Technology, transport and town hall meetings

As well as being Labour’s MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah is interested in both transport and digital technology. The intersection of these two areas falls within Open Lab’s digital civics research, and the potential for technology to transform transport is enormous.

Cycling in Newcastle

Having recently started cycling again, Chi is keen for Newcastle to become more cycle-friendly. She praised the efforts of the Council to promote cycling in Newcastle, and pointed out that the city is steep compared to many others in the UK, making it more difficult for cyclists.

However, in addition to more cycle lanes, and cycle lanes that do more to protect cyclists, Chi would like more awareness around cycling, such as bike maintenance and safety, explaining: “people are still quite astounded when I turn up on a bike, and I think normalising it would help.” This is perhaps an area where digital technology can help,

“I’d like to see better and clearer cycle routes, which are enforced, so you don’t get cars parking in them all the time,” she continued. “I don’t know why they often stick bollards in front of cycle routes, but it feels like you’re negotiating an obstacle course sometimes.”

Digital planning

Another obstacle course that needs negotiating is the planning process. In August Chi organised a Town Hall meeting in Gosforth to discuss the Council’s plans for Blue House roundabout, which were dropped after significant public opposition.

This meeting highlighted Chi’s point that people are most engaged with planning decisions when they disagree. She speculated that digital technology could offer a way of engaging people without first making them angry.

Making meetings inclusive is also important: the people who attended the Blue House roundabout meeting in August “didn’t have childcare or other care responsibilities at that time, and who knew about it, because we put out a few fliers, but I mainly tweeted about it.

“You need to have different ways of engaging with different demographics: those who work evenings, those who have childcare responsibilities, those who aren’t on the internet or don’t use it that much.”

Opening up an online platform for discussion of planning issues could help to balance the difficulties people may face in attending physical meetings, but this is then dependent on internet access. “I think there’s the potential for digital technology to play a really important role in engaging people,” Chi said, adding that she hadn’t yet “seen any really engaging or compelling applications that really do help us out”.

One example of success in this area of engagement is the games industry – “nobody ever has to pay people to play games” – and Chi hoped that this level of engagement could also be achieved in apps and platforms that encourage people to get involved in planning and local decision making.

Whether through games or anger, getting local people involved in planning decisions is a key aim for both Chi and Open Lab’s digital civics researchers. The Blue House roundabout controversy showed the crossover of planning, transport and technology that Chi feels so passionately about.

Author: Mark Sleightholm

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