Research into Practice

6 best practices for organizing digital community engagement

December 1, 2023
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Finland is a forerunner of citizen-centric governance and digitalization, ranking first on the EU’s Digital Economy and Society Index. One of the country’s successful approaches to governance is digitalized citizen engagement which enables city administration and residents to collaborate and jointly define the future of the built environment and their lives in general. Can continuous engagement contribute to Finns famously being among the happiest nations? This can also be the case. 

But how is participatory and local democracy realized in practice? Let’s look at one of the services enabling these processes. Maptionnaire is a digital citizen engagement platform that is used in over a hundred private and public sector organizations in Finland. By analyzing how these entities have applied Maptionnaire for the last few years, our team dives into the best practices and learnings for organizing impactful participation in the planning process. While in part rooted in the idea of a humble government and a high level of digitization, this model of running citizen engagement can be employed by other national planning systems.

How this study was conducted 

Maptionnaire is proprietary software that enables administrators and planners to run participatory processes. This solution was developed in Finland: first, as a prototype within Aalto University’s research group; then the platform was commercialized in 2011. Currently, Maptionnaire is used in more than 40 countries in thousands of participatory processes. While its original purpose has mainly been to accelerate inclusive engagement within the field of urban planning, Maptionnaire has recently entered other spheres, like neighborhood development, transportation planning, climate action, and research projects.

The study is based on the data about the usage of Maptionnaire in Finland. Our team has access only to the anonymized data about the usage of the service by Maptionnaire’s customers but not to actions made by citizens who engaged in these participatory processes. The study covers the data for three years, from April 2020 to April 2023. 

What’s more, the Maptionnaire team has expertise in geography, urban planning, and citizen engagement. The founders of the company, Maarit Kahila and Anna Broberg, both hold PhD degrees in urban planning from Aalto University. Therefore, this study is complemented by their theoretical and hands-on experience, as well as Maarit Kahila’s dissertation on “Reshaping the planning process using local experiences: Utilising PPGIS in participatory urban planning.” 

Starting Public Participation in Planning Early

Finnish cities (whether as a public entity or as a private consultancy commissioned by a city) include citizen engagement in planning processes of various scales — in strategic planning, land-use planning, neighborhood development, and so on. Obviously, the types of projects vary immensely — from park redevelopment to new transportation systems to city master plans and strategic visions. But these processes still have one thing in common. 

Finland starts participation early in the planning process. And not because it is required by law but because they value its benefit for the planning process. Actually, only the final stage of accepting a proposal requires a mandatory public hearing process. So legally, Finland is similar to other planning systems where participation kicks off quite late in the process when residents and local stakeholders have little to no chance to alter the course of events.

Finnish planners have discovered the benefits of early public participation because of Maptionnaire. The platform is based on PPGIS (Public Participation GIS) technology, which converts all the engagement data obtained with Maptionnaire into a GIS-backed format. Standard GIS formats are compatible with other layers used by planners, therefore making this experiential engagement data equal to other data sources, such as population density, mobility flows, and land-use regulations. Citizen engagement data ends up being useful and accessible and planners don’t need to spend hours digitizing residents’ opinions — the data is available at their fingertips, already linked to specific locations in the city.

Therefore, now the majority of planning processes use Maptionnaire at the early stages of planning to collect local experiential data (how do residents experience specific aspects of the city) and ideas (what would they want to see in the future). Then, this data is used for preparing a draft, which is often discussed with residents and stakeholders.

Lowering the Participation Threshold

Another common feature is that hard authentication is not forced upon participants. In Finland, authentication is legally required in official public hearings and some participatory budgeting processes. However, at other stages of the planning, residents don’t need to authenticate themselves or give away their email addresses if they don’t want to. 

In Maptionnaire’s practice, it has never led to an avalanche of bots and biased answers. On the contrary, the absence of authentication lowered the participation threshold, making it easier for people to share their opinions. Also, participants have fewer concerns regarding privacy and use of their personal information (in this case, digital tools offer more security and data protection than in-person participation). Subsequently, participation becomes more diverse and open.

Another good practice that we spotted among the Finnish projects: each engagement survey or participation project is open on average for a month. This time is enough to distribute the survey through various channels and remind residents about it. Then, participants can answer the survey whenever they have time and mood for it. If engagement is limited to a three-hour meeting or a survey that is open for a day or two, there is not enough time for the news to spread and respondents to engage at their own pace.

Following Good Survey Design Practices 

There is no one single recipe for designing a good survey and an impactful participatory practice. It is always a context-driven and iterative process because, quite often, the goal is to engage as many and as diverse people as possible. And what works for some, might not work for others. 

