App helps collect soft data in the city

Wednesday 11 Oct 23


Martin Brynskov
Senior Researcher
DTU Compute
+45 30 68 04 24

What do citizens think about an urban area? And what is important to them when transforming part of it into a green, attractive urban space? DTU is a partner in the New European Bauhaus project Desire. In the Desire project, we are experimenting with an app as a tool for collecting and listening to citizens' opinions - and thereby involving them in the green transition. We visited the social housing area at one of the three Danish pilots Gadehavegaard in Høje-Taastrup to see, how two school classes used the app.

The clock has just passed 8 o'clock one morning in September at Ole Rømer School in the social housing area Gadehavegaard in Høje-Taastrup, 20 km from Copenhagen. The two 8th grades are having theme weeks focusing on the development of a large future park area close to the school.

Today, they are learning about biodiversity, and Biologist Signe Maskell Knudsen from the landscape architecture firm SLA explains about different types of biodiversity and how different layers of vegetation, terrain shifts and old tree stumps together with wetlands create habitats for plants and animals.

"We hope that the use of the app in the Desire project will contribute to the New European Bauhaus with knowledge of how easily it can be to involve more citizens in the green transition through local anchoring and listen to citizens by visualizing their attitudes and impressions."
Martin Brynskov, Senior Researcher at DTU Compute and Head of the DTU Connecting Communities Centre.

The lessons will help the schoolchildren to understand the interconnectedness of nature and include it in their proposals for the park area. The green space will be created in a few years when two parking lots and a four-lane road are removed and the area will be combined with a noise embankment next to a busy road, creating a 30,000 m2 green urban space.

Shortly after, the classes head off to the Hakkemosen nature area, a 15-minute walk away. Once at Hakkemosen, the schoolchildren divide into groups, pick up their smartphones, log in to the 'Our Walk App' developed by Danish company BACKSCATTER and start to look for six different types of biodiversity and document the findings by using the app to photograph. At the same time, each of them has to think about what nature means to them and comment on how it makes them feel to look at either one of their own pictures or another group's picture.  

Shortly after arrival, the groups' images start to appear in the app. High fives are given when a task is completed - and the schoolchildren also gather around a small frog jumping around in the grass.

From sporadic citizen engagement to large-scale 

The Desire project experiments with the app as a tool for digital user engagement. In addition to running around in Hakkemosen, the young also have been taking pictures with the app in the residential area.

BACKSCATTER has developed the theme weeks together with Desire partners (the housing administration company), the innovation and consulting company GXN and the schoolteachers. All hope the weeks will be the starting point for making young people a driving force in the development of the green park area. The app is supposed to give these young people a sense of involvement in the process, explains BACKSCATTER partner Thøger Riis Michelsen:

"Through the Desire project, we can see that the general involvement of citizens today is sporadic. Traditionally, you go out to interview a few people and/or observe citizens in an area. Basically, this means that very few people come to represent the population. At the same time, very few urban planners can handle 50-page interview transcripts afterwards and get something useful out of it." 

"With the app, you suddenly have a tool for general involvement and for capturing an incredible amount of impressions (soft data, i.e. qualitative data that is intangible and not measurable, ed.). It allows us to subsequently see, through a visualization of data (a datascape), what is important to them in an area in the future. In this way, the app fits perfectly into the New European Bauhaus, where the main elements also include inclusion and involvement," says Thøger Riis Michelsen.

Interactive map

The monitoring tool Our Walk App was developed based on a project called the Urban Belonging project and works by citizens downloading the app onto their smartphones. In the app's menu, they can see the task they have been told to log into and solve by taking pictures and describing them with a short text - and then rate each other's pictures based on whether they like what they see - or it is not for them.

For example, how to create an urban space. But it could also be tasks where schoolchildren learn different things like in Gadehavegaard where the schoolchildren visit Hakkemosen to look for different types of biodiversity, which they had learned about in advance in class.

When the task is solved, you can extract data and create a map of the area, because the app geo-locates the images, so you know exactly where the images were taken.

In addition to showing the exact location, colour codes reveal the attitude towards what the pictures show, based on whether the photographer likes the picture and what others think of it. 

In this way, users can reflect on the images and see if they have the same thoughts as others, and this can be the starting point for a good discussion of how an area is designed, but also why others perceive things differently.

In addition, urban planners or others can zoom in and out of the interactive datascape and use it in planning to create urban spaces in which citizens feel welcome and which take their wishes into account.

Data thus provides a stronger basis for those who actually have to develop the area and draw the lines, because they can read what the people from the area would like to bring into the future and what they think about the future.

"It has become very clear in the teaching process here that there is a big difference between what an architect in Copenhagen perceives as irresistible and beautiful, and what the young people who live in Høje-Taastrup associate with beautiful," says Thøger Riis Michelsen. 

Data as a building material

The use of the datascape with visualization of soft data from the Desire project is also used at DTU, which is among the 24 partners in Desire.

"The new millennium has given us a new building material, namely everything 'digital'. We need that when we want to create good and sustainable cities and neighbourhoods. We hope that the use of the app in the Desire project will contribute to the New European Bauhaus with knowledge of how easily it can be to involve more citizens in the green transition through local anchoring and listen to citizens by visualizing their attitudes and impressions,” says Martin Brynskov, Senior Researcher at DTU Compute and Head of the DTU Connecting Communities Centre.

In addition to Gadehavegaard, Our Walk App is used for citizen involvement elsewhere in the Desire project. For example, Desire's partners in Turin in Italy at Cascina Falchera (urban farming) have used the app for a number of Water Saving Camps for young people where they learnt about water management – drought and floods.

The expectation is that around 500 citizens across our eight demonstration sites in five EU countries during the Desire project will be involved in using the app.

From spring 2024, the preliminary visualizations (datascape) from the app will be available on Desire's website (Digital Learning Hub). Through the navigable interactive data landscape, you can follow in the footsteps of the anonymized citizens who have used the app. All data collection and learning follows the GDPR rules and is shared based on the principle of co-creation.

Therefore, Gadehavegaard must be transformed

  • The social housing area Gadehavegaard in Høje-Taastrup 20 km from Copenhagen is one of a row of areas in Denmark that will be redesigned as a residential area to ensure a special preventive effort according to the Danish law for parallel community (formerly called ghetto).
  • Folketinget - the Danish Parliament - has agreed that a number of residential areas must have a significant boost in the coming years to get more people into work, more people to receive higher education after primary school, fewer people to be convicted of a crime and the average income must increase.
  • The developing plan for Gadehavegaard is adapted to the needs of the area and the surrounding area with different types of housing.
  • Social housing must be demolished, social housing renovated and new social housing for the elderly and new private owner-occupied housing must be built and institutions established, including a campus area and a neighbourhood house, so that the area opens up to the surroundings. At the same time, a 30,000 m2 park area must be established in the area by closing down two large parking lots and a four-lane road.

    Link to the plan for Gadehavegaard (Danish)
    Source - Blandede boliger (Danish) 

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