This is part of an interview series with Antti Jogi Poikola – an expert in digital collaboration and urban development.
Joakim Breitenstein (JB): Antti, you have expertise in developing solutions for open collaboration between citizens and the public sector. Can you give some background to what you have been doing and why you have chosen to work in urban development?
Antti Jogi Poikola (AJP): I like to live in cities probably because I was born in a city and I have always lived in cities, both in Finland and abroad. I even have my personal most-enjoyable-cities list which includes Barcelona, Ljubljana, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, New York and so on.
My interest towards working with urban development started as a bike commuter when I had a personal incentive to improve biking conditions in the Helsinki area. At some point I became an active member of the cycling advocacy group and, among other things, founded the Kaupunkifillari blog and community. During this time I also got familiar with the opportunities and challenges of working with public institutions. Every cyclist knew how to improve his/her daily route but the challenge was to make this information accessible to urban planners.
JB: Can you describe these opportunities and challenges more in detail?
AJP: We created the Fillarikanava (“cycling channel”) website for collecting data and proposed collaborations with city departments. The first problem we faced was how to make city officials have access to the data. It turned out that they were not capable of processing large amounts of data that was not integrated to the city’s official feedback system. The city officials would have had to create user profiles for various data services and this was not desirable from their point of view.
JB: What was your proposal to solve this problem?
AJP: We pitched the idea of implementing an Open311 style interface to Helsinki. The idea of Open311 is to have a standardized interface that connects different digital services to the city’s own systems and databases. Eventually Helsinki became a pioneer in participatory urban development when it built its own Open311 interface which is utilized here for instance. Unfortunately this was too late for the Fillarikanava project that had already ended by that time.
JB: Are there other issues that are crucial for improving the feedback system in urban planning?
AJP: Another challenge was processing the feedback data. Traditionally, when the city receives feedback it is obliged to process and respond to every received feedback in some way. This leads to a situation where large amounts of feedback is not desired as it would cause a work overload for the city officials. This responsibility leads to a rigid system as feedback can not be processed in a flexible way. We need a more dynamic feedback system that supports flexibility and continuous dialogue.
JB: What needs to be done in order to create a more flexible dialogue with city officials?
AJP: We make a lot of surveys to support decision making in urban planning. Recent surveys in Helsinki include the general plan and windmill surveys. This is all good and we should take things even further by feeding conclusions of these surveys back for discussion. The surveys could be seen as generators of dialogue rather than only data that a group of professionals base their decision on. It’s nice to see Helsinki being in the forefront of this as well when it made the general plan survey data accessible for anyone to work upon by publishing it here.