Government Technology

San Jose, Calif.'s Wikiplanning Project on Course

December 27, 2009 By

Although the term "wiki" undoubtedly brings to mind a certain online encyclopedia, generally it has come to mean a Web site that is created or updated through the collaborative efforts of individuals. Wikipedia is the most well known example, but other wiki sites include: wikiHow, a collaborative how-to site; Wikimapia, a Google Earth-based site that lets users edit a global map using notes, photos and video; and Wookieepedia, a wiki-based encyclopedia for all things Star Wars.

In San Jose, Calif. -- the heart of Silicon Valley -- city officials are attempting to bring the wiki concept to city planning. The city went live Aug. 1 with its Wikiplanning project, part of the city's Envision 2040 general plan exercise. The project has been designed to incorporate Web 2.0 applications in order to create a new and better avenue for citizens to provide input on the city's future.

East Meets West

San Jose's idea for Wikiplanning came from a Charlotte, N.C., neighborhood. According to Kim Walesh, San Jose's chief strategist, after learning of wikiplanning on the neighborhood level, she and her colleagues thought San Jose would be well suited for a large-scale experiment.

"We're really pretty good at traditional forms of civic engagement. I think we've pioneered new techniques about how to do in-person meetings effectively, but we really wanted to go to the next stage," Walesh recently told Government Technology. "We heard about this particular application done in a neighborhood in Charlotte. We picked it up and said, 'Let's try to apply it to a city of a million people on our most important citywide project going on right now,' which is creating our general plan -- our long-range plan for how San Jose is going to grow between now and 2040."

With Mayor Chuck Reed's blessing, San Jose's planning staff contacted the Ryan Harris design and planning firm, which developed the Charlotte neighborhood wikiplanning project. However, to design and build a Wikiplanning site for San Jose would cost the city $25,000. Fortunately the Knight Foundation, a Florida-based philanthropic organization that helped fund the Charlotte project, offered to help San Jose cover some of the cost, Walesh said.

Survey Says

At the heart of the wikiplanning project is a 19-question survey, the results of which will guide city officials as they make development decisions under the Envision San Jose 2040 plan. The survey is open to anyone with a Web browser at Once there, all that's required is an e-mail address and a not-so-secret password, which a San Jose press release said was "2040." By completing the survey, users are eligible to win prizes offered by local cultural organizations.

"That was a twist that we put on this project that I think was unique with San Jose," Walesh said. "Ryan Harris told us, from their experience, how important it is to offer incentives to drive participation in the first place. So instead of offering cash, we wanted to use it as an opportunity to promote our arts and culture organizations here. We asked them if they would donate tickets, subscriptions and passes -- and they all did. They get a little promotion, and hopefully some people who are winning these tickets might not be regular patrons. So they might go see a concert or come to a festival that they might not have normally."

In addition to the survey, users can also post photos of elements from San Jose they like or dislike. And if a user sees something in another city that might be a good addition to San Jose, he or she can add photos of it or discuss it on a community message board.

Users may also access project data, background information, maps, PowerPoint presentations, and videos on

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