The smarticipate project will end in February 2019 after three years. Below, Joanna Hammond, who together with her colleague Paul McDonald was tasked with designing and testing the smarticipate platform for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, outlines how smarticipate is being used in the city and reflects on the project journey.

The smarticipate platform is now in a more advanced state. How is it being used/tested in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea?

We are testing [the smarticipate platform] at the moment and we hope to be able to embed smarticipate inside the planning process on our website, but we may need technology to catch up with us a bit first.

Why did you choose to use the smarticipate platform in this way?

We have chosen to use a very small part of smarticipate’s full capabilities because we think that our pilot will make a big difference in widening understanding of, and engagement with, planning proposals. We have to work within the national planning system which requires all the documents submitted when a planning application is made to be available on a publicly accessible portal. However, there are often a lot of documents and some of them are very technical so it can be difficult for a member of the public to understand what is being proposed. It’s that universal problem with open data, which is not necessarily understandable data. Our pilot allows people to click on a link and see, for larger schemes, a 3D model of the proposal. This makes it much easier to understand how the proposed new buildings would affect local views and even your own home. They can also make other people aware of the proposal by sharing the link to the model on social media, and go back to the portal to make a formal comment on the scheme which will be considered as part of the decision making process.

What do you see as the future of the smarticipate platform in your city?

If we can make this pilot work then I think there is a good chance it will be taken up across London (there are 32 boroughs apart from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea) and in other English cities.

Collecting data and the concept of “open data” was a large part of smarticipate. Has the project changed the way in which you approach the collection or use of data?

Early in the project we identified a problem with our open data being available but not very user-friendly. Most people don’t have the time or the knowledge to trawl through a big list of documents to find the one that answers the question – how will this proposal affect me? But this is a very important question that people should be able to answer quickly and easily; it’s important for building trust in the planning process and otherwise there is always the chance that people think information is being concealed and they are being conspired against.

In which areas did smarticipate succeed? In which areas did it struggle in your opinion?

The strength of the project is the idea behind the smarticipate platform, that if you can create a set of rules that define how a project or a service can be delivered then you can use smarticipate to create a system that allows people to get immediate feedback on their ideas. They can find out straight away if there is a reason why it won’t work or if it stands a good chance of success. It shows how the decision-making process works – making it open and transparent – and this builds trust that decisions are not just made on the whim of an official or a committee.

The downside is that it can be difficult to work out exactly what the decision making process really is and finding the data that is needed to build a smarticipate app. I like the fact that a voluntary organisation (in the field of cycling) has already managed to build an air quality improvement app in a fellow partner city, showing that the city administration does not have a monopoly over using the platform. I hope we can do the same in London soon.

The smarticipate project will come to an end in February 2019 after 3 years. Has the vision of the project been realized for your city?

You know, it took me a long time to understand what the vision of the project really was! I had a vague understanding it involved using open data and open governance but what that really meant eluded me. Now I do understand, but I imagine it will be challenging to explain the full extent of what smarticipate can do to non-technical people (such as me).

It’s been a real privilege to work with the consortium and to see how people with very different professional backgrounds approach problem solving. I have the utmost respect for our Project Manager, Joachim Rix, who has had to keep all the consortium members happy and moving in the right direction for the last three years.

We have identified many potential applications for smarticipate such as the citizen co-design of our new joined-up health and social care services, re-vitalising community engagement, hearing the voices of people who may feel excluded, and improving participatory budgeting initiatives.