UXPA Boston 2013: Design For America - Your Country Needs UX

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  • Hi, thanks to everyone for coming out today – I’m sure you’re all here today to see me and not to stake out your table for lunch at noon. But regardless, I am glad to see all of you here. My name is Harlan Weber. I’m a professional interaction designer, and I work at a startup in Lexington.I’m here today to talk to you about civic technology and innovation. I’m going to try and keep this talk around 30 minutes, because I’m sure there’ll be a bunch of questions at the end, but before I even get started, I want to say thank you to Chris, Dan, and all of UXPA Boston for giving me the opportunity to speak to you all. I also want to ask - just by show of hands – is there anyone here today who works or has worked for a municipal government. I kind of want to know beforehand if I’m going to be cheered or booed or both, and I’ll be curious to hear your feedback after the talk. Ok cool, let’s get started.
  • So when I said that I’m an interaction designer, that’s only halfway true. In actuality, I live kind of a dual-life.
  • By day, I work at a company of about 50 people called OnForce, located in Lexington, where I lead design and qualitative research efforts for the Product and Technology group, working closely with our engineering team as we build mobile and web products to support our on-demand labor management platform.
  • But by night, I also work as the organizer of a volunteer group of about 175 developers, designers, urban planners, researchers, and data geeks called Code for Boston. Code for Boston is the local chapter of a nationwide network of similar volunteer groups called Brigades, which are part of Code for America, a non-profit based in San Francisco aimed transforming government through the use of creative technology. This picture was actually taken at our very first meeting, at Involution Studios in Arlington.
  • My route to being involved with Code for America and leading this dual-life is a somewhat long and convoluted one. Early in my career, I worked for a few design firms that worked primarily on medical devices – mostly embedded screen interfaces – and I took a lot of emotional satisfaction out of that work. If I created a UI that helped a heart surgeon diagnose a hazardous condition 20 seconds earlier, that probably saves a couple hundred peoples’ lives a year. As I moved on to different companies, I started working on products that were more business focused, products that had less emotional resonance for me. The work was even more technically challenging and intellectually stimulating than the medical work, but it wasn’t really spiritually satisfying. So, I started looking around for a way that I could make a difference, but still use the skills I’d spent so many years developing. Luckily, I’m not the only one, and a chance encounter with a friend in the non-profit world put me in touch with the right people at the still-young Code for America, and here we are today.But, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Before we get into the Brigade, Code for America, and the ways that we – and others – are trying to change the face of government, we need to talk a little history.
  • The story of civic innovation starts with a story about technology. I’m pretty sure that everyone in this room can agree that technology is pretty awesome. The advances we’ve made over the last 20 years, primarily in the private sector, have been nothing short of transformational. They’ve turned this into this.
  • This music store into Pandora.
  • This music store into Pandora.
  • Newspapers and publishing
  • Have turned into Flipboard (and Twitter), which is totally awesome.
  • Telecom
  • And this into this. Which, while possibly less stylish, is definitely more awesome.
  • So, some awesome ways that technology has transformed our lives. To get a little more abstract, on the process side, we’ve been able to turn this waterfall-style Gantt chart.
  • Into an Agile board, giving us more freedom and flexibility in the way we work.
  • And on the process side, we’ve been able to turn software specs that look like this
  • Into this iterative process diagram, where can learn more, and faster, from our users, and tune our designs accordingly. This is actually from Jeff Gothelf’s Lean UX article on Smashing Magazine. I know there’s a couple of Lean UX presentations here today, you should check it out if you can, hopefully it will change your mind the way it did mine. And what’s important about these process tools isn’t just the increases in efficiency or output, it’s the mentality that goes with them: Collaborative, agile, iterative, responsive to user needs.
