Everyone has a plan: Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans

Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans

liveblogged by @mstem, @natematias, @schock, and @beckyhurwitz.

How do we empower citizens as equal partners in urban planning with data and analytical tools? If new tech can enable planners, tool makers and community groups to create meaningful change, how do we get there?

Frank Hebbert (@fkh) works at OpenPlans, building tools to help citizens and government come together for better city planning. He thinks we can make great places and beat climate change with the winning combo of planning, tech and public participation.

Frank graduated from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, and is also a programmer and GIS nerd. He now runs the Civic Works group at OpenPlans.

OpenPlans is a tech nonprofit with an office in NYC, and people working in various cities. They’re particularly interested in how information is shared in cities and their planning processes. They build tools to help people distribute, find, and make sense of information, with a focus on urban planning and neighborhood development. They want to help planners and experts, as well as community members, to better take advantage of information.

They start by thinking about what people are currently doing: what tools do cities use, what ways do citizens have of finding information (Frank shows a photo of a big LED construction sign warning us that a bridge is being washed). One key area to look at is government: how to rethink the city as stakeholder, partner, implementer. Cities have monopolies on implementation, but they want people to be involved, and even to take over implementation in some cases.

“Listen, if you’re looking for a good time, why don’t you come down to the toilet party?”

There are complex networks of people developing and circulating information in a city. Frank shows a diagram of networks in Chicago supporting at-risk kids. Even this one slice of city life involves a complex and large network of organizations and stakeholders.

Planning has an unfortunate history of not welcoming outside voices; experts reign. Citizens don’t participate in open meetings, whether because they don’t think they’ll be heard, or they don’t think it will be a good use of their time.

Frank quotes FCC Chairman Steve Van Roekel: “In a perfect world, no one should have to visit the FCC website.” The existing information infrastructure, where citizens are expected to visit a dedicated website about sanitation, doesn’t work for us in an age of APIs and feeds.

“Maps suck,” Frank tells us. The city-wide view of datasets is not what most people are looking for. Thus far, we’ve been building tools for people who understand the world through Google Maps tilesets. The people who are building tools to present information to engage people in cities need to be a lot more critical about using maps, specifically, and making tools more citizen-centric, broadly. Frank would love to see more SMS-based tools, and more tools that escape the screen-based interface.

Good news releases, Frank says, need to have three traits: they should be SCARY, LOCAL, and URGENT. Our tools need to work that way too.

Sasha asks what would happen if we replaced SCARY with LOVELY. Ethan challenges us to think of examples that fall under ‘lovely’ as well as ‘urgent.’ People suggest FoodCam, cherry blossoms, and a great neighborhood street party.

There’s a gap in understanding between what technology citizens buy and the technology employed by government. How do we make these tools part of every day life and its challenges?

Right now, we’re putting a lot of attention into official planning, but we need to work on getting more every day information that’s just plain useful. There’s a virtuous cycle that emerges as we make more data available, Frank argues. A public meeting in isolation might not feel productive. It might seem hard to fix that individual meeting, but can we build capacity and change over the long term?

Uncivil Servants was an early attempt to crowdsource reporting of abuse of New York City’s parking permits for city officials. Citizens took pictures, uploaded them to a map website, and carried out an advocacy campaign to lobby the city and raise public awareness. The city responded, reducing the number of permits.

Contributing to this map required taking photos of police officers’ cars and putting them on the internet. The police, needless to say, were not happy, and threatened the organizer on a police message board site. But the project was well-scoped, in that there was a clear injustice, and a clear solution: take away offenders’ permits.

These days, civic technologists work for the city rather than antagonize them. They’ve become tenured radicals, in a sense. They’ve helped city departments like the NYC DOT dramatically improve their online tools and data availability. Citizens can now see the status of myriad DOT projects online, whereas they would previously have to attend long meetings. The department is sharing more online and blogging, and graduating from blogging to sharing structured information in usable formats.

Q: Does this detract from real world engagement?

A: The real rich engagement happens offline. Online tools are not a replacement for getting in the streets, talking to citizens and business owners, getting that work done. Online is a compliment to face to face. It should be entwined with the IRL process.

Jim Paradis asks if that can be tracked.

A: They do a lot of work to ensure they’re talking to people in the neighborhood who represent the merchants, those who are driving, those who are biking – it’s all part of the outreach process.


