Could there be a 'community data commons' to help the public and private sectors collectively make more informed decisions about the built environment based on local opinion?

I was sat in a meeting a while back where I floated a broad approach to involving pedestrians and cyclists in a city centre active travel masterplan. The response from one member of the team was “I'm not sure people need another survey”.

I wasn't actually proposing a 'survey', per se, but they had a point. Not because it was better to avoid engaging with people on an important project, but because I thought they wouldn't respond positively to another consultation. Residents, business proprietors and commuters in this particular area have been consulted many times by the local authority on many different policy documents, master plans and major planning applications and almost always using a survey of broadly similar looking questions:

What are your aspirations for the area?
Which issues matter to you?
Is this thing important to you?
Do you support this thing?

Therefore another consultation of any kind would likely be met with groans, fatigue and cries of “Not another one?!” (in the words of Brenda from Bristol). This is likely to mean that the response rate would be even lower than previously experienced and less representative as a result.

Because people in this area have been consulted many times before, lots of data has undoubtedly been collected on people's aspirations for the local environment. However, this data isn't generally available to private developers looking to make changes in the area, and I suspect even different local authority departments (urban design, development control and transport planning, for example) would have difficulty accessing and interpreting consultation feedback data collected by other departments in previous consultations carried out in the same area. Not least because the consultations are usually 'reactive' and the questions asked are almost always specific to particular policy documents, masterplans or planning applications, so it wouldn't necessarily translate well to other issues.

So what if we took a more proactive approach to understanding public opinion about built environment matters, even before we necessarily had a concrete reason for doing so, and made this data publicly available and legible by everyone, from council departments to developers to third-sector organisations?

What if data on people's aspirations for their local built environment, on topics such as design, energy, transport, housing preferences and public services, was collected by local authorities and aggregated, a bit like census data, and accessed as a public resource by anyone making decisions about or proposing changes to the built environment?

What if developers had access to this information to inform their plans and could feed in (structured and verified) data from their own consultations, perhaps even in lieu of certain planning obligations, as a contribution to the future prosperity and positive growth of a community that they are investing in?

What if this 'community data commons' could be the evidence base against which planning applications are judged, rather than the anecdotal evidence gathered by members of a planning committee by the loudest people at public meetings or ward surgeries?

What if developers could search by street or postcode to find out what a community's balance of opinion was on issues such as building materials, housing types or transport use, without having to carry out their own consultation and repeat previous work?

It seems to me that all of this is possible with modern technology, and the built environment would be better off with more shared and common insight. Not only that, but it would save a hell of a lot of work. Let's make it happen.

Written by Paul Erskine-Fox - Founder, Participatr

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