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San Jose, Calif.'s Wikiplanning Project on Course

Three-month effort aims to involve citizens in city planning.

Although the term "wiki" undoubtedly brings to mind a certain online encyclopedia, generally it has come to mean a Web site that is created or updated through the collaborative efforts of individuals. Wikipedia is the most well known example, but other wiki sites include: wikiHow, a collaborative how-to site; Wikimapia, a Google Earth-based site that lets users edit a global map using notes, photos and video; and Wookieepedia, a wiki-based encyclopedia for all things Star Wars.

In San Jose, Calif. -- the heart of Silicon Valley -- city officials are attempting to bring the wiki concept to city planning. The city went live Aug. 1 with its Wikiplanning project, part of the city's Envision 2040 general plan exercise. The project has been designed to incorporate Web 2.0 applications in order to create a new and better avenue for citizens to provide input on the city's future.

East Meets West

San Jose's idea for Wikiplanning came from a Charlotte, N.C., neighborhood. According to Kim Walesh, San Jose's chief strategist, after learning of wikiplanning on the neighborhood level, she and her colleagues thought San Jose would be well suited for a large-scale experiment.

"We're really pretty good at traditional forms of civic engagement. I think we've pioneered new techniques about how to do in-person meetings effectively, but we really wanted to go to the next stage," Walesh recently told Government Technology. "We heard about this particular application done in a neighborhood in Charlotte. We picked it up and said, 'Let's try to apply it to a city of a million people on our most important citywide project going on right now,' which is creating our general plan -- our long-range plan for how San Jose is going to grow between now and 2040."

With Mayor Chuck Reed's blessing, San Jose's planning staff contacted the Ryan Harris design and planning firm, which developed the Charlotte neighborhood wikiplanning project. However, to design and build a Wikiplanning site for San Jose would cost the city $25,000. Fortunately the Knight Foundation, a Florida-based philanthropic organization that helped fund the Charlotte project, offered to help San Jose cover some of the cost, Walesh said.

Survey Says

At the heart of the wikiplanning project is a 19-question survey, the results of which will guide city officials as they make development decisions under the Envision San Jose 2040 plan. The survey is open to anyone with a Web browser at Once there, all that's required is an e-mail address and a not-so-secret password, which a San Jose press release said was "2040." By completing the survey, users are eligible to win prizes offered by local cultural organizations.

"That was a twist that we put on this project that I think was unique with San Jose," Walesh said. "Ryan Harris told us, from their experience, how important it is to offer incentives to drive participation in the first place. So instead of offering cash, we wanted to use it as an opportunity to promote our arts and culture organizations here. We asked them if they would donate tickets, subscriptions and passes -- and they all did. They get a little promotion, and hopefully some people who are winning these tickets might not be regular patrons. So they might go see a concert or come to a festival that they might not have normally."

In addition to the survey, users can also post photos of elements from San Jose they like or dislike. And if a user sees something in another city that might be a good addition to San Jose, he or she can add photos of it or discuss it on a community message board.

Users may also access project data, background information, maps, PowerPoint presentations, and videos on

city planning and sustainability.

The Wikiplanning project, which launched Aug. 1, will run until Oct. 31. Over those three months, Walesh said the goal is to get participation by 10,000 people -- 1 percent of the city's population.

One month into the project, walesh said 2,800 people logged in, and 1,760 people  completed the survey. "We're thrilled with the turnout. One of our goals was to have at least 50 percent of those people be under 40 [years old], and to also see if we could get participation that really reflects our ethnic demographics in San Jose," Walesh said.

In addition to those participation goals, Steven Brewster, San Jose's economic development officer, said it's hoped the Wikiplanning project will open civic involvement to those who would otherwise avoid or ignore it. Brewster hopes users will be a mix of newcomers rather than the kind of citizens who would participate anyway.

"I think the other point that we need to really bring out is the specific reason why we did this," Brewster said. "That is, we do traditional meetings and engagements, and you end up getting a certain slide from the population. They show up at these meetings to comment on plans and proposals. With Wikiplanning, we're able to capture everyone's voice -- anytime, day or night, whenever they want to log on and contribute their thoughts to our planning process."

Walesh said attracting a younger audience also was a goal.

"We're very lucky that we have a core group of 50 to 100 people who show up at every meeting and follow it, and they are very involved," she said. "They are mostly over 50 [years old] and they are very important. But I think they also want to make sure that we're reaching out to young people who are going to be middle-aged in 2040."


Chad Vander Veen is a former contributing editor for Emergency Management magazine, and previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.