Frank shows nyc.gov/bikeshare, a platform for crowd-sourcing public suggestions for locations for a new New York bike sharing scheme. Members of the public made 10,000 suggestions for bikeshare locations, although the city can only put in 600 stations. The DOT is clustering and sorting the data to figure out what will make the most sense. Bikeshare was good because it was cute, simple, and fun to use. Now the DOT is holding public meetings where they roll out maps on the table that show people’s suggestions from the site, and get people’s reactions and additional input. Many people wanted to go beyond adding dots to the map to actually discuss locations. This was a pleasant surprise, and something which they built into later versions of the tool.

Open Plans took the lessons they learned from New York and created the open source planning platform ShareAbouts. This system has now been deployed by Portland for their own bike-share planning.

They are trying to think of this tool as a mobile first means of asset mapping in general, and they know that many people are getting online via small screens and mobile devices.

Change Street

Change Street is a project that tries to imagine new ways for community groups or citizens to explore planning. One question is: how do you know what you can change? How do you learn about the planning framework, permits, the various processes involved in say, getting a speed bump or a tree planted?

They made a ‘wiki cartoon’ that lets you step through things on the street, to explain what the process would be to modify features of the urban landscape. As you stroll down a cartoon neighborhood, you come across links to things that would improve your street: how to request trees, how to petition for a speed bump, and how to get a permit to host a block party (lovely and urgent!).


They also are curious about Google Maps’s Street View. They built Beautiful Streets after being inspired by, which is similar to the Media Lab’s Place Pulse. Street View is an amazing new tool for planners if they understood how to effectively use it. People use Street View to explore neighborhoods; OpenPlans took the idea of visual preference surveys and launched Beautiful Streets, which has just topped 100,000 pairwise comparisons of the streets in Philadelphia. This data is available for people to play with. They’re now doing the similar process in other locations: Denver, for example, where they’ve done it as part of a ‘code-a-thon’ (it turns out that federal agencies don’t like the word ‘hack’).

Rahul: What criterion do you have for projects that meet your civic engagement goals?

A: As a nonprofit, we do a mix of fee-for-service work, and foundation-funded projects. The former is more straightforward. Outside of these structured processes, we think about difficult problems that we’re interested in solving, rather than just tools that might be monetized.

Rahul: Last week, Tom Steinberg argued that the underlying goal is more participation, not just to fix potholes. So what philosophy drives the selection?

A: The ideas that drive us are: jumpstarting the information ecosystem of planning; building tools that serve underserved organizations, groups that don’t have access to tools and data to engage with planning. And that’s not as clear-cut as traditionally defined underserved groups. We’re deliberately less interested in the ideation side. Lots of projects have ’empowerment through ideation;’ suggest a project and then come together online to work on it. We’d rather put tools out to groups that are already working on these challenges.

Q: Sasha: Do you ever use collaborative design processes and how to do you engage with end users as you design?

A: We go through user testing relatively early in a design process. We trend towards agile so we build many iterations, work off of user stories. I’m 1 of 3 directors of the software team, I have 2 fellow directors mostly focused on the transportation side and about 20 developers altogether. Ideas for projects arise from among us.

Q: Sasha: in my collaborative design studio in civic media, there’s a student working on a collaborative documentary about the Villa Victoria neighborhood in Boston’s South End (see Inqulinos Boricuas en Accion). This community of largely Puerto Rican immigrants was going to be erased by a highway but organized in the 1980s, with support from a sympathetic planning firm, to create an alternate redevelopment plan, and succeeded. Now they have a community land trust, and are the only remaining area of low income housing in Boston’s South End. It would be really interesting to think about how that kind of community-driven neighborhood level redevelopment process could be amplified and extended by the kind of tools you are developing.

We casually talk about this idea of “living plans.” Rather than a planning process producing a document that goes on a shelf, we want to design something that is curated and revisited periodically. We’re interested in harnessing these to understand directions that a neighborhood could go.

Ethan: The drive for Open Data from government hasn’t always turned into useful tools. How do we move this from an activist activity to something that’s just a normal part of what government does?

There are two directions for mass adoption. The first might be called Kickstarter urbanism– completely separate from official structures. The other direction is activist technologies. A lot of community organizations are still trying to figure out how to use email effectively. OpenPlans wants to focus on this second group: making more empowered local experts.

What’s wrong with the Kickstarter model? Frank mentions the Low Line project, a Kickstarter-funded subterranean park in New York. Kickstarter, he says, can’t easily address the complexity of actually achieving something like that.

The civic apps catalogs aren’t working because the people who need them aren’t reading them. The new model is cookbooks. If, as a citizen, you know what you have available and what you do not, could we help you combine your resources into a tasty dish?

Good tools should get good exposure. The New York City DOT’s bike-share project got lots of visibility. We’re interested in helping smaller groups get more visibility for what they are doing.

