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Philadelphia Opens Up City Planning Process With Pilot Text Messaging Project

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, June 5 2012

The city of Philadelphia recently launched a novel pilot project that enables its citizens to provide their thoughts, ideas and feedback to city officials about planning initiatives without having to attend public meetings in person.

The project, first launched last Friday, solicits feedback from citizens through their cell phones. City planning officials are soliciting opinions through wall posters in public spaces like bus and transit shelters and recreation centers. The posters ask people a survey question and requests readers to text their responses to a number, which then forwards the message to the officials who created the survey.

The project, called Textizen, was created by Code for America fellows Alexander Yule and Michelle Lee in four months after they first met city planning officials in February.

When the two fellows parachuted in to talk to city officials about how they could help them, one of the biggest themes that emerged was a desire from city planning officials to get more feedback from the public. In addition to not being able to make time to go to public meetings, a significant portion of the population in Philadelphia don't have access to broadband, Yule said in an interview, so the idea was to make the feedback process as open and democratic as possible, hence the reliance on text-messaging.

"We weren't necessarily thinking mobile," said Yule. "We were thinking open."

Yule and Lee created a piece of software using an application programming interface from TROPO, which allows developers to add voice, text-messaging, Tweets and instant messages to their applications.

City officials create surveys and polls online with Textizen, which then assigns each poll or survey a phone number. The pilot project supplements the existing processes and meetings that the city uses to engage the public.

The officials are using the pilot project to try to gain more insights into how citizens use the city's recreation centers, what they can do to make the city center more kid-friendly, and also to ask whether people would use a rapid transit line to get to the city center along a specific route. The current campaign will last for a month.

Textizen is different from another collaboration Code for America engaged in with Local Projects last year called Change By Us in that this project has city officials asking for feedback rather than being presented with requests from the community, said Lauren Reid, Code for America's marketing co-ordinator.

The system is currently in closed beta, but Yule said that officials in other cities who want to try it out could sign up for an account at Textizen's web site.