'Listen Up Long Beach' Map Uses Crowdsourced Data to Update the City's Noise Element

After 42 years, officials are turning to tech-based solutions to address the city's noise element update. They are also hopeful the approach will bring new voices to the local conversation.

by / April 18, 2017
The current Long Beach City Hall stands as a fleeting testament to midcentury architecture. Despite some public outcry, the building is set to be replaced as part of a civic center corridor project. Eyragon Eidam/Government Technology

Long Beach, Calif., is using an online map to solicit feedback for an update to the city’s noise element. If successful, city officials say this process could become a standard means of fostering increased involvement among populations and age groups that typically eschew matters of municipal government.

This effort, dubbed Listen Up Long Beach, takes what is essentially a map of the city and allows residents to add photographs and comments related to sound via their computers or smart devices. This digital participation will then factor into a year-long effort to update Long Beach’s noise element, a process that also involves a series of community meetings and focus groups.

In the past, similar efforts have involved the city sending mailed invitations to residents to share feedback at in-person meetings. This typically costs government about $100 per attendee, said Christopher Koontz, Long Beach’s advanced planning officer, who is overseeing the new project.

And even then, those who do show up are generally the same people who are consistently active in city government. What Listen Up Long Beach seeks to do is make it easier for younger residents, as well as those who don’t or can’t attend municipal meetings, to participate.

“If you look at how 18- to 45-year-olds communicate and experience the world, this is what government is going to have to move to,” Koontz said, “because we need to be relevant to the people that we’re trying to reach.”

The map has already garnered responses that Koontz thought likely would not have been communicated without it. For example, a resident took a picture of an auto repair shop in a neighborhood and commented that the facility was generating noxious odors and noise. The city has also gotten pictures from beaches, parks and other recreation areas where residents say they enjoy going to be loud.

This is the first time Long Beach has used an online map to facilitate discourse between government and community, and officials were not aware of another government previously doing so. Part of the motivation to use it this way, however, came from watching other cities employ similar concepts to visualize open data and bolster citizen use of those platforms.

Indeed, many cities are redesigning and relaunching open data portals to be more accessible, positing that transparent info can serve the public better when put into forms people other than data scientists are able to decipher.

This proposed update to Long Beach’s noise element replaces the existing document, which dates back to 1975. In the intermittent years, Long Beach has changed dramatically, with a population now 50,000 people greater than it once was. Koontz said the city’s attitude about sound has also changed in the last four decades, transitioning from a blanket idea that all noise was bad, to an acceptance that living in a vibrant urban space — noise and all — is desirable to younger folks. There are also new city planning strategies that use design to shield residential areas, meaning people can still live near bars and shops and active areas without noise assailing their homes.

As it pertains to civic tech, the Listen Up Long Beach map concept is exciting for the precedent it may set. At its simplest level, this is a way to crowd-source resident surveys, one government can use at a low cost to guide many of the decisions it considers, all while reaching people who don’t generally pay attention or participate.

“It’s a part of our broader effort to bring younger people, and just people who are not involved, into the planning process,” Koontz said. “There are people who will come to community meetings or are sort of involved automatically — and their perspective is important and should be part of the process — but there’s a whole other set of the population that has opinions and experiences the city. Their input should be taken also. That goal of having an equitable public input process is really important.”

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.