  • In the private / commercial sector, there’s been this sort of evolutionary pressure that’s forced companies to continually innovate, and we’ve developed all these awesome products and services and ways of thinking that have completely revolutionized entire industries – music, movies, publishing, telecommunications, even software development itself. Basically everything we do on a daily basis has been transformed by advances in social, mobile, and web technologies, and ways of thinking about them like Agile and Lean Startup. But there’s one place where that sort of evolutionary pressure and transformation hasn’t really occurred…
  • But there’s one area it hasn’t really touched – the government. In the government, things are a little bit different.
  • In the government, processes often looks like this - where technology projects that have to go through the typical procurement process can take from 2-8 years to complete. And while there are lot of good reasons for why the system was constructed this way – mostly having to do with fighting corruption and favoritism - that simply doesn’t fly when Moore’s law is turning this desktop into a Surface in the intervening time.
  • In the government, processes often looks like this - where technology projects that have to go through the typical procurement process can take from 2-8 years to complete. And while there are lot of good reasons for why the system was constructed this way – mostly having to do with fighting corruption and favoritism - that simply doesn’t fly when Moore’s law is turning this desktop into a Surface in the intervening time.
  • While the process is like that, the structure and the thinking are like this: departments siloed off from each other, not sharing data, not sharing resources, not collaborating.
  • Or worse, they think like this: closed, non-transparent, uncommunicative with their citizens. Lack of understanding and education about the real benefits of technology can lead to City IT departments into a defensive attitude that resists positive change. And sometimes, cities don’t even know how to talk about this stuff. [Barry story]There’s an element of fear that can lead to an unwillingness to make municipal data freely available to the public - cities often resist releasing their data, especially financial data, because they only see it as a way to be killed in the press, and not the wonderful opportunity for leveraging developer talent to do stuff for the city for free that it actually represents.
  • So, we’ve got a slow, siloed, closed governmental organizations that somehow still needs to meet the needs of a population that has increasingly high expectations for their product and service providers, and it’s a pretty bad situation! Governments are falling behind – technologically, for sure, in terms of their own systems, but more importantly, in being able to think about and execute on new and innovative ways to serve their citizens. Most local governments lack both the skills and the vocabulary to talk about these things. And problematically, the longer this keeps up, the longer citizens will be denied the benefits of new technology in their daily lives.
  • In all honesty, this need for better products and services to address government shortcomings has already been observed and started to be addressedin the commercial space – but in the pursuit of profit, not for the overall social good.
  • As it turns out, a lot of people are trying to address this problem, gathered together into what O’Reilly Media has coined the Gov 2.0 movement, but is also called civic technology, civic hacking, or civic innovation. I prefer innovation, personally, because it places more of an emphasis on creative solutions to civic problems from a number of angles, rather than focusing on technology which, although important, is just one method and limits the scope of what we can accomplish. Hacking is a word I really like too, because it implies reshaping and reforming existing tools for new usage, but ever since –this- happened, not to mention this, this, this, and this - the word “hacker” and “hacking” has a somewhat negative connotation
  • As it turns out, a lot of people are trying to address this problem, gathered together into what O’Reilly Media has coined the Gov 2.0 movement, but is also called civic technology, civic hacking, or civic innovation. I prefer innovation, personally, because it places more of an emphasis on creative solutions to civic problems from a number of angles, rather than focusing on technology which, although important, is just one method and limits the scope of what we can accomplish. Hacking is a word I really like too, because it implies reshaping and reforming existing tools for new usage, but ever since –this- happened, not to mention this, this, this, and this - the word “hacker” and “hacking” has a somewhat negative connotation
  • As it turns out, a lot of people are trying to address this problem, gathered together into what O’Reilly Media has coined the Gov 2.0 movement, but is also called civic technology, civic hacking, or civic innovation. I prefer innovation, personally, because it places more of an emphasis on creative solutions to civic problems from a number of angles, rather than focusing on technology which, although important, is just one method and limits the scope of what we can accomplish. Hacking is a word I really like too, because it implies reshaping and reforming existing tools for new usage, but ever since –this- happened, not to mention this, this, this, and this - the word “hacker” and “hacking” has a somewhat negative connotation
  • So, Civic innovation is it, If you ask me, and there are four main focus areas to civic innovation that cover most everything we do. Improving government processes, increasing government transparency, increasing civic engagement, and improving the citizen experience. Improving government processes means creating better ways for city employees to do their jobs, like better procurement processes and software tools to support their day-to-day work. Increasing Transparency means making civic data free, open, and publically available. We can improve the citizen experience by making apps that help residents with things like mass transit, receiving municipal information, and taking advantage of city resources like parks and bike trails. And increasing civic engagement is about mediating a transaction between government and citizen – for example, providing an easy way for citizens to report public works issues to the City, which create richer, mutually beneficial interactions for both parties.Although technology solutions are a big part of it, addressing these areas also requires design, user research, anthropology and policymaking.
