Originally published in Landscape Urbanism Journal 02: Buzz or Noise?
By Brian Phelps
The explosive growth of GPS enabled smartphones and the use of social networks like Twitter are transforming the relationship between urban designers and planners of the built environment with those who inhabit them. The amount of data generated daily is mind-boggling. Twitter alone generates nearly 200 million posts per day. Of these posts, forty-five percent are generated from mobile devices. The ability of users to post from nearly anywhere in real-time are providing unprecedented opportunities for urban designers and planners to engage with users and learn from them. Examples include conducting post-occupancy evaluations, monitoring projects, and collecting data during project development. There are two primary ways to mine this data: passive social monitoring and active social engagement.
Passive social monitoring (PSM) uses online tools to capture and analyze data generated from networks over a specified time period. The data generated may comprise of text, photos, videos, audio clips, and/or associated GPS coordinates. Together, this information can indicate the general feelings of users, use patterns, specific activities, user preferences, and other characteristics of the space. This approach is indirect, and requires sophisticated analysis and patience.
Screenshot from Bing.com map with geolocated tweets (credit: ©2011 Microsoft).
Active social engagement (ASE) collects feedback from users through direct communication or external messaging. This can be done through offline traditional marketing efforts (via newspaper, television, public meeting announcements), embedding permanent or temporary information within the space (stencils, wraps on benches, informational signage), or directly contacting users within an area through social media. ASE provides more immediate and specific results than PSM methods.
The potential of social media is evident in current world news for its organizing power; besides those of us in the profession, how many people are aware that choices determine urban design issues?
Purpose of #LandArchSD
During the recent 2011 American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) National Meeting and Expo held October 29th – November 2nd in San Diego, Jason Castillo, Boyd Coleman, and myself conducted an experiment in active social engagement as a demonstration for our education session “Social Media Strategies for Landscape Architects.” Our session explained the pros and cons of different social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn, and how these platforms can be used to share information about a firm, specific project, initiative, or community effort while also gathering the participation of more users than can fit—and be heard, with ideas recorded—in a meeting hall. The experiment used the hashtag #LandArchSD to organize the responses received during the conference.
The purpose of #LandArchSD was to create an interactive example of social media to engage users about the city’s public spaces by harnessing the talent and expertise of more than 6,000 landscape architecture professionals who attended the conference this year. The event provided an opportunity for landscape architects to collectively share their observations and discoveries about San Diego’s major public spaces and urban environment with each other. At the same time, we also hoped to create a unique collection of information to raise awareness about how our profession enriches public spaces and the public’s use of those spaces.
The potential of social media is evident in current world news for its organizing power; besides those of us in the profession, however, how many people are aware that choices determine urban design issues—like whether there are street trees? How many know that particular fountain filters rainwater through an adjacent landscape system? Or that we might safely swim in our rivers if we mitigated the amount of stormwater run-off from our cities through design? Or, more directly, this a cool opportunity to ride a giant balloon for free, and you can find it here, at Orange County Great Park. We design places so that we can engage with environments and each other; social media provides an opportunity to share our expertise, enthusiasms, concerns, criticisms, and visions for these spaces.
Promotion of #LandArchSD
Promotion of #LandArchSD began in earnest ten days prior to the ASLA Meeting and Expo with a post in The Dirt, ASLA’s news blog explaining the event and soliciting participation. Similar posts also appeared the following week on this site’s blog and on the Land8Lounge forum. In addition, we set up a Facebook fan page as a central location for information about the event and to provide another outlet for posting content—particularly for those without smart phones who might upload comments or images from their computers. We sent out daily reminders via Twitter prior and during the event using the #LandArchSD and #ASLA2011 hashtags.
In an effort to help focus the discussion and to provide inspiration for responses, we developed two tools. The first was the “cootie catcher,” a child’s toy fortune-teller. Familiar to people and easily disseminated online as a jpeg, users could print it out and fold one for themselves. The “cootie catcher” asked eight questions within four categories: Designer’s Eye, Social Life, Sustainable Sites, and Horticulture. The second tool was a simple website that randomly generated questions for participants to answer about sites and places they encountered in San Diego.