Still, there are several features among all the engagement surveys used in Finland — it’s their conciseness. On average, each Maptionnaire survey contains five pages. Each page can have one or several questions on it, but some pages can be purely informative. For example, the first page often informs participants about the project, its scope, and the impact of participation, as well as introduces the privacy policy.

In any case, an average engagement survey from Finland is not too long and is possible to complete in 5–10 minutes. It means that each survey is focused on a specific problem, making it compact and straightforward. Also, 55% of the surveys used background images that made participation more visual and compelling. 

Embracing GIS and Map-based Features in Participation

69% of all participation projects run by Finnish municipalities included map-based engagement questions. This makes Finland into an early adopter of PPGIS and spatial engagement in urban planning. While GIS capabilities are definitely helpful for planners, they are also beneficial for respondents. 

Spatial surveys enable participants to better connect ideas with specific locations on a map, as well as to focus on the answer instead of trying to describe in words which area or intersection they have in mind. 

Maptionnaire offers several ways in which you can bring spatiality to engagement activities: 

  • Drawing points, lines, and areas on a map as a response to a question (what’s your daily commute? What’s your favorite spot on that commute?)
  • Geobudgeting for distributing a set budget between several options and placing them on a map
  • Map as a background to give more spatial context to a question 
  • Overlay on a map for adding an extra layer (e.g, a project proposal or public transit routes)
  • Map-based discussions for facilitating dialog between respondents around a certain place  
  • Click-maps for adding additional information about an area on a map

Most of these spatial features are available in Maptionnaire’s Collect subscription — check out our subscription model here.

Experiencing City-Wide Engagement 

Citizen engagement should not be limited to individual projects in a city. With Maptionnaire, it is possible to create a city-wide engagement hub that lists all the participation opportunities from various departments. This way, the city appears as a unified actor to its residents, while participation activities become more consistent and transparent. 

Currently, this solution has been utilized in Vantaa, a city of 239 000 inhabitants in the Helsinki Metropolitan Region. In Vantaa, the PPGIS technology is used not only by planners — pioneers of spatial engagement — but also by culture and health, education, and city strategy departments. Their engagement hub can be accessed here: 

In two years since Maptionnaire’s implementation, the city has managed more than 200 participatory projects across 10+ divisions within the departments, engaging over 50 000 residents (which is 400% more engagement compared to previously practiced traditional methods). The results showed that Vantaa gets 20 times more insights from a larger and more representative sample of inhabitants — again, as compared to traditional engagement means — that can be analyzed and reported in a consistent and efficient manner. The reported cost savings are between 30%–90% per participant depending on the participatory tool against which Maptionnaire is measured. 

The project has been full of learning experiences for both the Maptionnaire and Vantaa teams, and the platform has been further developed to satisfy the needs of city-wide citizen engagement. While this is one successful case of Maptionnaire’s city-wide implementation in Finland, the platform can be employed in other cities and countries in a similar manner with the same anticipated impact.

Introducing Participatory Budgeting 

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a process that enables local residents to distribute a specific budget on the ideas that the locals came up with themselves. PB is a great tool for encouraging local and participatory democracy on a neighborhood or a city-wide level.

Organizing and managing a PB process, however, is a tedious task — if done manually. Maptionnaire has developed a PB management system within its platform to make the process smooth and easy, both for organizers and participants. A dozen Finnish municipalities take advantage of a participatory budgeting management process available in Maptionnaire

PB is traditionally implemented on a city-wide level by the city administration. Uniquely, in Finland, however, planning departments have also discovered participatory budgeting as a tool for achieving consensus and collecting ideas from locals for a specific project. This is a completely new avenue of implementing PB.

Examples of Citizen Engagement in Finland

We’ve recounted multiple success stories of our municipal customers from Finland. Here they are if you want to take a deeper look into any specific case.


  1. Finland’s high level of digitalization in the public sector influences the vast adoption of digital citizen engagement, for which Maptionnaire is often a solution of choice. 
  2. While it is not a legal requirement, Finnish planners involve residents early in the planning process because Maptionnaire showed them how impactful and useful citizen engagement data can be for a planning project. 
  3. Finnish planners are early adopters of PPGIS and spatial engagement, making use of diverse mapping features available in Maptionnaire. 
  4. Most of the surveys are concise and devoted to one single development project. 
  5. Vantaa is the only use-case of city-wide citizen engagement that brings together all the participation opportunities under one digital hub. 
  6. Planners discover the use of participatory budgeting for resolving planning conflicts and involving local communities in the decision-making process.

Interested in organizing impactful participation with a community engagement platform?

Maptionnaire gives you access to quality GIS-data collection, transparent information distribution, and citizen-centric decision-making.
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