Urban Systems is a more than 600-person Western Canada-based professional services firm that approaches infrastructure and planning problems in an interdisciplinary way. They serve their customers in the public and private sectors—including Indigenous communities, school boards, large and small municipalities, provincial governments and land developers—build safe, sustainable, prosperous communities.
As part of their interdisciplinary service offering, Urban Systems’s Communications & Engagement team provides communication services to their clients in support of planning processes. This means they develop and support public information sessions, pop-ups and other forms of public engagement intended to get community members involved in the projects that affect them.
I introduced Urban Systems’s Communications & Engagement team in Part 1 of this blog post series, where I mentioned that the team is innovating their public engagement process using ArcGIS StoryMaps—especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this post, I want to talk about how they’ve continued to benefit from ArcGIS StoryMaps since then, and how it allows Urban Systems to offer a value-added information product to their clients that is fast to assemble, low-cost, easy to use and high in quality. With ArcGIS StoryMaps, you really can have it all.
A Speedy and Lower-cost Option
Although it started as an alternative to public engagement during the early days of the pandemic, ArcGIS StoryMaps continues to be the geospatial tool of choice for the Communications & Engagement team, in part because it’s affordable. Because it’s included as part of their ArcGIS Online subscription, the Communications & Engagement team can access it at no additional cost to the organization.
The quick assembly/low cost element of ArcGIS StoryMaps stories is also appealing to Urban Systems’s clients. A prime example of this is the story that Daylin Mantyka developed for the District of Peachland, which was holding a referendum on funding a much-needed firehall upgrade.
Project Highlight: Peachland Referendum
Daylin Mantyka has been a communications & engagement consultant with Urban Systems since 2016. With a limited background in GIS and mapping but a strong background in science and technology, she describes herself as a communicator with a technological bent.
British Columbia’s District of Peachland needed to upgrade its firehall to support their growing community, as the current building was undersized and ageing. The firehall also needed to be relocated to reduce emergency response times. The District hired Urban Systems to help communicate the project to the public, in an effort to get support from residents to secure required funds.
When Urban Systems came on board, they wanted a visually interesting way to share information about the project—and one that was quick to implement. However, the District’s existing website had certain limitations in terms of the visuals that could be used on it.
Because of this, and because the existing Peachland website didn’t have the level of built-in interactivity that she had used on previous projects, Daylin recommended that a communication site for the project be built in ArcGIS StoryMaps. To help persuade the District, she put existing information and content into an ArcGIS StoryMaps story, aligned the colour scheme with Peachland’s brand theme and brought it to the District as a demo.
And as a bonus: the demo only took her short amount of time to make to get the buy-in to develop out the rest of the site.
Once she’d created the story, Daylin used ArcGIS StoryMaps’s imagery and storytelling tools to enhance the firehall project narrative. The end product brings together all the information that Peachland residents need in a way that’s easy to digest.
Not only is the story visually appealing, aligned with the District of Peachland’s branding and easy to update, it’s also a living document. In the days prior to the referendum, Daylin was still easily able to make updates as the situation changed. For example, she was able to quickly add notifications about upcoming town halls and open houses to the story, as well as videos like the one below, which explains the District’s parcel tax.
The District’s response to ArcGIS StoryMaps has been very positive. They’re pleased with the polished look and feel of the story that Daylin developed—it really looks like a District of Peachland production. It can also be quickly and easily updated.
Overall, ArcGIS StoryMaps has allowed Daylin to create affordable project sites for her clients. With the referendum now concluded, the story is now also available to the District to continue to use and update as a single point of contact for project news.
A high-quality end product
On the flip side, the information products that Urban Systems makes need to meet a high standard of quality. That is, they need to have a polished look and feel that invites users not only to interact with them, but to share them with others within the community. Without high quality, there’s a risk that residents in a community will disengage from the communication without leaving feedback.
One way that ArcGIS StoryMaps allows Urban Systems to create high-quality communications is by allowing them to embed interactive webmaps into their stories. A member of the public can identify an area of interest by dropping a pin in the right location on the map and leaving a comment.
Another quality benefit that comes with ArcGIS StoryMaps is branding and customization. Although StoryMaps stories are easy to create, they can be enhanced with a client’s branding or made to align their existing web presence using colour and graphics. The Peachland Referendum project discussed above did this with its colour scheme. And the Connect Salmon Arm project, discussed below in more detail, is another great example, with its salmon pink and pale green.
Project Highlight: Connect Salmon Arm
Sierra Kasper-Momer is a communications and engagement coordinator with Urban Systems. With a bachelor’s degree in geography, she came to Urban Systems already knowing ArcGIS StoryMaps, having used it for a school project.
As part of the engagement process for its Active Transportation Network Plan project, the City of Salmon Arm, a community of about 18,000 people in southern British Columbia, wanted to collect feedback from its residents on the future of walking and cycling in the community. Urban Systems was selected to lead this project, but given that they were working with a smaller community that wanted a robust engagement process with a strong focus on technical work, they also had to keep a careful eye on their budget.
Because Urban Systems had previously used ArcGIS StoryMaps for other active transportation projects, they knew that using ArcGIS StoryMaps would allow the City to reach more residents without needing to pay for a custom project website.
Using ArcGIS StoryMaps, Sierra stitched together project information, online surveys and interactive map tools, along with graphics and media, into a single narrative. Using interactive webmaps, members of the public were also able to pin specific locations where they wanted to see change. (The interactive webmaps are no longer available, so instead, here’s a summarized version of that same map with dots representing the comments that were left.)
The Connect Salmon Arm project also used Salmon Arm’s branding guidelines. These were conveyed to Urban Systems’s graphic designer, who developed graphics that help the story look more unified with Salmon Arm’s existing web presence.
Engagement on the Connect Salmon Arm project was seen as a big success that played an important part of the process. Urban Systems’s interactive map received hundreds of comments, far more than they normally receive for a mid-sized community. “It was really cool to see,” says Sierra. “It’s been a great way to get info out there and get people involved.”
“It was really cool to see. It’s been a great way to get info out there and get people involved.” —Sierra Kasper-Momer, Urban Systems
Even though the interactive map is now closed, Sierra says that the Connect Salmon Arm story remains a living document. With information about open houses as well as a regularly updated timeline, the story functions as an authoritative website for project updates.
Overall, Urban Systems is creating quick, easy, affordable, high-quality project sites that reach hundreds of community members, allowing client projects to bring communities together around common goals.
This blog post is part 3 in a series about how Urban Systems is using ArcGIS StoryMaps in new ways. Read part 1 for the story of how they used StoryMaps to navigate the early stages of COVID-19, and check out part 3 to learn why using StoryMaps meant they didn’t have to compromise on cost, time or quality.