#LandArchSD Results and Analysis
During the event, a total of 162 tweets were posted using the hashtag #LandArchSD (click here to see the results). Of these, the majority were posted by twenty-five Twitter users. Four users made up nearly half of all of the posts. Accounting for promotional posts about the event, reposted content, and ASLA specific use of the #LandArchSD hashtag, of the 162 posts, fifty-two included unique information related to the initial intent of the project. Twitter and the smartphone photo app Instagram were the primary tools used to generate content.
The number of potential users was limited to those who were already using social media and understood how to use hashtags.
At a basic level, the event did not generate as much information and participation as anticipated—especially considering the potential of engaging the meeting’s 6,000 attendees! However, #LandArchSD equaled approximately thirty percent of the total 500 Twitter posts that used the hashtag #ASLA2011. More striking was the fact that seventy-two percent of the top twenty-five users of the hashtag #ASLA2011 were also the top twenty-five users of the #LandArchSD hashtag. Notably, much of the content posted during the event included both hashtags.
Top 25 users of the #LandArchSD hashtag, October 29-November 6 (credit: http://archivist.visitmix.com).
This indicates that, due to the limited amount of offline promotion, the number of potential users was limited to those who were already using social media and understood how to use hashtags. Furthermore, the potential pool of users was limited to those that were using smartphones capable of running social networking applications and were specifically using Twitter and Instagram, the two social network platforms best suited for posting at specific locations.
Other factors that may have contributed to the low participation rates include the amount of available time to participate in the field outside of the conference, distances between public spaces, quantity of public spaces, limited offline marketing efforts, and the psyche of the participants. The motivation of the potential pool of users has a significant effect on participation rates. First and foremost, people have to care about the outcome, while others can be held back by fear of criticism, lack of knowledge, or other concerns.
Improving Chances of Success
The potential of social media is like a treasure chest full of riches without a key. Unlocking the potential is not easy. It takes practice, hard work, and patience to pick the lock. In an effort to get closer to unlocking its full potential, we have to step back and honestly assess the outcomes of each social media event. To increase participation in future #LandArchX events, we can implement the following actions:
Organize Groups. Organizing groups can help provide a support network for those uncomfortable participating alone while also providing healthy peer pressure.
Utilize Core Group. Forming a core group of participants that agree to post throughout the event can ensure that there were will be enough activity to provide good examples and increase the momentum for others to get involved.
Recruit Opinion Leaders. Enlist opinion leaders within the core group of participants. Additionally, these leaders can help spread the word about the social media event.
Increase Pool of Users. Over time, this may work itself out as more users adopt smartphones and participate in social networks.
Example of external cue: Landscapeforms’ Tweetseat (credit: ©2011 Landscapeforms).
Use External Cues. External cues can be a helpful reminder to post throughout the event. Examples of such visual cues are signage, stencils on the pavement, or wraps on benches.
Earlier Promoting, Provide More Offline Marketing and Instruction. Promoting the event earlier using offline marketing outlets could help get more people introduced to the event and potentially motivated to engage. In addition, providing detailed instructions may enable more users to participate and calm fears.
Reduce complexity. In an effort to reduce confusion about the event, we could decrease the number of questions asked about the built environment. The drawback to this approach is that the richness of the posts might diminish.
While the results of the first #LandArchX event may not have gone exactly as we had hoped, we had fun, enjoyed the experience, and met new people. The lessons we learned can be applied in Phoenix at next year’s 2012 ASLA Meeting and Expo. Getting marketing efforts started earlier, with broader distribution, could garner greater enthusiasm from potential users. By doing so, we can improve our chances of unlocking the potential of social media and raise awareness about the power of public spaces. Through this engagement, we can enhance our knowledge about how the places we design are used and design these public spaces more effectively.
Summary of survey conducted in September 2011 before the annual ASLA meeting which analyzes how landscape architects are using social media in their practice. Infographic by Brian Phelps can also be seen here.
News junkie, amateur economist, twitterholic, and lover of cities: As a senior associate at Hawkins Partners, Inc., a landscape architecture and urban design office in Nashville, Tennessee, Brian Phelps explores viable market-based solutions for repairing our cities and improving our urban experiences. In addition, he is co-founder of sitephocus.com, where he blends his interest in photography, technology, and urban design to create an extensive on-line image library of projects from around the world.
Image Credits: All images by Brian Phelps unless otherwise noted.