CITYWIDE — Santa Monica city departments and organizations are trying a new method of outreach to residents in the form of an online “town hall” meant to collect ideas and start conversations about projects in the city.
People both in and out of Santa Monica can log onto santamonicatownhall.org and give their opinions or list ideas on either the future of the Santa Monica Pier or the Pedestrian Action Plan, an effort of the Planning Department to create a road map of walking amenities for the city.
The site is the creation of MindMixer, a web application company created by one-time public policy consultants who wanted to find a better way for residents of municipalities to share their views and ideas on almost any topic.
MindMixer has 325 clients, mostly cities, around the country. It helped Burbank create a comprehensive plan and solicited thousands of comments and hundreds of ideas from Angelenos on L.A.’s plans for mobility and identifying the city’s historic sites.
The idea is to democratize the planning process by giving people a way to share their views and debate ideas outside of traditional town hall meetings, said Nathan Preheim, co-founder of MindMixer.
“We are all former city consultants and we used to facilitate town hall meetings across the country. They were very sparsely populated,” Preheim said. “We thought that there has to be a better way to get people talking about community issues.”
Two years ago, he and co-founder Nick Bowden launched MindMixer to fill that gap.
The company works with municipalities like Santa Monica to create sites to solicit ideas and commentary from stakeholders, at the same time giving the city quantitative and qualitative tools to figure out how popular ideas are and who in the community is participating.
City Hall stumbled upon the tool when the Santa Monica Pier Corporation selected IBI Group, an urban and transportation planning and design consultant, to work on its visioning process for the future of the pier.
IBI Group introduced the corporation’s leadership to MindMixer as a way of increasing community engagement and involvement in the process, said Rod Merl, manager of the pier.
The MindMixer page is one of many tools that the group is using to get its message out to residents, including visiting community groups and public meetings. It reaches people that could fall through those cracks, Merl said.
“We were trying to find all the ways to reach out to people,” Merl said.
The pier’s page launched in October. At first, it was primarily text-based, but has since expanded to include photos and interactive surveys to grab people’s attention, said Kori Jones, Merl’s assistant.
“I think that’s been working well. We’re working to get the word out a bit more, to let people know what it’s used for and how to access it,” she said.
In January, the Planning Department began soliciting comments for its Pedestrian Action Plan.
Officials had been aware of MindMixer for a while, and were happy that Alta Planning & Design, the consultant chosen to work on the Pedestrian Action Plan, had included MindMixer in its application for the project, said Francie Stefan, the strategic and transportation planning manager with City Hall.
“We needed their technical analysis, but we also need to engage the community in a meaningful way,” Stefan said.
The MindMixer site fit the bill.
Officials post questions under different topics on the site, and encourage people to participate by awarding them points for ideas, comments and other interactions that can be redeemed in an online rewards store.
Prizes include a ride-along with the Santa Monica Police Department, or spot on CityTV.
They also post content from meetings past so that residents can stay up to date with the project, whether or not they have the time or flexibility to attend community meetings.
“We miss the voices of some people in the community,” Stefan said. “This is a website they can go to any time of the day or night, wherever they are in the world to touch in and be a part of the dialogue.”
It’s already yielded results.
Although planners knew that lighting would be a consideration, they didn’t know how big of a deal it would be to people. The website really brought that out, Stefan said.
It’s also helping the team focus its outreach. Right now, respondents tend to be males and people between 35 and 45 years old, which officials can determine because signing up involves either connecting the site to an existing social media account or creating a unique log-in by giving your first and last name, e-mail address, zip code and year of birth.
Knowing that will help focus outreach toward Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District students and Santa Monica College students, Stefan said.
She also expects that new tools will come online in the future, like an option to map people’s favorite walking routes.
Although people can only use the site to comment on the pier and Pedestrian Action Plan right now, the site may grow, said Kate Vernez, assistant city manager of special projects.
“Overall, use of the tool will give us insight into other applications,” she said.