  • So, now that we’ve got a bit better understanding of the problem, and a good working definition, let’s get into some solutions. Like I alluded to, there a number of groups out there that are doing civic innovation work, usually paying particular attention to one of those focus areas – groups like Muckrock, the Engagement Game Lab, CityCamp, and more
  • But today, I’m really going to focus on two: Code for America on the national level, and The Mayors Office of New Urban Mechanics leading the charge right here in Boston. I’ll give you a bit of an overview of their mission and structure, and then walk through a few of the civic apps they’ve created to give a taste of what’s going happening out in the field.
  • Let’s get started with Code for America. Code for America is a non-profit startup that connects developers and designers with local governments, helping them to innovate and keep pace with the private sector. Active for about four years, Code for America represents a new way for governments to connect with their constituents, and vice versa.
  • Three main elements of Code for America: The fellowship, the accelerator, and the Brigade. The Fellowship is Code for America’s flagship program. It’s a yearlong program where teams of developers, designers, and planners are sent to host cities across the country to work with local governments on technology projects. In a nutshell, Fellows quit their jobs, move to Code for America HQ in San Francisco, get 2 months of policy and civic training, and then are formed into teams and deployed to partner cities to work directly with governments and local civic groups on problems for that city. The Fellowship has been around for three years, and is in 9 cities currently, including Kansas City, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Oakland, South Bend, San Mateo, Louisville, and Summit County, OH.
  • Boston was actually one of the very first fellowship cities. In conjunction with partners at the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (more on them later), and with the Department of Public Works, they created a real civic engagement focused app called Adopt-a-Hydrant, which lets citizens “adopt” a fire hydrant that they promise to dig out during snowstorms. Per city ordinance, all hydrants have to be clear within 24 hours of snowfall, and by activating citizens in this way – folks who are going to be out shoveling their cars anyway – the City saves a ton of time and money. Adopta was also built as a platform to allow any piece of civic infrastructure to be adopted – so groups in Oakland have redeployed it for storm drains, and in Raleigh they use it for bus stops. Also, you may see that little ‘Built in Boston” tag at the bottom. It’s just a way to indicate all the great work being done locally.
  • In New Orleans, the Fellows created BlightStatus, which actually hits all four of the focus areas, to help the city and citizens monitor and keep track of Blighted properties from the Hurricane Katrina. After the hurricane, as you’ve all seen, New Orleans experienced a lot of physical destruction, but also flight, as some people who fled the city during the storm never returned. This left the city – and local neighborhoods – with the problem of abandoned and blighted properties, which pull down property values and have a high correlation with an increased crime rate. Residents who lived in areas with these blighted properties had no good way of knowing their status – would they be sold, torn down, inspected, etc – and the city had no good way of communicating their efforts to the citizens. BlightStatus solved this by keeping a crowdsourced database of blighted properties that residents could use to both track the status of properties they’re interested in and report issues with properties to the city.
  • The app was so successful that it’s regularly used as a focal point in New Orleans town hall meetings, and Detroit has been investigating their own deployment.
  • Next is an Accelerator, now going into it’s second class,which works with for-profit firms operating in the civic and social good space, helping them to get off their feet.
