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An inside look at MIG's versatile digital community engagement toolkit

May 29, 2024
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MIG is a US-based consulting firm with around 280 employees, offices across North America, and a portfolio spanning the full breadth of planning sectors – some projects as detailed as trail design, some as broad as regional planning. What's the common thread? The approach: Place-based, design-based, and rooted in community engagement and participatory processes. 

Questions about "where" come up constantly when they engage the public, and nothing clarifies and communicates "where" better than a map. For over 11 years, Ryan Mottau, Director of Digital Engagement at MIG, has been turning to map-based digital community engagement again and again to facilitate place-based dialogues with all kinds of communities in all kinds of projects.

Photo of Ryan Mottau, Director of Digital Engagement at MIG
Ryan Mottau, Director of Digital Engagement at MIG

MIG is one of Maptionnaire's earliest adopters and we've happily stayed in touch with Ryan since those early days. In our recent chat, he reminisces on how MIG has developed its community engagement methods and gives a sneak peek into MIG's current engagement toolkit. He explains how and why he employs digital map-based engagement in all kinds of planning projects and leaves us with stirring speculations on the future of community engagement. 

How engagement methods evolved

Although now he is MIG's Director of Digital Engagement, Ryan started his community engagement career in 2006 practicing traditional engagement methods. "It was a lot of paper… The online tools were not readily available," he reflects. Randomly distributed surveys and facilitated meetings were high-quality and delivered by a skilled team, but all that effort and skill was channeled toward a small slice of the public.

Some of MIG's earliest digital engagement tools – online forms, mostly – were a step in the right direction but stiflingly simple. The more flexible platforms that emerged were prohibitively complicated or expensive. When a colleague at the time learned about a new community engagement platform with map-based questionnaires, or maptionnaires, Ryan and the team were eager to try. 

The first opportunity presented itself in a 2013 parks and recreation project in Oregon. Instead of relying solely on resource-heavy live observations and intercept interviews across dozens of massive state parks, they took a bold leap to digitize and set up their first maptionnaire. Well, bold-ish. Their client's eagerness to pioneer a digital platform shrank a bit with personnel changes, but in retrospect, a baby leap was more than enough for a pilot test. MIG successfully delivered for their client and learned a brand-new participation method.

And it wasn't long before they got to properly, boldly flex their new community engagement platform. Soon after the Oregon project, they won a bid to set up the City of Denver's comprehensive digital public engagement program. Finally: bold and creative digital engagement, blending classic online forms with mapping questions and even a digital land-use planning board game. 

Community engagement should be fun, creative, and interactive, whether in-person or online. (Photo: MIG)

Inside the community engagement suite

Certain commonalities underpin MIG's engagement projects, like the need for accessibility, ease of use, language options, and ways to collect and share information. But the projects are all so different, that each needs its own selection of participatory planning methods. This is where Ryan's experience comes into play, compiling a community engagement suite of the best and most flexible tools he can find, which can then be employed across MIG's varied projects. Here's a glimpse of what MIG has today:

  1. In-person engagement tools: paper, pens, stickers, shapes, objects, and game boards, plus methods like interception interviews, workshops, and so much more.
  2. Virtual meeting platforms: digital white-boards and real-time polling platforms for facilitation, plus familiarity with all major video calling platforms 
  3. Questionnaire platforms: a couple of text-based platforms and one map-based engagement platform 
  4. AI data collection tools based on big data and cell phone data – mostly for transportation modeling
  5. GIS for building, analyzing, and sharing maps
  6. Other analysis tools: a few statistical analysis tools, a socially aware AI qualitative analysis tool, and good old-fashioned spreadsheets

When does a project need a map-based questionnaire?

With several community engagement methods to choose from, Ryan explains how he considers carefully before making the final picks for each project. First of all, he doesn't rely solely on in-person engagement – a digital engagement strategy is essential. Secondly, when putting together the overall engagement strategy, he no longer starts with "What do we need to ask?" Instead, he starts with "What do we need to learn? And what do we need to share?" Reflecting on these fundamental questions helps the team clarify the content and the format. Finally, whenever they need to learn or share information about "where," he turns to digital map-based questionnaires.

If the answers to the questions that you need to ask revolve around where this is happening, then this is the best platform… it's always given us the best information that we've been able to get.
Ryan Mottau, Director of Digital Engagement at MIG

And the types of projects where MIG uses Maptionnaire? Well, just about any:

  1. Parks and recreation planning
  2. Transit planning, such as street corridors, street design, and pedestrian crossings
  3. General and comprehensive plans, citywide visions, and land use plans
  4. Campus planning
  5. Historic landscape surveys
  6. Environmental planning, like urban forestry and green infrastructure planning
  7. Inclusion-driven projects, such as youth surveys and accessibility surveys

How are map-based questionnaires used in planning projects?

Online map-based surveys are used to reach more community members than ever before. Ryan reflects that a couple hundred participants used to be exceptional turnout, but using map-based surveys has raised that bar to a thousand or more. Because the marginal cost of an additional participant is essentially zero, planners can emphasize getting the word out, getting people to participate, and getting those responses. 

Ryan usually runs a map-based survey in two stages: First, a map-based survey brings in a wave of creative, divergent ideas that planners synthesize. Then, planners reflect those synthesized ideas back to the community for feedback, clarification, and prioritization. This closely echoes a best practice we've discussed before: engaging and communicating in multiple phases to open up two-way dialogue and break those old one-way communication habits.

Throughout the process, digital map-based surveys work in tandem with in-person methods via "parallel" community engagement – offering all the same questions and interaction opportunities both live and digitally. Considering how extensive MIG's in-person toolkit is, they need the best and most flexible digital platforms to ensure that digital participation offers the same depth and quality.

I never pushed any other platform as far as I've pushed Maptionnaire… Basically anything we can do in person, we can do online now.
Ryan Mottau, Director of Digital Engagement at MIG

What's the future of community engagement?

Ryan expects place-based questions will remain a steadily growing aspect of their engagement work and map-based surveys will continue to be the best fit for the job. A tempting trend on the horizon is the "all-included" community engagement platform, but he's skeptical. "No technology solution is going to solve all of your community engagement woes." Planners can't outsource everything – they still need to understand the process and critically think about the questions going in and the answers coming out.

He is similarly cautious towards AI in community engagement, especially the trust and transparency aspects. Transparent AI analysis tools can be a planner's friend, but some AI-based platforms will track and collect questionably-legal data, analyze it in an untraceable black box, and the worst offenders will claim that this process can replace community engagement altogether. Though Ryan pauses a moment to wonder if he's just fixed in his ways, he quickly finds his resolve in putting people and transparency first: "My job as a client of public agencies – and ultimately a client of the public – is to build trust in these processes and help build community."

Key takeaways

  1. Always include digital engagement options to maximize participation and accessibility
  2. A map-based engagement platform is essential when asking communities "where" questions 
  3. Can't subscribe to every digital platform? Prioritize the platforms that can plug into any project and re-create any kind of in-person engagement.
  4. No technological shortcut is worth sacrificing public trust. Choose platforms that are transparent and build public trust.

Ready to see Maptionnaire in action? Come play around in the platform!

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