challenge of creating good visual preference surveys, I wanted to create something that would be easy for everyday planners to use. I asked the IT folks in my office if they would be interested in working on a side project, and the result is StreetSeen, an easy-to-use, free visual survey tool that allows planners to pull images from Google Street View.

In February, Code for America and partners hosted the third annual CodeAcross event, which consisted of more than 40 two-day workshops held simultaneously around the world in an effort to inspire residents everywhere to get actively involved in their communities.

Partnering up

You don't have to start your own technology company to advance planning; you can partner to make it happen. The Louisville metropolitan government did just that.

It teamed with Forest Giant Inc. and Urban Design Studio to create a mobile app that will collect data from cyclists and deliver that information to the metro government to help it improve cycling routes and prioritize investment on cycling infrastructure in Louisville. LouLoops is expected to be available later this year.

Partnerships with the Knight Foundation and Community PlanIt allowed Detroit to use an interactive game as a part of the Detroit 24/7 project in 2012. Community PlanIt is a Knight Foundation-funded online game platform to involve communities in planning efforts. Over the course of 21 days, 1,033 players in Detroit logged over 8,400 comments about their experience with the city and where they think it should go in the future. The data are being used to inform the city's long-term plan and are also available to community groups, advocacy groups, and anyone else.

LiveSift is a new engagement platform in beta testing that allows participants to submit their opinions and ideas via mobile devices or computers. Aaron Rosa and Alex Bergo are futurists who decided to create software to help gather input at meetings and eliminate the need for paper-based surveys, worksheets, and flipcharts.

One challenge that Rosa and Bergo have faced in creating LiveSift is the tendency of participants to get distracted by their smartphones when they are invited to use them during a presentation. To respond to this challenge, they designed their visualization screen to reflect real-time participation and bring people's attention to their peers' opinions and ideas. Rosa would like to see this mode of engagement become the norm.

As part of their beta testing they have been working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In one project, HUD's Honolulu Age-friendly City Initiative is using LiveSift to help a citizens advisory committee rank the community's essential age-friendly features, says Ramona Mullahey, a senior analyst of field policy and management at HUD. The agency plans to use the data produced by the deliberations of six working groups over six months as they develop their action plan for an age-friendly city.

Code for America is another example of planners and techies working together to solve real civic problems. The group sends designers, planners, and coders into communities for a year-long fellowship where they engage with the local government and citizens to address that city's most pressing issues.

During their stay and afterward (back in their San Francisco headquarters), they rally other designers, developers, planners, and civic tech folk and bring them together to work on innovative projects. In Las Vegas, the Code for America team created Development FastPass, a tool that combines parcel data, land use, zoning, building occupancy, and business incentives to help business owners locate their businesses.

How to connect

To help planners connect to civic tech there is PlanningCamp. PlanningCamps have been held in New York, Philadelphia, and Oakland to date, and the group held a camp at APA's National Planning Conference in Atlanta in April. The PlanningCamps were created by OpenPlans and are supported by the Knight Foundation's Knight News Challenge. The call to action on its homepage makes clear who it thinks should be collaborating: "Hey urban geeks, planners, civic hackers, and community organizers! Get ready for PlanningCamp!"

Meetups — informal but topic- or interest-specific get-togethers — are also common in the civic tech community. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Municipeeps is a meetup focused on urban planning and civic innovation. In Chicago, Open City hosts a weekly hack night to bring together developers, designers, data scientists, policy experts, and everyday citizens to work on open data released by the government; planners could certainly join in.

Through Open City, Juan-Pablo Velez, a freelance journalist, and Derek Eder, an open-data web developer, created 2nd City Zoning, an interactive map to explore zoning in Chicago. The pair built the map based on SimCity and made it easy to explore the city's zoning — and, to make it more fun, it's all set to music. Simply put, this whimsical approach makes it easier for the public to understand the city's zoning.

What's next?

Civic tech is booming, and, as far as we're concerned, planners should be driving its development. The people we talked to for this article agree. They pointed out that planners are the group that directly engages with the community, and as such we are the ones who would know what's missing in the current tool sets. Furthermore, planners can help city decision makers get behind the new technology — which is frequently crucial for success. Technologists need to understand that residents aren't the only consumers of their cool tech products; governments are consumers as well.

One concern shared by planners and techies alike is that governments often want to see results before they will buy in to a new tool. The Knight Foundation will be putting out a report later this year that looks at feedback from various civic technologies and benchmarks applications against one another. Providing case studies of how apps and tools have worked in the past is essential in encouraging government to experiment with new technology tools.

