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SIX Interviews Volodymyr Shcherbachenko on Urban Monitor

Author: Volodymyr Shcherbachenko
Published Date: 9 July 2013

“Urban Monitor” – Modern Ukraine is an industrial country with a predominately urban population. With the rapid urban development that has occurred during the past decade, government institutions in Ukraine are using internet technologies more and more actively to inform citizens about official decisions related to urban planning such as when new master plans are adopted or to announce the construction of large public facilities (e.g., stadiums, bridges, etc.). However, officials usually inform citizens about decisions after they have been made. This neither stimulates feedback from citizens nor encourages them to express their own ideas using the internet during decision making processes.Volodymyr Shcherbachenko, the director of the NGO, theEastern-Ukrainian Center for Civic Initiatives, suggests that developing a program based on PPGIS (public participation geographic information systems) and crowdsourcing, will help bridge this gap. The platform will provide an avenue for citizens to express their ideas and to provide feedback on projects proposed by the government. It will also enable citizens to develop their own electronic models of spatial development of territories/cities.

Urban Monitor and founder Volodymyr Shcherbachenko recently won recognition at the HuriLab (Human Rights Lab) for developing technological solutions to human rights issues in Europe and the Middle East.

Could you describe Urban Monitor for us? What does it feel like to sit down at your computer and start using it?

Most likely you will have learned about the program from news feeds on social networks or maybe from a friend who will have sent you a link to the project webpage in an email. The message that you receive could contain something like: "Hi! The City Council in your area wants to build three new stores and a hypermarket on one of the city’s favorite forested green spaces. What do you think? Do you have anything to say about this?”

You click on the link which takes you to our website that describes or depicts the plan for the development and reconstruction of the area being proposed by City Council, and which you care about. The information on this webpage was prepared by an NGO who represents environmental interests (or for other projects, a different type of NGO would be involved). This NGO, that most likely was the first to learn of City Council’s plans, offers a review of the plans proposed by City Council for development of the forested area and presents alternative models for developing this space.

On the page with the plan from City Council, you see several links. These are alternative plans / site graphics for the future development of the space that you care about. For example, one option could be created by local environmentalists; another could be created by a group that supports healthy lifestyles and who use the space on Sunday’s for yoga sessions. A third option could be created by schoolchildren who live near the forested park area and play football every day in one of the open space areas.

If you have your own idea for how you see the future of this space, you can easily create your image and put it up for discussion on this site.

Suppose you decide to create your own project, you can click on the button "Create a project." This takes you to a new page. As a basis for creating your own design, the program offers a graphic representation of the particular space you are interested in, which is based on Google Maps. Google Maps shows marked boundaries of land. The specific area of interest and which has been defined by the City Council for development, allows one to easily and smoothly insert new graphics. With the toolbar, you can place new roads or trails, show which trees need to be cut down, add benches, playgrounds, houses, fountains, and more. Just as it happens in the program, you create your own model area.

The models that are created are not professional works by architects and planners; however, they clearly show alternative models and represent how citizens envision the development of the area.

The program also allows you to receive feedback about your model.

How long had you been working on the idea for Urban Monitor before you applied for a place at the HuriLab? What inspired you?

Our organization, the Eastern Ukrainian Center for Civic Initiatives, has been helping citizens for over 5 years to effectively and deliberately participate in the spatial planning of urban areas. We provide legal and methodological consultations and provide advice, including how to actively use the internet. Over the years, we noticed that the workload has not decreased; rather, the number of people who need our support continues to grow. Officials and local authorities are not always aware of how to effectively work with citizens who give feedback, either in small or large groups. Often they are afraid to do this in person.

In light of these needs, we have developed the idea to create a new tool that will help citizens and government officials have productive interactions. Citizens need to constructively express their opinions to officials. Officials need to hear and see suggestions from the people. Now is the right time to take on this type of project. The number of internet users is continually growing. For many people, the internet provides a new opportunity to contribute to the process of the spatial development of their hometowns. The proposed program allows us to achieve this while saving time and money. However, this project is not about replacing programs or events in real life. In person interactions and City Council meetings will remain important methods. This program supplements existing methods and offers an additional way for citizens to provide input to their City Councils.

How has working at HuriLab modified or developed your original idea?

Prior to participating in HuriLab, my colleagues and I discussed the seed idea for this project and developed it into something well thought out. Colleagues contributed ideas from a legal perspective, from a social services perspective, and from the perspective of a Peace Corps Volunteer who is currently working at our organization.

HuriLab was an altogether new approach. During the Social Innovation Camp, our team developed a complete new set of start-up ideas. We went from simple verbal descriptions of the project all the way to the first phase of its practical implementation. A presentation was made at the Innovation Camp using mockups of programs. Reactions gained from other groups at the camp and challenging questions received from the jury allowed our team to look critically at our program idea and make changes so that the product is more targeted to our primary audience. We talked and planned major steps for advancing the idea. I am grateful to the participants of our group -- Maksym Klyuchar, Vardan Grigoryan and Zuzana Zalanova. Their dedication and professional work was a source of personal inspiration. Suggestions and information about already existing programs for civic engagement that came from Giulio Quaggiotto and Dan McQuillan were particularly useful and helped us to develop our own unique idea.

We also decided to change the English name of the program; “Urban Monitor” is now called “UPlanIT.”

How do you want Urban Monitor to look at the end of this year? At the end of next year? Who will be using it? Where? What will the impact of their actions be?

By the end of 2013 we plan to identify funding for software development and to test a pilot program of its use in one or more cities in Ukraine. The first users of the program will be community activists who work with relevant organizations, such as those dealing with environmental issues, cultural preservation, the preservation of historical heritage, and groups that address local social issues and more. These people will be the early adopters of the program and will help to attract more people to its use. Citizen participants will be those who care about the future of specific areas in their cities (parks, adjacent areas, embankments, etc.). After a year, we hope to have an improved version of the program, which can then be spread to other countries.

What do you need to get to where you want to be at the end of next year?

We have an important start -- a team of people who are interested in the problem, and the desire to reduce it to practice. We as a team are programmers, specialists in public relations, planners, and lawyers. We have enlisted the advisory support of international experts to help us improve the program. However, this is just a start. The project is ambitious and does not provide revenue; therefore, we must look for a grant to start the idea. Other funding models will be explored during the course of the project’s development.