Innovative public engagement tool focus of conference

HOUSTON —The WeTable, a do-it-yourself portable touch table system aimed at helping public officials make community decisions, will be the subject of a two-day, hands-on training in Houston Feb. 26-27, officials said.

The WeTable Conference will be at the Rice Lofts Ballroom, 909 Texas Ave. Early bird registration is $175 until Jan. 31, then $200 until Feb. 22.

The WeTable comprises a laptop computer, a projector, a light pen and a Nintendo Wiimote, according to Steven Mikulencak of Clear Lake, conference co-chair and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialist in recreation, park and tourism sciences. As many as 10 people can stand around an ordinary table and interact with maps, data and documents without having to crowd around a computer screen.

“It can help community officials engage for public input in a whole new way. The tool allows meeting organizers to turn any tabletop into an interactive computer interface for mapping, brainstorming and other activities for a fraction of the cost of using a manufactured system,” he said.

The conference agenda features hands-on challenges and case studies of its use in actual projects from around the country.

“If the participant can hold a pen and talk around a table, then they can use this technology,” said Mikulencak.

A light pen, which is similar to a wireless computer mouse, is used on an image projected onto the tabletop, he explained. 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.

“When we bring the public together at a WeTable workshop, we see that people are interested in the data, and they are learning a lot about what other participants at the table think,” he said.

Land-and resource-planners have used the WeTable to involve the public in crafting plans around the country, he noted. 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.

“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 said.

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

The conference is being organized by Texas Sea Grant, PlaceMatters and the Delaware Sea Grant Program. Accommodation support is available to registrants employed with public agencies to defray travel expenses. For more information about travel support or the conference, contact Mikulencak at 281-218-6128, or smikulencak@tamu.edu.

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