CityScope FindingPlaces: HCI Platform for Public Participation in Refugees’ Accommodation Process

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This case was submitted as part of the Call for Innovations, an annual partnership initiative between OPSI and the UAE Mohammed Bin Rashid Center for Government Innovation (MBRCGI)

In reaction to the sudden arrival of tens of thousands of refugees to the city of Hamburg (DE), MIT and Hafen City University's City Science Lab created a public participation and decision-making process for refugee accommodation in Hamburg neighbourhoods. 'CityScope FindingPlaces', an Human Computer Interaction platform, was designed and deployed to facilitate dozens of community meetings with ~500 participants, resulting with 160 locations accepted by Hamburg’s citizens to be developed for refugees housing.

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Nearly 21 million people fled their home countries during 2015. A total number of 1.2 million asylum applications were filed in Europe, 442,000 in Germany alone. The persistent influx of asylum seekers posed major challenges for German federals and municipalities. As a consequence, available solutions were ad-hoc implemented and in many cases refugees were accommodated in tents, warehouses or gymnasiums.

In the City of Hamburg, Germany, accommodation facilities concentrated in certain neighborhoods while others received little to no refugees at all, sometimes stimulating civil protest against refugees. In early 2016, Hamburg's mayor Olaf Scholz assigned MIT and HCU CSL the development of a participation process that would enable citizens to engage in finding accommodations for a predicted influx of ~79,000 refugees. The goal was to incorporate the citizens’ personal experience and local knowledge into the political and administrative evaluation of potential locations. The results and proposals emerging from the participation process were to become recommendations for political decision-making. The project was named 'FindingPlaces'.
To enable a well-documented, accessible and scalable citizen participation, MIT CityScope was proposed as a decision-making and knowledge-support tool. Featuring an Human Computer Interaction (HCI) urban modeling and simulation platform, CityScope is able to present contextualized information in an easy-to-comprehend and easy-to-interact manner. A series of public participation workshops was planned to be centered around interactive CityScope stations displaying task-related data to citizen groups as they worked out decisions. The main conceptual components of FindingPlaces included 1) a workflow design for the overall workshop series, 2) a choreography ('procedure') for the individual participatory workshops, 3) the technical adaptation of CityScope interactive tables, and 4) extensive pre-processing of urban data.
CityScope is an ongoing research at the MIT Media Lab’s City Science group, featuring different iterations of an urban simulation platform with the goal of making complex urban questions accessible and tangible to various audiences. What differentiates CityScope from other highly-specialized, experts-focused planning tools is its tangible, user-oriented design, prompting a discussion not limited by expertise or prior knowledge.

In recent years, real-world CityScope deployments took place in the UAE, Shanghai, Andorra, Boston, Helsinki, Taipei and more, each of which dedicated to a local urban challenge. A common CityScope platform features a tangible urban model (city, neighborhood or street scale), a local computational analysis unit, data & analysis server integrated with a Geographic Information System and a feedback module. CityScope usually includes a set of color-tagged LEGO bricks acting as intractable spatial UI elements. The computational analysis unit has sensors or cameras and computers for real-time scanning of interaction in the scene. The feedback module contains display screens, projectors and as well as AR, MR, VR or touch feedback.
Between May and July 2016, a total of 34, two-hour workshops were held at HCU campus with nearly 400 participants. Each workshop focused on one of the city’s seven districts. In total, 161 locations were suggested by the participants and evaluated by the authorities. With these, accommodation solutions for almost 24,000 refugees were proposed, exceeding the initial targeted goal of 20,000. More than half of the parcels were designated parks, green areas in inner-city locations, landscape, or agricultural spaces in rural areas, that are mostly subject to nature or landscape conservation. Another 15% of the suggested parcels were used as sports fields or playgrounds. Others were parking lots, commercial and industrial areas, parcels designated for future housing projects or port area parcels. Almost three quarters of the suggested locations were rated as not suitable in the initial assessment, leaving 44 rated as feasible. A further 24 were excluded after a detailed examination. Ultimately, 6 received recommendations for implementation and 10 were taken into consideration for future planning.
Using CityScope platform for refugee accommodation has shown how digital technology can effectively support social challenges and physical changes. The core issue of Finding Places– the refugee crisis and global migration – will probably remain a challenge of high urgency. Global socio-political developments may yield new migrant waves soon, and the challenge of accommodating refugees in cities of the destination countries remains acute. Beyond the Hamburg case, MIT and HCU CSL are actively promoting CityScope solutions to other world cities facing similar issues.

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