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Digital Dynamics: Accessibility and Technology Increase Public Participation

Public involvement and stakeholder outreach are generally broad terms with the sole purpose to connect, inform and gather feedback from communities and individuals. Prior to COVID-19, traditional methods of public engagement/stakeholder outreach consisted of in-person meetings, social media posts and other communication methods. Many practices were effective prior to COVID-19, but with the shift to a virtual world, adaptations took place in response to the new normal.

Accessibility & Engagement

During the pandemic, B&N practiced new methods of public engagement and stakeholder outreach. By increasing accessible options to communities, participation and engagement grew tremendously. Some of these options included:

  • On Demand Meetings – Meetings for public involvement efforts were conducted through Microsoft Teams or Zoom which allowed access from any location with an internet connection. For those with poor broadband, meetings were recorded to access later.
  • Mobile Friendly Information – Most digital users primarily access information from their smartphones. Public information materials typically shared on websites and through email were designed in mobile-friendly formats to cater to this behavior as well as locations where home broadband access is limited.
  • Language Options – Online translation provided a range of language options for non-English speaking participants.
  • Impaired Considerations – While ADA guidelines are optional and not enforced in virtual platforms, B&N made options available for the visually and hearing impaired, and other disabilities. Google Translate, larger font sizes, closed captioning on videos and specific color avoidance were also available options. 

These changes to our outreach methods helped eliminate physical barriers such as time and location, while accommodating other needs.

New Platforms & Technologies

Following our push for accessibility improvements, B&N enhanced and implemented tools to help increase public response. These included:

  • Branding Initiatives – B&N developed project themes to help promote planning initiatives and increase public awareness and buy-in. 
  • Social Media Advertisements - Planning initiatives were advertised on social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, to promote public buy-in. 
  • Public Chatrooms - Live chats were available during designated times to allow the public to ask questions and gather intel before providing input to future planning initiatives. 
  • Virtual Public Open House - As part of the website development for planning projects, Virtual Public Open House pages were created and included introductions, pre-recorded videos and online surveys to gather public input.
  • GIS-Based Platforms
    • Websites (ESRI Hub Site) - Hub sites were integrated to share information in a format that was familiar and could be leveraged on any device with an internet connection.
    • Interactive Maps – Maps were integrated as part of the Hub site to help educate users about the projects in a location-based format that provided context, like google maps/earth.
    • Crowdsource Mapping - Like the interactive maps, these were developed to gather feedback from the public in a location-based format.
    • Online Surveys - Unlike the location-based crowdsource mapping, these more traditional online form-based surveys were used to gather additional public feedback.
    • StoryMaps - StoryMaps provided an “online executive summary” about a specific initiative with the ability to have elements like the ones listed above embedded into the document.  This allowed the user to interact with the document while guiding them to the information more easily.

Through these innovations and enhancements, B&N received positive feedback from clients and the public, while seeing responses to outreach and engagement initiatives increase. Not all tools were applied to every project, but many were tailored to accomplish goals set by the client.

Innovations in Action: A Hybrid Approach to Transportation Projects

MCDOT, Transportation System Plan (TSP) 2040

B&N completed the Maricopa County-wide TSP 2040, which establishes a plan for addressing transportation needs through 2040 to include capacity, active transportation, safety, connectivity, and Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) needs and identifies implementable projects for the short, mid and long-term. Public and stakeholder involvement were critical in expanding the scope of the planning effort. GIS-based interactive maps were used to facilitate stakeholder review and comment, as well as public outreach. Facebook ad buys, branded materials, public-facing content and other means were leveraged to boost participation. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, over 400 public comments were received.

Wood-Washington Wirt (WWW), Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) 2045

B&N is leading the development of an updated multimodal Long-Range Transportation Plan for the Parkersburg, WV -- Marietta, Ohio, region. Despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, B&N worked with WWW to successfully integrate extensive public and stakeholder engagement into the planning process. 

B&N helped WWW build its online presence, using a branding and social media initiative. A plan-specific logo was developed as well as a new agency logo for the WWW MPO to accompany the plan name and tagline: Horizon 2045: Moving Toward a Brighter Future. B&N then incorporated these branding elements into a plan-specific website that was developed to share information and host a virtual public open house, online surveys, a GIS-based interactive mapping application, and other engagement activities. B&N achieved a wider distribution to advertise the planning process and public engagement activities.

Tailored Solutions and Innovative Applications

Throughout the pandemic, B&N facilitated a wide variety of virtual and digital public and stakeholder involvement efforts. From this experience, we know that innovation and consensus are achievable with more flexibility than ever before. We can conclude that public projects are best conducted with a comprehensive public process, which includes constant evolution associated with accessibility and technology. 

To learn more about involving and reaching your entire community, please contact Dana Biscan, Erin Grushon, or Kris Popovich.

Dana Biscan, PE, Transportation Planning Director

Dana Biscan, PE 
Transportation Planning Director

Erin Grushon, AICP, Transportation Planner

Erin Grushon, AICP 
Transportation Planner

Kris Popovich, GIS Specialist/Cartographer/Transportation Planner

Kris Popovich 
GIS Specialist/Cartographer/Transportation Planner