• Exploring New Technology: Results of the Oak Hill Parkway Pilot Virtual Open House

    The traditional methods of public engagement will always be an important part of the planning process, but discovering the effectiveness of emerging technologies in order to develop new best practices for public engagement is the charge of the future. The Oak Hill Parkway project in Austin, Texas, provided a unique opportunity to test a new and innovative method to engage the public. This pilot project tested the effectiveness of re-creating a traditional open house in a virtual or online setting in order to provide additional opportunities for engagement and to understand what role emerging technology will play in the engagement process. In order to replicate the experience of a traditional open house in a virtual setting, the research team developed a website, called a virtual open house (VOH). All of the materials presented at the May 23, 2013 Oak Hill Parkway traditional open house were presented to visitors of the virtual open house through concept videos and text. The concept videos featured visuals of schematics with voiceovers from project staff. Users were directed to the virtual open house through both traditional and online media coverage, as well as advertisements on Google and social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. Upon entry to the virtual open house, users were directed to watch an introduction video that explained the purpose of the VOH and directions on how to use it. Once registered, users were sent to an overview page, where background information on the project was provided. From there, users were able to choose any of the nine concepts (shown as thumbnails at the top of the page), watch the informative video, and click a thumbs-up or thumbs-down button depending on their feelings toward the concept. The VOH went live on May 23, the day the traditional open house was held, and was open until the close of the official comment period, 12 days later on June 3, 2013. During this period, there were two, 2-hour-long real-time chat sessions, where each of the nine concept videos and the overview page featured chat boxes that were staffed by an Oak Hill Parkway project representative. During the real-time chat sessions, visitors were able to provide comments, ask questions directly of Oak Hill Parkway project representatives, and receive answers in real time. During the remainder of the period that the virtual open house was live, users were able to provide comments and questions through a link to the Oak Hill Parkway project website. Researchers were able to gauge the effectiveness of the virtual open house by using Google and YouTube analytics to evaluate the attendance and quality of participation. To evaluate the attendance of the virtual open house, researchers tracked the number of visitors by day, which provided insight into how well attended the VOH was during the entire period it was live. In addition, researchers were able to evaluate how attendance changed during the real-time chat sessions as compared to the rest of the period the VOH was live, based on the measurement of how many pages within the virtual open house were viewed per hour for each day that the virtual open house was live. The analytical tools also provided researchers with the ability to gauge the quality of participation during the VOH. Researchers were able to measure the average amount of time that each user spent in the VOH per day in order to gain insight into not only how many visitors came through the door, but how long those visitors actively engaged with project materials while visiting. The average number of pages viewed per visitor provided researchers with an additional metric to gauge how effectively users interacted with project materials while visiting the virtual open house.

















 Lessons Learned using Primary Technique:

  • Virtual Meetings/Workshops


The pilot virtual open house allowed individuals who would not typically participate in a traditional open house the opportunity to re-create the experience, complete with ability to chat online with project staff.  The project also created video representations of the project concepts that were able to be used on the project website and in other venues.  The virtual open house expanded the breadth of interested individuals to include participants from a broader geographic area.


Because this was the first time either of these agencies had offered a “live chat” feature, participation was somewhat limited.  Our site was not mobile optimized and we learned that a significant number of users (33%) accessed the virtual open house from a mobile device.  Future virtual open houses will need to recognize this.


The live chat sessions increased participation from an attendance standpoint, but as noted above, comments and questions during the live chat sessions were somewhat limited. Researchers were able to identify the locations of users who registered for the live chat by zip-code in order to understand how participation differed from the traditional open house held on May 23rd. The virtual open house expanded participation to a broader audience from a geographic perspective. This is helpful as often times a project will have regional implications, but the locations for public meetings will be held at local sites, limiting potential input from regional perspectives. In addition to the increase in attendance from a broader geographic spectrum of the population, the opportunity to increase participation from the public in planning processes though mobile accessibility to virtual open houses is great. If the site has a well-designed mobile-optimized presence, it can provide members of the public with the opportunity to provide input on the go – effectively taking the public involvement process to their fingertips, rather than forcing them to come to us. Finally, the live chat sessions during the virtual open house are an imperative aspect of truly providing an opportunity for meaningful input to be gleaned through two-way interaction. Attendance to the Oak Hill Parkway virtual open house spiked during real-time chat sessions. So even if there were not an overwhelming number of comments and questions, the concept of a “virtual event” still drove participation. Moreover,  VOHs can potentially narrow the digital divide as more underserved populations have access to the internet via smartphones and the ease of accessibility could even make the VOH a tool that increases input from these populations.

 Project Attributes

Project Primary Purpose
Accessibility Improvement, Aesthetic Improvement, Mobility/System Efficiency, Regional Connection Improvement, Safety Improvement
Target Communities
Commercial/Retail, Established Neighborhood, New Neighborhoods, Suburban, Urban
Target Populations
Commuters, Persons with Disabilities, Racial or Ethnic Minorities, Seniors, Students/Youth, Transit-Dependent Populations
Project Planning
Highway or Interchange

 Primary Technique

  • Virtual Meetings/Workshops

 Other Techniques used

  • 91;#Video Sharing

 Contact Info

Tina Geiselbrecht and Ben Ettelman
Texas A&M Transportation Institute
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