Aaron Ogle, Software Developer for OpenPlans, discusses the software tools available to cities to make informed decisions about their sustainability strategies. He will also be speaking on this topic at SXSW:Eco 2012 on Oct. 5 at 3:30pm CST.
|Ben Lack||What different types of tools are available to cities and what’s out there for cities trying to figure out how to make their community sustainable?|
|Aaron Ogle||At OpenPlans, we approach software from the perspective that it should be open source which means that anybody can have access to the source code, to be able to change and modify it. This prevents vendor lock-in, allows for more control, and provides better value for our clients. From that context we typically work on issues of public transportation, urban planning, and citizen engagement in cities.
For planning and engagement, we are exploring tools to get people more involved in the way that their cities are planned out. For example, our PlanningPress tool helps municipal groups be more transparent about improvement projects in neighborhoods. Similarly our Shareabouts platform allows data to be collected about places so we can get a better idea of what the opportunities and challenges are. This includes both qualitative and quantitative data.
On the public transportation side, we are really trying to promote alternative to driving. We want cities where walking and biking are just as good, if not better and easier than driving. We have a number of tools like OpenTripPlanner, which is similar to Google Maps directions, but open source. We’re also working with New York’s MTA on their bus tracking system to make make riding the bus much easier.
|Ben Lack||Talk to me a little bit about the engagement with the actual user. Engagement is a buzz word that gets used when trying to get people to integrate with software tools. Do you agree that cities, in general, are thinking engagement? How do you think about engagement as your building solutions for these types of problems?|
|Aaron Ogle||We approach it from a couple of different ways. One way is just asking direct questions like the way a lot of cities do through public meetings, but through web tools. A lot of times people can’t or don’t attend public meetings for whatever reason. It could be that it’s always dominated by the loudest people in the room, or you just simply can’t get to them because you are working late or you have kids to put to bed. So we look at how we can use the internet to scale that process. If input needs to be collected on a particular issue, I should not have to go to a meeting to have my input heard. It should be as simple as posting on Facebook.
The other is looking at engagement through a data collection perspective. One project that we worked for the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) was to ask New Yorkers where should the city put the bikes for the new bike share program. So we built an online map to collect all of this public input, and we got 10,000 suggestions from New Yorkers as to where all of these things should be – a fabulous success.
There were 2 benefits there. One, was that NYCDOT got data which was really interesting. We can take this data, we can analyze it, and we can measure the interest of people who are really engaged in this process. Where should these things should go? Where is the demand?
And the second was that we were engaging the public a different way, not a public meeting or a survey, but just as valuable and more interesting. This allowed us to get all this valuable data but also got people engaged in a way where they felt like they were being useful, and really getting them invested in this project that was coming up.
|Ben Lack||What challenges does the company face as you’re trying to come up with other types of solutions?|
|Aaron Ogle||I think the biggest challenge for us is that software is not the entire solution, it is a tool. You can’t build a house with just a hammer, you need lots of other things to make that project a success. The bike share app for NYCDOT was successful not just because it was a great app, but because we had great partners and it was the right tool for the job. There was a lot of energy around the project already and NYCDOT really did a great job in promoting it. People were able to find about the tool and there was enough interest to hit the critical mass to really make the whole thing come together.|
|Ben Lack||Based on the challenges that you’ve encountered what opportunities come out of that?|
|Aaron Ogle||I think that we have a very experienced team and that we’ve learned a lot over the years about what works and what doesn’t in this space. We are always having interesting conversations with interesting people working on urban issues and that gives a good sense of what tools can really be useful. We really try to keep our finger on the pulse of the problems that cities are facing and the challenges that these groups are trying to address, and really get a sense of where these different opportunities are.|
|Ben Lack||Do you think that a lot of, how much does regionality or in some other part of the country impact these challenges and opportunities that cities typically face? Some cities are obviously more progressive than others. Are there any types of trends that you are seeing, based on location that’s in a better position to tackle some of these challenges and opportunities that others wave at?|
|Aaron Ogle||I agree that there are different contexts for different cities. Cities on the whole are generally more tech savvy than rural areas, but at the same time not equally. For example, here in Philadelphia, I believe that the number of households that don’t have internet access as approximately 40% which is a huge challenge for us since it means that not everybody can have access to these sort of tools. That forces us to look at problems in a more holistic way.
If you really want to collect feedback we can’t just have a typical browser-based web application. We need to be thinking about more inclusive applications, about how we can accomplish the same thing with tools like SMS text messaging which is much more ubiquitous. The digital divide is the one of the challenges that comes up often and one that we work hard to address.
|Ben Lack||Why are you doing what you’re doing and why does this industry interest you?|
|Aaron Ogle||I went to school to be a software engineer. I really enjoyed pushing pixels around, but during my sophomore in college I moved to my first city, London, to do a study abroad program. That’s when I first realized that you can live some place and not own a car. Not only that, but I could have access to some of the amazing amenities in the world just footsteps from my door. And it really changed the way I looked at cities, the way I looked at the world, and the role that cities can play in society. I wanted to start investing in them. Taking technology and combining it with building better cities was what I decided to do going forward.|