  • One of the 2011 class made Recovers.org, a citizen experience and government process tool that helps community and government groups organize during disasters. It lets people in disaster areas find where to get help if they need it, and how others can volunteer time, money, and energy to the recovery effort. It was deployed in four New York neighborhoods after Hurricane Sandy – Staten Island, the Rockaways, Red Hook, and the Lower East Side, and it’s also being used to assist with recovery efforts in Moore, OK.
  • Lastly, is the Brigade. The Brigade is a network of local groups of citizen activists, developers, designers, government folks, urban planners, and community leaders in each city where they live, working on civic apps and open data solutions to address specific problems in each city. It’s different from the fellowship in that Brigade is all volunteer, and we’re a part of the cities in which we’re working, serving as a focal point for civic innovation activities, whereas the Fellows are more like consultants.
  • The Brigade is a new way to engage with the government as a citizen. As Jen says, we’re not going to fix government until we fix citizenship, until we build an active, participatory form of citizen that cares about governance and is ready to engage. As of right now, there are Brigade communities in 39 cities, including Chicago, New York, Oakland, San Francisco, Tulsa, Raleigh, Denver, Grand Rapids, and of course, here in Boston, along with dozens more. We’re in constant communication with each other, sharing stories, best practices, and of course, code, creating a nationwide network of civic technologists who are learning how to improve our cities, together.
  • But I’m not just here to talk about any brigade. I’m here to talk about the Boston Brigade. Boston, as it turns out, is pretty awesome in the land of civic technology. We have an incredible base of tech talentand really engaged governmental and municipal partners, which has allowed our Brigade to flourish.
  • Key databeen around since october~175 members, with about 30 who are “active”. This puts us, size-wise, at one of the larger groups in the country.Meet every Tuesday at CIC
  • We’re currently working on five apps, two of which have been deployed, and two additional initiatives which are more policy oriented. I’ll walk you quickly through our two deployed apps, and I’m happy to answer any questions about our other work during Q&A or lunch.
  • The flu shot app is actually a pretty cool story. Most of you, especially those with little kids, will remember the flu outbreak we had over the winter. It got so bad, that in January, the Mayor of Boston declared an emergency and made free flu shots available to city residents. A list of clinics was published on the city website, but it was a very simple list that just included addresses and times the clinics were available. It didn’t really help to guide users to find which clinics were closest, or help them to find out which ones were open during times they were available. At a Brigade meeting, we thought it would be better to display those clinics on a map, maybe with some date filtering as well. And then I remember a conversation I’d had with Chris Whitaker, my corollary at the Chicago Brigade – they’d actually built that tool earlier in the year for the flu outbreak in Chicago. I fired off a quick email to Chris, and he pointed me to the codebase and put me in direct contact with the developer. The Brigade got together to jam on the app and prep it for Boston – thanks to Emily Dirsh for staying out late and jamming on it - and within 30 hours, we had an app up on city servers. It was a really good example of the speed and power of the Briagde network, and we actually got a little press about it.
  • The Boston Green Map was originally a project from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, or MAPC, a regional planning group. They wanted to make an app that would help residents explore the green spaces around them, and help them to take advantage of the parks in their area. They build this app as part of a civic hackathon two years ago, and then donated it to the Brigade, where we’ve provided some design support and functionality tweaks. Although it’s deployed already, it’s still a work in progresss. But collaboration with local municipal organizations, and serving as custodian of civic innovation efforts, is another way that the Brigade engages with the community.
  • But the Brigade isn’t the only group here in Boston doing this sort of work. Actually, as I’ve found out over the last few months or organizing the Brigade, Boston is particularly fertile ground for civic innovation, which I guess isnt a surprise. In addition to the huge base of developers and designers, we have a bit of a history with this government transformation stuff. Boston is where democracy in America was born, and we should be leading the charge for this next phase of the government by and for the people. And it’s actually already happening.
