Civic Media and Urban Planning

My name is Aditi Mehta and I am a first-year doctoral student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning here at MIT. I actually received my Master in City Planning as well from MIT in 2010, where I learned how to design solutions for neighborhoods around issues such as affordable housing and economic development via mapping, policy research, and financial/data analyses. In my work, I saw that sometimes such solutions created unexpected social challenges. I am now pursuing a PhD because I want to understand how to evaluate the impact of planning interventions on the social fabric of neighborhoods and evaluate if and how public participation processes and civic engagement affect outcomes.

I am especially interested in civic media because I believe it is an important medium that can help planners really understand a place. To me, civic media is a way of capturing and teaching “local knowledge” which can be forgotten or ignored by outside specialists working in a community. During this course, I hope to explore how a researcher can use “civic media tools” effectively to truly involve, understand, and listen to a place. I would also like to study how new and innovative methods using technology can strengthen civic engagement and improve decision-making by people of all backgrounds in neighborhood development settings.

During the first class, we used the 10 Points Tool to develop and debate key principles of Civic Media. This activity forced me to think about the production and consumption of Civic Media. How and with whom does the product need to be created to be considered Civic Media, and similarly, who should be listening, watching, or using the material, and in what way? Should we have separate principles for the production and consumption of Civic Media, and do the principles have to be fulfilled on both ends? These are issues I hope to sort through during the semester.

For now and after working with the class, I definitely believe Civic Media:

– Aspires to be participatory
– Fosters transparency and accountability
– Challenges people to rethink social structures
– Is self-critical and iterative

To demonstrate these principles, I would like to share a project I worked on before coming back to MIT. Metrobostondatacommon.org is an open-source web-based mapping and data visualization website for Massachusetts residents, non-profits, and other organizations/individuals. The site was created to help people quickly access, visualize and analyze data at various scales (block, neighborhood, city, county, state, etc.) in various sectors (education, health, economy, housing, etc.) Also, users of the site can share their analyses and build off one another’s visualizations through the public visualization gallery. Usually, software or systems to complete such analyses are costly and complicated, and thus “non-specialists” cannot participate in decision-making processes because of the inability to access and investigate information. By creating a tool like this, consumers can take ownership of data themselves to advocate for their causes, and hold decision-making entities accountable. Additionally, new ways of looking at and interpreting data can also challenge people to rethink social structures. The project is still in an iterative phase as the team of creators continuously assesses its success, improves its accessibility, and helps train as many people as possible on how to use the tool through online and free in–person sessions.

I am looking forward to learning about other civic media projects and examples that exemplify (or counteract) these principles.