Can community engagement be both "high tech" & "high touch"?

Woman touching digital mapThe answer is yes! But let me back up for a minute and explain the question, and why it is important. Traditional, “old school” community engagement often involves getting a large group of people together for a charrette or workshop with the end goal of receiving their input on a particular issue or topic of interest to community leaders or planners. Many of the folks who attend these types of sessions to share their ideas tend to be the “usual suspects”: these are the same people who always come to public hearings and often have already formed opinions on issues. While these “usual suspects” provide us with very useful input, community engagement is about hearing an even representation of the whole community. This model of community engagement is neither “high tech” nor “high touch”—the method of engagement uses “low tech” strategies to discover the ideas and thoughts of community members and only reaches a small slice of the people in the community. Lots of organizations and institutions around the country are trying out new engagement methods in order to listen to a larger portion of the population (higher touch)…And they are using a combination of high tech and low tech strategies to do this. National example: The Harwood Institute. Harwood employs high touch methods to engage with diverse groups of people in a community through the use of community conversations. These conversations involve meeting with different small groups of folks—frequently—in order to turn outward, get a finger on the pulse of the community, and listen to the aspirations and issues that people care about. Harwood also uses high tech social media strategies to spread their message and share how different communities around the country are using community engagement to improve their place.

Regional example: Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, or TBARTA. TBARTA is using a combination of high tech mapping and telephone town hall meetings to update the Regional Transportation Master Plan. Check out their online tool,, to see how they are using high tech and high touch methods—and add your knowledge to the map! So far they have engaged with over one hundred people online and nearly 40,000 callers on Telephone TownHall meetings around the subject of transportation.

These are just two examples, but there are many more. High tech and high touch is the new wave of community engagement. Here at SCOPE we are embracing new technology in order to reach more people in our community. Coming up in August we will be co-hosting Community Data 2.1 workshops in different locations around Sarasota County. The purpose of these workshops is to share the results from Community Data 2.0, build upon the knowledge gathered from residents in order to narrow down the long list of community indicators we’ve been collecting about our county, and focus on the qualities of life that matter to residents. There will be a live-streaming component to these workshops, and you tweeters out there will even be able to follow the excitement on Twitter. Stay tuned for more details on Community Data 2.1 and how to get connected to these efforts.

If you know of a great example of high tech/high touch community engagement—whether it be local, national, or global—share it with us in the “comments” section. We’d love to hear from you, and are always looking for new and exciting ways to engage with the people of Sarasota County.