NEWCASTLE start-up technology company Social Pinpoint is making democracy easier every day.
Co-founders Charles Connell and Colin Goudie have created a software program that makes community engagement on public planning projects easy for the general public to use and easy for the government agency managing the proposal to obtain useful data.
The application is user-friendly, with public users invited to “pinpoint” by typing their comments on a geographic map based on the project, from a level crossing to a proposed dog-leash area, to a downtown revitalisation zone or regional master plan.
Local councils in the Hunter, including Lake Macquarie, Newcastle and Port Stephens, were among the first to embrace the product.
Social Pinpoint has more than 60 active projects using the program across public and private sectors and a successful track record of community engagement projects in Australia, Canada as well as California, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado in the US.
If their marketing push into North America in the new financial year is successful, Connell and Goudie’s intuition will prove correct.
Social Pinpoint has been used by the NSW Department of Planning for its Newcastle urban renewal project, including the light rail proposal, to collect public input.
Social Pinpoint sells its SAAS (software as a service) product on a subscription basis, licensing the use of the software to government agencies and hosting the platform. It is perfectly pitched as an online community engagement tool.
“It is getting close to being the market leader in location-based engagement,” Goudie says. “Eighteen per cent of local governments in Australia use it.”
The business is not an overnight success story. The founders entered the Slingshot start-up program to refine their business plan (they did not win funds). And they listened to their clients.
“We created the tool to solve the problem effectively,” Connell says by way of explanation. “The problem was two-fold. When we talked to the community they felt like they didn’t know what was going on [in terms of] being involved in major infrastructure and projects. And when we talked to the people running the projects, they were frustrated – they were trying to involve the community and the stakeholders but they just didn’t have the right tools.
“So when we started Social Pinpoint, the idea was we wanted to have a tool that was easy to use when running these projects, so they could set it up quickly without spending a lot of money and reach a broad cross-section of the community and stakeholders.”
The product is refined to the degree that Social Pinpoint only needs to offer instruction for first-time users and then stand by to help only if needed. The agencies that buy the subscriptions (clearly stated on the website – $2000 buys you one project, $5000 buys you three projects, $10,000 buys you 10 projects) manage the input data and ‘moderate’ the comments. The software sorts comments by key words and elements, providing detailed analysis.
As social media becomes an ever-increasing part of daily communication, it only makes sense to offer the public the ability to offer their input on public projects online.
“Governments are not going to use less technology to talk to their citizens,” Goudie says. “Our product isn’t technically a democracy/citizens tool, but obviously you talk about decision-making and decision-making is not going to get less transparent. People are demanding it.”
Of course, Connell and Goudie have spent considerable time building a system that works, and avoiding the pitfalls of social media like users who are off the topic or use profanity or personal attacks, or try to manipulate the process by an individual repeatedly making the same argument.
“The interesting thing we find is the need to moderate comments is next to nil,” Connell says. “Of the tens of thousands of comments we’ve collected, there’s only been a handful removed, and usually it’s because they are off-topic rather than the use of profanity or duplicates.”
They may be engineers and software designers, but like Steve Jobs, they know success depends on users.
“I think software is inherently about people,” Goudie says. “We’ve done multiple projects in the past. You start to realise technology is the enabler. But it’s the other problems that are the main things you are trying to solve. We are bringing our software and experience to lower the barrier to entry around cost, project set-up. You don’t have to hire a million consultants at $50,000 a pop.”
The Social Pinpoint software is versatile by design; it can be used for multiple engagements on the project, to gather opinion an idea, then a draft and on to a final project design.
And, yes, the founders realise it is only a tool; it does not replace face-to-face consultation and input.