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Crowdsourcing for an Efficient City

  Published: 08 June 2017
  Theme: Smart Planning

City authorities worldwide are increasingly using digital technologies to gather the opinions of citizens, identify patterns and facilitate collaboration. Available to them today are a variety of mobile apps, social discussion platforms and powerful analytics tools capable of engaging citizens and addressing municipal issues quicker than ever before. Their objective: planning and making decisions that leverage the collective intelligence (CI) of citizens and other key stakeholders, such as public-service providers.

Crowdsourcing for efficient city

Barriers to Successful Implementation of Digital Technologies for Citizen Engagement

Digital technologies, however, may prove challenging to implement. According to a 2017 research review by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), many civic engagement apps lacked success due to “low- or short-term uptake by citizens and design choices that limit engagement opportunities1”. One example is an app that lets citizens report an issue but does not allow them to view similar reports made by peers and update them when the issue is resolved.

Another limitation, as highlighted by a 2015 European Union-funded report, is that most existing citizen engagement social media platforms lack the ability to sustain users’ attention on complex issues and facilitate peer interaction to achieve collective goals2.

Moving forward, what is needed is a digital interface that engages users throughout the entire planning process and is capable of analysing large datasets quickly for city authorities to take action.

Enhancing Citizen Engagement and Prioritising the Right Issues

“Today, big data and algorithms enable civic engagement apps to prioritise which issues to address according to public support. Doing so can not only boost bureaucratic transparency and improve citizen happiness, but also optimise the deployment of scarce public resources, saving cities cost and time,” says Priya Prakash, founder and CEO of London-based social innovation agency Design4SocialChange (D4SC).

Developed by DS4C, Changify is a digital civic engagement mobile app that helps urban planners and authorities prioritise issues more efficiently. To illustrate this, Priya cites the 2016 Changify pilot involving 200 road users and a local road-maintenance contractor in the UK city of Plymouth. She states that the app creates “a real time feedback loop between citizens and authorities” via an interface that allows citizens to:

  • Report problems they see on the road (e.g. a pothole, faded lane markings) directly to public service providers (e.g. road maintenance contractors)
  • Receive information on the issue, such as costs and timeframe, from these service providers
    Support the issue through a real-time voting mechanism to reflect the urgency of the issue in the eyes of fellow citizens
  • Receive notification from service providers on updates of the issue (e.g. when it’s resolved)

Feedback loop aside, semantics matter. The Changify interface encourages citizen participation “via an understanding of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”, Priya reveals. Specifically, she believes that positioning Changify as a “neighbourhood watch” platform would result in more active citizen participation, compared to a platform that merely seeks to canvass ideas. In the same way, Priya recommends that urban planners humanise CI projects by presenting issues as a universal need (e.g. to feel safe, to connect with nature).


Photo credit: Design for Social Change

Citizen Path to Participation and Adoption of Tech in Cities

To enhance participation, urban planners can also consider incorporating game-based elements into CI platforms, similar to what Changify did when it implemented a traffic-light voting mechanism to get users to prioritise which urban issue to fix.  



A Game-based Citizen Engagement Element in Changify. Users can help raise the priority of the cracked road issue by selecting ‘Urgent’. (Photo credit: Design for Social Change)

Making Massive Data Meaningful

While apps such as Changify enable authorities of a small city such as Plymouth to plan more effectively and prioritise improvements, CI platforms need to be further enhanced to function in larger cities. The platforms have to enable the gathering and analyses of vast amounts of citizen input rapidly and subsequently derive new plans and actionable solutions to challenges. 

In addition, to obtain citizen opinions, insights and observe how viewpoints transform over time, CI interfaces should facilitate and sustain prolonged, open-ended discussions.

To facilitate a two-month public debate on a Smart City plan in 2015, the city of Paris in France turned to Assembl, a web application capable of organising and synthesising online discussions as they occur3,4. Below are the four phases of the Assembl-led project5:

Phase 1: Inspiration — city authorities problematised the issue and presented it to the public for consideration.

Phase 2: Divergence — citizens input their ideas on the Assembl interface and viewed one another’s ideas in the Idea Panel.

Phase 3: Exploration — with the help of a human moderator, Assembl used an algorithm that filtered out the noise (e.g. off-topic posts) and identified common phrases and keywords to capture the discussion direction. Assembl then synthesised the viewpoints for review by citizens and local authorities. Periodic syntheses focused the conversation.

Phase 4: Convergence — a final summarised report containing general consensus and views of participants, assisted city authorities in decision-making and prioritising projects.

Using the Assembl platform, Paris city authorities transited from Phase 1 to 4 of public engagement in eight weeks6, reducing the time taken for the structuring process by 90 per cent7.

In 2016, Assembl also facilitated a two-month international online debate in the lead up to Cities for Life Paris, a global summit on inclusive urban growth and development. From the input of participants from more than 50 countries, the Assembl CI platform distilled four key challenges for discussion during the summit and over 70 solutions to these challenges for assessment8. This demonstrates the value of advanced CI tools in assisting urban planners.



The Assembl Messages Panel for Cities for Life Paris 2016 defines the term “inclusive city” for new users prior to participation. (Photo credit: Cities for Life Paris 2016)

Lessons for Engaging Citizens

In Singapore, residents can use OneService, a civic engagement mobile app, to report municipal issues9. Through a shared interface, various government agencies can access public input that is relevant to their scope and proceed to take action.

Although the OneService app has laid the foundation for digital civic engagement in Singapore, local authorities can further leverage technology to extend the app’s functionalities and gain deeper insights. This means piloting new creative approaches that help prioritise issues (Changify) and analyse gathered data quickly for both short-term and long-term planning (Assembl).

With the transparent and streamlined engagement processes that innovative technologies offer, cities around the world can use CI to improve the planning, design and operational aspects of the urban environment with greater effectiveness.


3. (in French)