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Sidewalk Labs launches app to evaluate how people use public space

The open source app, CommonSpace, is designed to give park operators or communities a new tool to help discover what makes a public space great.

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The data collected can be exported into visualisation and analysis tools
The data collected can be exported into visualisation and analysis tools

Sidewalk Labs has announced a prototype of a digital application that aims to make it easier for public space managers and community members to collect reliable, privacy-sensitive data on how people use public spaces.

 

Called CommonSpace, the app was developed in partnership with the non-profit Gehl Institute and a Canadian national charity, Park People.

 

Public space programme

 

Writing on a blog on Medium.com, Ananta Pandey, senior software engineer, Sidewalk Labs, explains that the app was field tested as part of Park People’s public space incubator programme, an initiative that awards grants to experimental programming pilots in Toronto’s public spaces.

 

With CommonSpace, park operators or community organisers can enter information they observe about public life — such as what areas people tend to eat in, play in, or avoid—into a user-friendly app.

 

The app records data in accordance with the Public Life Data Protocol, an open data standard (published by the Gehl Institute and founding municipal and private partners) that makes it possible to compare data from public spaces.

 

The data collected with CommonSpace can be exported into visualisation and analysis tools that communities and space managers alike can use to see patterns, generate insights, and develop evidence-based approaches to advocating for change.

Sidewalk said it is committed to open standards and believes open-source tools are better for cities, because prevent lock-in around single vendors

Sidewalk Labs has also embedded ‘privacy by design’ principles throughout CommonSpace; no personal information is recorded about the people who are observed in studies.

 

In fall 2018, Sidewalk Labs worked with Park People and the Toronto-based Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee to conduct a field test of CommonSpace in Burgess Park.

 

The Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee was funded by Park People’s Public Space Incubator to further develop the community cafe and market the committee had started in the park.

 

The test concentrated on using CommonSpace to measure how increased programming and better cafe seating changed how people used the space. Local youth and other residents collected data on how many people came to the park and how the new chairs and programming affected what they did there.

 

The team found that the park saw a massive, 365 per cent spike in visitors on programming days, and that the activity was far more social, with large increases in people coming in groups, meeting new people, and staying into the evening.

 

Lesson learned

 

In the blog, Sidewalk Labs said it learned some important lessons from prototyping CommonSpace with its partners. First, it learned that user-centric technology could improve public studies by simplifying data collection and reducing friction for surveyors in a privacy-preserving way.

 

Second, in-person approaches can be preferable because they lead to stronger studies: when community members participate, they not only add important local context but subsequently tend to become more active participants in the planning process. This is seen as an outcome important to the long-term success of any public space.

 

CommonSpace is publicly available for free on North American app stores as a beta test, with open source code available.

Privacy by design principles are embedded throughout CommonSpace; no personal information is recorded about the people who are observed in studies

The first goal of the beta test is to generate feedback and users are requested to leave their comments publicly on Sidewalk Labs’ Github page.

 

The second goal of the beta test is to open CommonSpace to third-party development, so that new developers can adapt CommonSpace to work better for their communities.

 

Sidewalk said it is committed to open standards and believes open-source tools are better for cities, because prevent lock-in around single vendors, they are more flexible, and they can be improved by anyone.

 

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