Public Involvement Techniques

Foreward  |   Table of Contents
Chapter 1  |   Chapter 2  |   Chapter 3  |   Chapter 4  |   Index of Techniques

4. Using Special Techniques to Enhance Participationskip page navigation

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4.C - Finding New Ways to Communicate
4.C.a - Interactive Television
4.C.b - Teleconferencing
4.C.c - Interactive Video Displays and Kiosks
4.C.d - Visualization Techniques
4.C.e - Mapping Through Geographic Information Systems
4.C.f - 3D Visualization
4.C.g - Visual Preference Surveys
4.C.h - Handheld Instant Voting
4.C.i - Plan or Text Markup Software
4.C.j - Remote Sensing Applications

4. Introduction

4.C.i - Plan or Text Mark-up Software

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 activities.

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 systems, e.g., Javascript.

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 tracking.

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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