CommonSpace: A New Digital Tool for Public Life Studies

15th December 2018

By Jacqueline Lu and Matt Breuer, Sidewalk Labs

Public spaces are vitally important to our cities. They are where we all come together, where we build our community and are essential to the social fabric of our neighbourhoods. Which is why as communities grow and needs change over time, we need to understand how our streets, plazas, and parks are being used and how we can make them better.

One way of doing this is through public life studies, a set of observational methods for measuring how people use public spaces. People have been gathering this kind of information for decades. The origin can be traced to the early 1960s, with Danish urbanist Jan Gehl’s studies of people standing, sitting, waiting, and talking along Strøget, Copenhagen’s main thoroughfare, which made the case for pedestrianizing the street. Today in Toronto, public life studies are used to improve our parks and streets, starting with TOcore and now as part of the City’s park revitalization design process and helping measure the outcomes of the King Street Transit pilot.

Sidewalk Labs has partnered with the local advocacy organization Park People and the Gehl Institute to prototype a new digital application called CommonSpace. CommonSpace makes it substantially easier and more reliable for everyone — from community groups to municipalities — to gather and use data to understand how people use public space.

Public life studies always start with a defined question — for example, a community member might ask, “is there enough public seating in this park?” Starting with this question is a form of data minimization, defining the data that will be collected during the study period. Shift-volunteers collect data at hourly intervals, offering a “snapshot” of activity within the study area. Collected over time, these anonymous snapshots help tell a story about how well a space supports the public life activities taking place within it.

While public life studies are being used and deployed in cities all over the world, there is little technology to support them. Many municipalities and community advocates are still reliant on clipboards or clickers to manually count, classify and understand people and uses in a public space. That data then gets typed into a computer, an analysis is conducted and a report is prepared. The barriers to doing this research are high and the process is slow.

With CommonSpace, park operators or community organizers can enter data about the public life they observe directly into a user-friendly app, identifying what assets or areas people prefer or what spaces they avoid. The app records the data in accordance with the Public Life Data Protocol, an open data standard published by Gehl Institute, in partnership with Gehl and city agencies in Europe and the United States. By establishing a shared language for public life data, data standards make it possible to perform valuable comparisons between different public spaces. The data captured with CommonSpace is easily exported into visualization and analysis tools that communities and municipalities can use to see patterns, generate insights and make evidence-based, human-centered, changes.

Using CommonSpace makes it easier to collect data consistently, saves time transcribing raw data into a database, and preserves the quality of the data so that study organizers can visualize it, share it, or easily compare it to other public life data sets.

Curren process is slow and expensive.

Diagram of the 5-step public life study process with commonspace.

Cities around the world are already working on ways to improve public life data collection. This process diagram is sourced from SF Planning’s mobile data collection pilot, one source of inspiration for CommonSpace. Image source: SF Planning

Public life studies are an example of how “small data” — collected intentionally, by people, and for a specific purpose — can help make cities better. Park People’s Public Space Incubator Program awards grants to pilot experimental programming in Toronto’s public spaces. We worked with Park People and one of their awardees, the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, to conduct a field test of CommonSpace. Our partners designed a study to measure the impact of new seating and programming funded by the Public Space Incubator, collected the data, and performed the analysis. We are happy that using CommonSpace made it easier and faster to get the results. It is our hope this data will help them gain a deeper understanding of their programs and garner further support for their efforts.

Once we complete the development of the app, we will be open-sourcing CommonSpace, so that anyone, anywhere can use and build on what we have created to do the same. There’s a lot in this project that inspired us, from a community group in Toronto driving remarkable change in their local park to an international partnership of cities, non-profits, and practitioners making public life studies easier for everyone. We’re excited to contribute CommonSpace as a tool that can help these groups make public spaces work better for people in Toronto and around the world.

Jacqueline Lu is Associate Director, Public Realm, at Sidewalk Labs and is based in Toronto. Matt Breuer is a Product Manager at Sidewalk Labs and is based in New York City.

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