  • Any discussion of civic innovation in Boston starts with The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. Essentially an innovation lab embedded in the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics is national leader in civic innovation, was formed right here in Boston, They build partnerships with private industry, academics, and community groups to provide innovative government services to the people of Boston.
  • Citizens Connect, built here in Boston.
  • This is where residents can see reports submitted from the mobile app. This actually led to a pretty interesting story, where someone in Southie saw a message posted by his neighbor that said “Raccoon found in garbage can, not sure if it is alive or dead”. So, he went across the yard to investigate, and later posted: “Tipped over garbage can and racoon ran out. All is well!” So, this application isnt just facilitating government-to-citizen interaction, it’s also helping citizens to help each other. It’s been so wildly successful, that it’s rolling out to 40 additional communities outside of Boston over the next few months.
  • Street Cred is a new initiative from New Urban Mechanics that lives at the intersection of policy, technology, and design. It’s a program designed to plug in to other civic apps – like Adopt-a-Hydrant, Citizens Connect, and more – to create a sort of social currency and achievement system based on the use of civic apps. I don’t have a screenshot because it’s still in development, but it should be rolling out this summer.Their model has been so successful, the city of Philadelphia launched their over Department of New Urban Mechanics last year.
  • There’s a ton of other stuff going on as well – the Sunlight Foundation is a national non-profit focused on increasing government transparency, and their recently-launched Open States application was built in their Boston office in Ft. Point. Open States provides a one-stop shop for getting information about your state government, including a breakdown of the legislature, recently passed and voted on bills, and the meeting times of various legislative committees.
  • Even the Knight Foundation, who NPR listeners will certainly recognize as a large, national charitable foundation that focuses mostly on journalism and free press issues, they recently launched their own Challenge around exploring new ways that government and citizens interact. They had 800 entries, ranging from
  • Boston’s City Hall to Go truck, which drives around and provides city services to people who can’t make it to city hall for things like paying parking tickets, business permits, and more,.
  • to Outline.com, which is an online budget simulator that uses open state budget data to allow citizens to explore the state budget using a SimCity-like interface
  • So, there’s a lot of great apps and services out there, doing a lot of really great things for citizens, both here in Boston and elsewhere. So where do we come in? What’s the role of UX in this movement. Well, as it turns out – the technology piece isn’t actually that hard, in most cases. Assuming the data is there to work with, all we’re really doing is applying software development tools and approaches that we’re familiar with from the private sector in the civic context. It’s keeping people engaged with their local towns and cities that’s hard. Getting people to use civic applications and interact with their governments in a rich way that’s hard – because those aren’t things that can be solved with technology. They require an understanding of the way people behave, and the ability to help them get to their desired outcomes. Luckily, that’s what we as user experience designers and researchers, are really good at.
  • And it comes down to two things. One is our ability to empathize, to truly understand user needs, something developers as a whole tend to not be great at. Understanding the needs and desires of people in their role as citizen is pretty different from looking at them in their role as consumer. Their relationship with government can be very complex – as citizens, “government” is the waters we swim in. It’s sort of like a consumers’ relationship with say, Verizon, only you can’t get out of the contract unless you pack up your life and move away. Our ability as UX practitioners to get to the heart of citizen needs and turn them into actionable recommendations is the first – and often neglected - step on the road to crafting a successful civic experience.Second, is our ability to visualize – the ability to address those citizen needs in a visual, tangible format. It’s something that is sorely missing from a lot of the civic innovation movement. The applications I showed previous are kind of best in class, and the reality is that more of them look like this
  • This is NearbyFYI, an app created by a local developer in Watertown, intended to help small towns capture and disseminate town hall meeting notes. There’s a lot of good civic data in here – a ton of it! – but almost none of it is actually usable. There’s no clear information structure, a poor use of white space, and navigation that doesn’t really guide me to find the information critical to my needs. This guy is BEGGING for a designer to come in and help focus the experience and help the app fulfill its potential.
