Public Involvement Techniques
4.C.i - Plan or Text
What is Plan or Text Mark-up Software?
Plan or text mark-up software is a computer application that
allows the user to provide comments, notes, hyperlinks, or other
text or graphical modifications to an existing drawing, plan, document,
graphic, or other form of electronic media. As visual renderings
become more computer-based, a software application that allows for
easy mark-up of visual concepts or text is desirable as a public
involvement technique. Such a software tool would enable the public
to directly comment on plans and ideas without detailed knowledge
of the underlying visualization or text generation software. With
advances in telecommunications, the mark-up software can be done
remotely and through individual feedback or through structured group
Why is it useful?
The plan or text mark-up software would allow for multiple reviewers
to comment in an efficient and effective manner, usually from
a remote location, on current plans, concepts, visuals, and ideas.
Because the technique is computer based, it is available just about
anytime from anywhere. Therefore, it provides an opportunity for
a large number of individuals with access to the software and source
documents or images to provide feedback and comment.
Does it have special uses?
It provides a means for a large segment of the population comment
on current plans or ideas. It is a technique that may complement
more traditional methods of convening a public meeting or discussion
forum, helping to attract public participants who may not be able
to participate due to distance or time constraints.
Who participates? And how?
Comments could be accepted from anyone who has access to the
plan or text mark-up software. The software could be made available
through on-line services or the Internet at little or no cost and
could be developed and configured to operate on a variety of computer
To participate, a commenter would have to have access to the
source document or images and have access to appropriate mark-up
software that can operate with the source documents or images. Once
this compatibility and connectivity is established, the commenter
would provide one or several rounds of comments on the source materials.
These comments would be reviewed and considered by the agency that
would periodically receive the comments electronically. The agency
would need to implement a plan for document version control and
How do agencies use the output?
Agencies would be able to collect public comments electronically
on plans or other source documents associated with a project or
plan. Because commenters provide their reactions in electronic
form, an automatic record of participation is generated and provides
an audit trail of public comments for future reference, as needed.
Moreover, several cycles of comments can be gathered with successive
cycles containing an updated version of the document or plan. This
technique provides a direct means of gather public comment from
those who wish to and are able to respond.
What are the costs?
There is an initial setup cost for establishing the protocols
and procedures for the management of the electronic documents.
The mark-up software would also have to be purchased and made available
to users, usually through an Internet connection. The costs for
the software may range from several hundred to several thousand
dollars, depending on the formats and software used to generate
the reference documents or plans. In some cases the text mark-up
software is already available as part of a computer operating system.
For example, Windows 2000 provides NetMeeting software which allows
for text or plan mark-up in a group setting. After the initial setup
expenses, the primary operating costs become the staff time required
to manage the comments and updates to the electronic documents which
have been made available for review and comment.
How is it used with other techniques?
Plan or text-markup software is not helpful when starting to
develop a document or image, but instead can better assist the
agency when soliciting comments and feedback on more mature concepts
and ideas contained in the document or images. Consequently, the
plan or mark-up software can be used after face-to-face meetings
or activities in which initial concepts and trust have been developed.
The software then provides an efficient means of maintaining public
contact and gathering comments and feedback as the project advances.
While this is an efficient means of collecting feedback, it should
be consider as one of several techniques to be used, since face-to-face
meetings are still invaluable for unambiguous communications and
maintaining community interest and trust.
What are the drawbacks?
In addition the potential high costs of the software, there
may be a "learning curve" for the commenter based
on his experience with the software and the document or images on
which comments are offered. If this learning curve is too steep
or the software is not "user friendly" the commenter may
get frustrated and not provide feedback due to technical difficulties.
Moreover, the comments are received primarily from those who are
able to work with the software and may not be a representative sampling
of the general public. Therefore, interpretation of the comments
will need to be done carefully.
When is it used most effectively?
Plan or text mark-up software is effective when used in conjunction
with other feedback techniques. Plan or text mark-up software
can also be used with small groups, such as advisory or technical
panels, and with stakeholders. (See Small
Group Techniques; Civic
Advisory Committees; Collaborative
Task Forces.) It should be used selectively since it is highly
dependent on the software skills and capabilities of the commenter.
Therefore it should not be the primary means of gathering feedback,
but as a complementary approach to reach special audiences who may
not be able to comment through conventional means.
For further information:
The evolution of plan or text markup software is episodic.
Text software has existed for approximately 25 years on personal
computers and has incorporated increasingly sophisticated means
of editing and "redlining" text. Recent efforts have been
devoted to plan mark-up languages, but the multitude of graphic
(plan) formats, the increased technical complexity of graphics software,
and the computer processing needs have not allowed plan mark-up
software to advance to the same state as text mark-up software.
Using most modern day text software, an authorized user is able
to redline or mark-up electronically the text during reviews or
edits. The changed text usually appears in a different color
or format. Upon saving, other reviewers may also mark-up the text,
including edits from previous reviewers. All changes are usually
tracked by different colors and/or formats and include author and
time/date stamps. After a review cycle of the text is complete,
the original author can see and review the marked-up text and accept,
modify, or reject the proposed changes. These text mark-up features
are usually included in the basic text software.
Recently, plan mark-up software is emerging in one of two forms.
The first form is similar to text mark-up software. An authorized
user is able to modify the plan through special editing tools, which
are displayed on the plan as different colors and/or formats. As
with text mark-up, several reviewers are able to provide graphical
comments on the same original plan. Upon review, the original planner
or designer is able to selective accept, modify, or reject the proposed
changes. The second form is more interactive and allows several
planners or designer to collaborate with one another over the Internet.
In this configuration, plans are stored in a central computer (known
as a server) and reviewers with authorized access are able to view
and edit the plans using specialized software. Software achieving
both of these features has been announced, but no commercial available
and certified products have been identified to date.
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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle
at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls
at FTA (202-366-5362).