Planners should also encourage a human-centered design process. "Technology built in a vacuum is less likely to succeed," says Jonathan Sotsky, director of strategy and assessment of the Knight Foundation. We need technology that is focused on getting resident input and responding to the true needs on the ground. Planners are uniquely positioned (and trained) to do that.

Planners should take advantage of every community engagement project as an opportunity to delve into new processes and discover new technology. As an educator and a planner, Georgia Bullen of the Open Technology Institute strives to do just that. "If planners can use civic technology tools as part of the processes and practices that they already engage in, we will begin to be more inclusive in our processes, and bring attention to places where digital services (access and training) are lacking," she says.

This is exactly what we would like to see as the future for civic tech and planning. Planners may not have led the civic tech movement from the beginning, but we still have a chance to focus civic tech efforts on solving some of the big problems that face our communities and our profession. And isn't that what we got into planning to do anyway?

Jennifer Evans-Cowley is a professor of city and regional planning and associate dean at the Ohio State University. Brittany Kubinski is a master's degree candidate in city and regional planning student there and a planner with AHBL in Seattle. 



Civic Hacking: a process engaging citizens in solving city problems using technology

Hackathon: an event where people come together to engage in collaborative programming to create technology-driven solutions

Crowdsourcing: enlisting a wide variety of people to provide input on a project

Urban prototyping: a preliminary model of an object that can improve cities

Civic technology: technology that supports citizens and their cities

Digital native: a person who has been familiar with computers and the Internet from an early age

Crowdfunding: the practice of funding a project by raising small amounts of money from large numbers of people via the Internet

Open Source: software for which the original source code is made available for anyone to modify and redistribute


Images: Top — is a civic crowdfunding platform with a mission to connect communities with new funding sources, companies with new earned media opportunities, and citizens with the community projects they care about. Image courtesy Bottom — In February, Code for America and partners hosted the third annual CodeAcross event, which consisted of more than 40 two-day workshops held simultaneously around the world in an effort to inspire residents everywhere to get actively involved in their communities. Photo courtesy Code for America.


Open City:

2nd City Zoning:




Plan in a Box:



The Town:

Community PlanIt:

Code for America:

Development FastPass:

Life Sift:

Take No Little Actions

By Dominick Ard'is and Lucas Lindsey

Planners have always talked about big plans. But civic tech ups the ante — and the possibilities. Stepping beyond our profession's call to make no little plans, civic tech is our chance to take no little actions.

There are no simple solutions to complex social problems, but a series of incremental hacks can make a real difference. Since civic tech allows for rapid prototyping, planners and the community can see progress almost immediately. It is that opportunity for accelerating impact that clinched it for us: Instead of spending our careers as planners looking to use the latest and greatest tools, we've decided to bring those great tools to market.

It turns out that planners are well suited to make a splash in civic tech, and most already have a set of skills that translate well.

Research methods. Planners understand research. They know how to develop statistical models, cross-test users, research and interpret public policy, and analyze the market. This unique skill set could place them as user experience (UX) architects in some startups, drafting guidelines for developers to follow.

Citizen engagement. Users of civic tech are what citizens are to a city. Civic tech planners can conduct user interviews, develop focus groups, and educate users on new features. Focusing on user engagement grounds civic tech firms in human-centered design and technology that meets real needs.

Project management. Planners are skilled at developing a plan and vision, defining the scope of a project, budgeting for material and staff, and understanding project requirements — all of these elements are key to the planning and delivery of tech products.

Mapping and GIS. More and more tech tools have a spatial and place-based focus. Planners with a knack for GIS and analysis could be a key asset.

To stay competitive and round out their expertise, planners may need to explore new skill sets, including coding and graphic design. The Internet is awash in resources for quickly learning key coding languages. Websites like Codeacademy, Udacity, and Treehouse feature hands-on, project-based learning.

Graphic design is indispensable to the development and delivery of civic tech products. Most of it takes place in Adobe software: Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. Resources such as Planetizen's online courses can help planners beef up their abilities in this area.

At the end of the day, planners understand the reality of roadblocks to implementation, bringing a deep understanding of existing systems, challenges, and constraints. And, deeply embedded in our profession is a dedication to public service and equity, which are key if civic tech is to have a measurable impact on civic life. Planners have long influenced the experience of urban living. This is no different.

Dominick Ard'is, a recent graduate of Florida State University with a master's of science in planning, is the founder and mayor of civic tech startup The Town. Lucas Lindsey is a MSP candidate at FSU. He tinkers and writes at the intersection of urbanism, technology, and community development.