|“It’s just like using a pen and paper to engage the full power of GIS.”|
Steven Mikulencak, Texas Coastal Watershed Program
The Houston-Galveston region of coastal Texas could grow by well over 3 million people in the next 25 years. Coastal resource managers in the state are harnessing new technology to enable residents and local officials to easily see the impacts of different development and climate scenarios.
“Simply, this is putting tools of sustainability into the hands of citizens,” says John Jacob, professor and extension specialist with Texas Sea Grant and Texas AgriLife Extension Service, and director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program. “These tools help facilitate participatory democracy and enable nonexpert citizens to engage complex data sets in new and meaningful ways.”
One of the tools developed by the Texas Coastal Watershed Program is the Coastal CHARM (Community Health and Resource Management) model, which is built on CommunityViz, a modeling software plugin for ArcGIS software. The model allows users to quickly test a variety of possible futures.
The second tool is the “weTable,” which uses Wii gaming technology to transform an ordinary tabletop into an interactive computer interface. This affordable participation tool allows teams to collaboratively explore and use computer-based data and programs, such as CHARM, in a workshop setting.
The Texas Coastal Watershed Program piloted the weTable and Coastal CHARM tools at a workshop funded by the Sea Grant Coastal Community Climate Adaptation Initiative.
“These tools have the ability to shift public meetings and workshops from contested narratives about the science of coastal change to a self-evaluation of how prepared communities are,” says Steven Mikulencak, program coordinator for the Texas Coastal Watershed Program.
Pulling Back the Curtain
While most planners have access to GIS and robust data that are used to model future development scenarios, it’s often challenging to present that information in meaningful ways during public meetings, Mikulencak says.
“It’s usually only the expert planners that look at the intersection of multiple parameters and can see what the implications are for a development in terms of flooding and storm surge, for example,” he says.
The weTable and CHARM tools “really open up a community conversation,” Jacob says. “It’s pulling back the curtain on planning and allowing people to see all the ramifications. It takes away the implied message to ‘trust us, it’s too complex for you.’”
While coastal resource managers and planners have been working with GIS a long time, new tools in CommunityViz are making it easier to “play with scenarios,” Jacob says. “You can really look at what happens when you put a type of development in a certain location and what that will do to runoff or water consumption or storm surge damage, etc. You can play with the assumptions and factors and make changes on the fly.”
He adds, “We were aware of the CommunityViz software potential and wanted to do something with the projected population growth scenario related to climate change.”
The new Coastal CHARM model is built to display a wide spectrum of coastal natural resource and demographic data in a user-friendly framework.
Using previously developed data sets associated with the Texas Coastal Community Planning Atlas, the CommunityViz interface instantly calculates impacts of various development and climate-change scenarios on community resilience and natural resources.
“People could stand around a computer and look at a screen and try to do that, but the weTable makes that process interactive,” Mikulencak says.
The weTable configuration works by projecting a computer screen onto a table surface. Participants interact with the computer data on the table using a “light pen,” much like using a computer mouse, Mikulencak says.
The pen tip’s location on the table is detected by a Nintendo Wii remote that then sends a signal to a connecting laptop using a Bluetooth connection. This allows the participants at the table to control the computer, open files, move windows, and run programs. Participants can hand over control of the tabletop interface to other participants as easily as handing over a marker.
“What makes this different,” Mikulencak says, “is it basically makes the technology so transparent people don’t even know it’s there. Citizens don’t have to be technophiles or have a lot of knowledge. It’s just like using a pen and paper to engage the full power of GIS.”
To pilot the weTable-CHARM model, a daylong resilience workshop was held.
“We spent a full day prepping the workshop and testing all the equipment to make sure the setup was just right,” Mikulencak says.
The result was five tables of five to seven people each, plus facilitators, that were easily able to engage with the data to try out different planning scenarios.
In addition to each group being able to create a scenario, the CHARM model also enabled the comparison of all five scenarios, along with prepared scenarios showing “business as usual” and compact urban development. “That really enriches the conversation,” Mikulencak says.
Off the Shelf
To set up a weTable, coastal managers use equipment that they probably already have—a laptop computer and projector, Mikulencak says. The rest of the equipment totals less than $200.
By researching different types of equipment and testing them before putting them to public use “we’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting for other managers, Mikulencak says.
Other Sea Grant programs around the country are already developing their own CHARM models to use with weTables.
“These are ideal tools,” Jacob says, “for use in community projects where participants use data and maps to help define planning priorities and strategies.”
He adds, “This is really a key part of participatory democracy, in which we’re putting decision-making tools into people’s hands. That’s why it’s so powerful.”
For more information on the weTable or Coastal CHARM model, contact John Jacob at (281) 218-0565 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Steven Mikulencak at email@example.com. You can also point your browser to www.urban-nature.org, where you will find a weTable technical “how-to” factsheet.