project stats

duration: 12 weeks
my role: I participated in literature review and primary research. I led conceptual design and prototyping efforts. I project managed the system implementation and contributed front-end and back-end development.
teammates: Steven Dow, Narges Mahyar, Michelle Ng, Reggie Wu
paper: CommunityCrit: Inviting the Public to Improve and Evaluate Urban Design Ideas through Micro-Activities (PDF, ACM)


Develop an online system that engages more people in the urban design process


A generative platform that invites the public to complete brief “microactivities” to shape a local urban design project, such as submitting ideas or reviewing, critiquing, and improving those of their peers

I worked on a small team at the University of California San Diego to create and study a system for engaging the community in urban design projects online by incorporating crowdsourcing techniques. We partnered with a local group of community organizers focused on a major street in the neighborhood of East Village that the city was in the process of redesigning. By injecting community views into the process, the organizers sought to ensure the city’s plans aligned with local needs and maintained momentum. However, because the street continued into another neighborhood, Barrio Logan, it was important to involve their residents in the process yet few to none were engaged. Because the East Village organizers have previously proven successful influencing the city’s planning, if younger voices and the opinions of neighboring residents were excluded, the ultimate designs would not be for them. The project went from definition to launch in twelve weeks. 

Video abstract


We started by observing a workshop and walking tour that explored how the path in question could extend beyond the neighborhood to other destinations. Between responses to a survey we distributed at the event, our observations, and our transcription of the discussion, we built a better understanding of the limitations of the current system. One major problem was the inaccessibility of planning workshops themselves due to burdens such as transportation, lack of childcare, conflicts due to work schedule, and other challenges that made attending a workshop on a Saturday morning difficult. This inaccessibility influenced another problem: the homogeneity of the attendees. The participants were mostly white, older, and members of a local group interested in planning issues. There was a lack of younger voices and a lack of Chicano residents from the adjacent neighborhood Barrio Logan. Finally, another major problem with the workshop was the format of the discussion itself. Many attendees had numerous ideas and opinions that could not be expressed nor documented in the time available.

Our ultimate goal throughout all of our prototyping and design work was to develop a system community organizers could deploy that would allow community members who could not attend an in-person workshop to quickly contribute their perspective to the urban planning process. Our process from here out involved developing an idea, making a prototype, getting feedback, pivoting based on what we learned, and prototyping again. We used paper, Qualtrics surveys, Sketch, Invision, and HTML to prototype different user experiences to refine an experience for development. During this stage, we got feedback from two different community planning committees and attendees at one of their meetings.

With each prototype, we learned more and more about what worked and what did not. We found respondents needed a basic understanding of the project and the high-level design constraints such as the purpose of the project, the location, and the types of ideas sought. If questions were too open-ended they would not get answered, however, phase questions that are too specific may carry little value early in the design. Asking multiple questions about one central idea or topic was more successful than switching from topic to topic. Different people enjoy making different kinds of contributions, such as synthesis, idea generation, responding to someone else’s idea, or rating an idea. Allowing people to skip questions was an effective yet simple method for tailoring the experience to their interests. These insights—drawn from our different prototypes—came together in the design of our final system. At the time, it was hard to see the progress we were making, but once we got to the end, it was clear that with each iteration we grew stronger as a team and gained a better grasp of the design space, making each iteration faster than the one before.

The final system relied upon the insights we gained from creating and evaluating the prototypes and hinged upon a few key qualities that set it apart from its predecessors. Most importantly, the system was generative in how it selected activities for users to complete and how it pulled content other community members had contributed to seek feedback from the current user. This was a departure from our earlier iterations and from existing systems because the tool was no longer a black box nor were the questions canned. Additionally, the final system aimed to involve community members, not only in submitting complaints or suggestions, but in the active improvement and evaluation of their peers’ ideas—tasks often left to professional designers and planners. We were inspired by the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum, aiming to move beyond “informing” and “consulting” the public to “involving” and “collaborating” with them online.

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The final system focused on brief yet meaningful interactions—allowing community members to contribute as little or as much as they wanted. A short description of the project, its importance, and the process was shown first. Users could then submit new ideas for redesigning a specific intersection or improve existing ideas. If they chose the latter, they could pick any submitted idea and complete five questions related to it. We asked users to ponder the idea from a certain perspective, such as quality of life or mobility; to suggest a reference to something similar, such as a monument in another city; to evaluate the idea numerically across certain attributes; or to answer a peer-submitted question. Some activities pulled in additional content, such as asking the user to combine the idea with inspiration someone else had submitted. A user could skip a question or pick another idea to work on at any time. All ideas and their corresponding feedback were immediately available to the public after moderation to remove offensive language.

The system was built using the PHP framework Laravel and ran off a web server and MySQL database. The front-end relied on modified Bootstrap components and was responsive across all devices. We tracked how often users skipped or completed each type of activity and how long they spent.


Through a four-week deployment, CommunityCrit gathered 352 contributions from 39 people and produced new ideas that organizers rated as comparable to those generated during the face-to-face workshops. Feedback from community members and organizers and the significant use of the system during its deployment demonstrated its value and its resonance with the community. Think alouds with users informed our final version of the system and demonstrated that users embraced the experience as an opportunity to contribute, finding it easy to use, convenient, and engaging. When we reviewed the feedback the system collected from the community to organizers, they were amazed by the richness of the ideas and incorporated the input into their proposals.

The project accomplished our goal of creating a novel system that engages community members who have limited time and would not attend a face-to-face meeting, including their perspectives in the planning process. It also accomplished the objectives of the grant funding our work through the publication “CommunityCrit: Inviting the Public to Improve and Evaluate Urban Design Ideas through Micro-Activities” which was accepted into the competitive 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. I am proud of the project’s inventive approach, which solved for problems we did not set out to address, such as allowing for collaboration.

The project is not without its limitations. It would have benefited from greater interactions with end users and low or medium fidelity prototyping of the final solution before development. While the system reaches more individuals by removing scheduling, geographical, and transportation constraints, barriers are still present in that the system requires access to a smartphone or computer. We view the system as a tool for expanding engagement, not a comprehensive approach for reaching all relevant individuals. Therefore, other methods, such as workshops and canvassing are still necessary to cast the widest net. Additional work is necessary to evaluate how this approach, which was effective for the early stages of an urban design project focused on a single intersection, fares in other contexts and scales. For the system to function outside of the research context it would need better recruiting strategies, tools for making sense of large volumes of text responses, and a more streamlined administration interface so community organizers or governmental officials could manage the process themselves.