Q: How do you ensure that with a system like PDX Bike Share that there is a 1-person:1-vote balance? It seems some of our in person meeting techniques are better for ensuring equally distributed representation.

A: No one gets hurt in this process. These are proposals for potential locations for a bikeshare, and there will still be a public process for feedback. These are aspirational tools, not hardwired into implementation. We want people to use these tools as an armature for engagement, not a substitute for real world connections.

Jim: Could you talk a little about the history of your organization? Also maybe comment on what you are doing better than anyone else.

A: We do things well, I don’t know if it’s better. We’re a nonprofit that started about a decade ago b/c a smart guy called Mark Gorton was a commuter cyclist who was unhappy with the lack of cycling infrastructure in Manhattan. He wondered whether tech tools could help people engage in planning around this. The initial drive was transportation planning tools; traffic models that anyone could run. At the time it was hard, because there weren’t good online mapping tools. So we had a team called OpenGeo that did a lot of work to develop commercial grade open mapping tools. We also published StreetsBlog, which is national but has a focus on NYC, SF, and LA: advocacy journalism around the kinds of stuff we’re into. My team works on tools to realize this vision.

Now we’ve been around for 10 years, and are funded by foundations and contracts and other sources. That’s the potted history.

In terms of what we do better than others, I’d say we have freedom to work in the space, including advocacy work, in a way that others who do only fee for services can’t really do. So we work on helping groups get started, for example helping the MTA opening up its transit data. So we’re a bit of an incubator in the civic technology space, with a bias towards planning. There’s now a network of many exciting groups. Our software is great, and we think it does a good job – I don’t want to be bombastic and say we blow everyone out of the water.

Ethan: It’s great to see the projects and tools you’re up to. What’s your dream tool? Imagine someone gives you a 10 million check and says “make cities better.” What do you do with that money?

A: The Living Plan. The small scale, locally held vision that is data driven and empowering and brings in a lot of people to work on it. It’s not a platform, but a network of tools that many people create. Devolving power from planners to the small scale and the local is ultimately what we’re interested in.

Q: To go from the sublime to the trenches of Hell: you mentioned city procurement. Many Cities are ideological about particular technologies. Cambridge has a sustainability ideology which informs how it buys automobiles, but when it comes to IT, none of that is there.

A: The challenge is that procurement, the way Cities buy things, is generally broken. In Philly, 2/3 of non-pro services procurement under 5k takes more than 90 days. If you want to buy a small part, it takes 3 months. A terrible framework to run a City in. In terms of tech, Cities *should* be risk-averse. Unfortunately, many cities can point to failed IT. They need to be better at bringing in open source tech. For example, New York’s CityTime payroll software has already cost hundreds millions of dollars.

The Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics is an interesting model, because the risk gets taken out of the department, and puts it under the office of the Mayor.

The bottom line involves buying open source: understanding why it’s a better option and avoiding vendor lock in. We’re helping the MTA put real time location info about 10k buses; the whole stack is open source; they can switch away from us if they like.

Cities also need to go beyond open source to support open processes. If systems like permit applications were wired for open, a lot of the ideas we’re discussing here would become easier. Open Plans is building an open layer that sits on top of a big undisturbed vendor system. We have to figure out how to open up that system. Part of that is professionalism. A lot of people in the open source space aren’t capable of delivering services at the level the Cities need.

Andrew: Many of these projects are short term. Are these or others good for long term planning? For example, cities are asking ‘what are the demographics going to look like in 50 years?”

A: we’re very interested in long term tools. Open trip planner analyst (analyst.opentripplanner.org) gets us into talking about longer term transit infrastructure design problems. The other area is the world of scenario planning: a very not well known part of urban planning. We all gather around a table and various future regional maps are produced. Planners run complex analyses on these maps: the dense development metro map, the infill scenario, etc. Each has implications for housing, transportation, and so on. Then you imagine different policies and metrics that would get you to the scenario you desire. The tools that are used all are desktop, ArcGIS based, very complex,, the visualizations are problematic. You need a lot of assistance to make sense of it. We’ve been working with the Lincoln Land Institute to think about how open source could unpack these problems.

Jim: Are you working directly with groups that are traditionally underrepresented in planning processes?

Sasha: The last few years has seen the emergence of the Right to the City Coalition, as well as other networks of groups working in low income communities of color to engage in urban planning and redevelopment; what’s your relationship to this kind of network of CBOs that do base-level participation in urban planning?

A: We see the benefit of building these with community-based partners, but do not currently have any partnerships.