Innovative public engagement tool focus of conference

January 22, 2013

By Steven Mikulencak

HOUSTON —The WeTable — a do-it-yourself portable touch table system — can help universities and agencies engage communities for public input in a whole new way. The tool allows meeting organizers to turn any table top into an interactive computer interface for mapping, brainstorming and other activities for a fraction of the cost of using a manufactured system.

Now, a two-day, hands-on training conference is available for professionals who want to make their workshops more dynamic by using this innovative technology. The conference agenda features hands-on challenges and case studies of its use in actual projects from around the country. 

Seats remain for the WeTable Conference Feb. 26-27 at the Rice Lofts Ballroom, located 909 Texas Ave. in downtown Houston. The Texas Sea Grant College Program at Texas A&M University is co-sponsoring the conference.

The WeTable comprises a laptop computer, a projector, a light pen and a Nintendo Wiimote. Up to 10 people can stand around an ordinary table and interact with maps, data and documents without having to crowd around a computer screen.

“If the participant can hold a pen and talk around a table, then they can use this technology,” says Steven Mikulencak, conference co-chair and Texas Sea Grant staff member. “You don’t need to be a whiz to use it, but it takes some knowledge to set up the system.”

Participants use the light pen like a wireless computer mouse on an image projected onto the tabletop. The Wiimote picks up changes in the pen’s location and updates the touch table image. Participants exchange control of the table by simply handing off the light pen to another user.

Using conventional equipment in an unconventional way opens up new methods to collect group input and facilitate public meetings, says Mikulencak an early adopter of the technology. The goal is to put the supporting technology in the background so that participants directly engage in the workshop exercise. “When we bring the public together at these workshops where we use the WeTable, we see that people are interested in the data and they happen to be learning a lot about what other participants at the table think,” he says.

Land- and resource-planners have used the WeTable with great success to involve the public in crafting plans around the country. Texas Sea Grant used a six-table setup at a coastal development workshop in Galveston last year that allowed about 45 people to participate at the same time. The program will use the WeTable during a workshop this summer in Rockport, Texas, so area residents and community planners can discuss impacts from future development scenarios.

“It is clear from our experience that watershed groups and public agencies could be using WeTable technology to better engage the public on issues like public safety or water management,” Mikulencak says.

During the February conference, experts and planners will teach participants how to build and use WeTable hardware and software. The training agenda also includes WeTable presentations on the future direction of participatory planning and technology.

Attendees who are members of the American Institute of Certified Planners will be eligible for 10 certification maintenance credits.

The conference is being organized by Texas Sea Grant, PlaceMatters and the Delaware Sea Grant Program. Early bird registration is $175 until Jan. 31, and after that will be $200 until Feb. 22. Limited support is available to registrants employed with public agencies to defray travel expenses. For more information about travel support or the conference, contact Mikulencak by phone at 281-218-6128, or by email at smikulencak@tamu.edu.

The agenda and hotel information are available at the conference website,https://sites.google.com/site/wetableconference/home.

Based on the Land Grant concept, Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas, universities across the state and marine-related industries to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas. Based at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas Sea Grant is a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences.

The University of Delaware was designated as the nation's ninth Sea Grant College in 1976 to promote the wise use, conservation, and management of marine and coastal resources through high-quality research, education, and outreach activities that benefit the public and the environment. The University's College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment administers the program, which conducts research in priority areas ranging from seafood safety to coastal hazards.

The Texas and Delaware programs are two of 32 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country that are part of the National Sea Grant Network. The National Sea Grant Program is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

PlaceMatters is a Colorado-based independent 501(c)3 organization supporting the creation and maintenance of sustainable, vibrant communities through improving decision-making.

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Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas. It is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is one of 33 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country. Texas Sea Grant is a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. The program’s mission is to improve the understanding, wise use and stewardship of Texas coastal and marine resources.