  • Another MAPC app,
  • Even the flu shot app that we spoke about earlier. Designed originally by a developer, it’s got a lot of reliance on Bootstrap for visual design, and some weird interactions in terms of date filtering. While it’s OK and functional and helps citizens find out where to get a flu shot, it could be made a lot better with features like calendar integration, social sharing, and simply some better content strategy.
  • So as you can see, design is a critical piece of the civic innovation puzzle, and one that’s pretty light on particiaption right now. But this is where you come in. If this resonates at all with any of you, if you feel like you could be using your skills for the benefit of the community, if you want to help make a change in government, then we’re looking for you to stand up and get involved, and there’s a few ways you can do that. You can join the Brigade and help support one of the projects already in motion, or come out and pitch a new one. The Fellowship is currently accepting applications for the 2014 class, and offers a more substantial form of engagement. You can also keep up with us on Twitter, and always feel free to drop me a line personally.
  • I’d also like to announce another way you can get involved: By participating in the “Instant Impact Design Challenge”. This 90-day challenge comes out of a partnership between Code for Boston, UXPA Boston, and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, and is generously sponsored by ProtoShare. For the challenge, New Urban Mechanics will be providing several problem statements that represent civic problems they’re currently trying to address – examples range from redesigning the City website to better meet citizen needs to improving the experience of the City Hall To Go Truck to inspiring citizens to create parklets in their neighborhood - which will be taken on by teams of UXPA designers working in tandem with Code for Boston Brigade members. Participants will have access to Protoshare’s collaborative prototyping application to support their work, and winners of the challenge will have their application hosted live on City of Boston servers.It’s an opportunity to experience a lot of the civic innovation goodness we’ve been discussion throughout this session: applying your skills for the social good, working with developers on a live application, and being part of the solution sharing and network effect that defines the Brigade. Check out the survey link if you’re interested.
  • So that’s what I’ve got for you today. Hopefully I’ve inspired some of you to take your considerable UX skills and apply them for the social good, and thanks for taking the time to listen. Who has questions?


  • 1. Harlan WeberBrigade Captain | Code for Bostonhweber@codeforamerica.orgDesign for America:Your Country Needs UX
  • 2. Technology FTW
  • 3. http://uxdesign.smashingmagazine.com/2011/03/07/lean-ux-getting-out-of-the-deliverables-business/
  • 4. Civic Innovation (n):An open, collaborativeapproach to solving civic andsocial problems.Civic Innovation draws on thetools, methods, and mentality rooted in theinnovation ecosystem of the private sector.
  • 5. Civic Innovation Focus Areas Improving government processes Increasing transparency Improving the citizen experience Increasing civic engagement
  • 6. A new form ofgovernment service
  • 7. We’re not going to fix government untilwe fix citizenshipJen PahlkaFounder and Executive Director
  • 8. Code For Boston Started in October 2012 Part of the first class of Brigade cities ~30 active / 175 total members Meet every Tuesday at CambridgeInnovation Center to work on civic techprojects
  • 9. Code For Boston Projects Boston Flu Shot App Deployed Boston Green Spaces Deployed Pantry Pickup In Progress Urbanite In Progress Cambridge Open Data In Progress Technology Education In Progress
  • 10. Boston Massacre, 1770Print by Paul Revere
  • 11. But where doesUSER EXPERIENCEfit in?
  • 12. An ability toEMPATHIZEAn ability toVISUALIZE
  • 13. Join the Brigadewww.meetup.com/Code-for-BostonApply for the Fellowshipwww.codeforamerica.org/fellows/apply/Follow us on Twitter@CodeForBoston #cfabrigadeDrop me a line!hweber@codeforamerica.orgGet Involved.
  • 14. Participate in theInstant ImpactDesign Challengehttps://www.surveymonkey.com/s/79ZYDMPSponsored by
  • 15. Harlan WeberBrigade Captain | Code for Bostonhweber@codeforamerica.orgThank you!Questions?@CodeForBostonwww.meetup.com/Code-For-Boston