Capturing Austin’s Pulse – Part 1

Source of Inspiration

Last week, Kaley Coffield and I generated hundreds of ideas around what we could create to increase empathy and improve connections between Austinites. Of those ideas, we took three into higher fidelity, imagining how they could materialize.

Our energy and excitement pulled us towards the Austin Is Me Truck. At a high level, the truck would drive around Austin and stop in different neighborhoods, setting up with music and activities to draw people out of their homes. At each stop, the driver would facilitate and capture residents’ stories and discussions around topics they find engaging, from anxiety to creativity.

Last week's storyboard for the Austin Is Me truck.
Last week’s storyboard for the Austin Is Me truck.

Our Goals:

  1. Collect diverse voices to create content on how Austinites are currently feeling in their city
  2. Inspire continued conversations and connections between Austinites
  3. Make Austinites feel heard

Scaling Back for Experimentation

Before jumping straight into creating our musical Austin-Mobile, Kaley and I decided to test the most essential requirements for our vision to work:

  1. Will people approach us, unprompted, out of intrigue for what we have set up?
  2. Will people be open to sharing their thoughts – and allow us to record what they have to say?

We hypothesized that, between 2 locations, we could collect 20 responses around a static conversation piece and capture at least 15 of these responses on video.

For our first locations, we selected Brew & Brew, a bustling coffee shop in the Central East area of Austin, and Givens Community Center, a popular facility for families who live in East Austin.

Crafting the Conversation

Initially, we were only going to give participants the option to write one word about how Austin makes them feel, but when we tested the prompt, the woman we asked told us two words: “I feel both energized and stressed”.

People have conflicting feelings and varying emotions. Hence, we put two white boards up to give people the flexibility to express their range of sentiments.

Prototype: Austin Makes Me Feel ___ and ____.
The first participant interacting with this week’s prototype.

Stop 1: Brew & Brew

We first set up our experiment at Brew & Brew on Tuesday at 4:30 pm, and we were surprised by the response. As soon as we set up, a man immediately came up and asked us, “May I?” then proceeded to write on the board. Others followed suit, while some people needed to be prompted to write. People stood to the side of the board, looking at it, awaiting some type of explanation. “What’s this about?” they would wonder.

Our role as facilitators felt crucial to the experiment’s success, because explaining the why behind what we were doing motivated and resonated with people who otherwise may have left the artifact alone. We still wonder what the level of motivation and interaction would look like if we left the artifact unattended.

Brew & Brew Participant. "Austin makes me feel BORED and UNDERUTILIZED."
Brew & Brew participant: “Austin makes me feel BORED and UNDERUTILIZED.”

Brew and Brew delivered a mix of opinions, some positive and some negative. It was great to see that people felt comfortable to honestly express how they were feeling. Several people touched on very personal things, like being on the brink of homelessness and feeling out of place.

A participant at Brew & Brew sharing how Austin makes her feel.

Stop 2: Givens Recreation Center

We arrived at Givens Recreation Center at 3:30 pm on Thursday, where we pulled up to the parking lot and drove through a group of around 50 people who were hanging out near their cars playing music, drinking, smoking, and chatting. A man stopped us by standing in front of the car, calling us “caucasian butterflies,” then asking what we were doing “in the hood”. He then directed us to set up by a tree where we would be removed from the scene.

Givens Rec Center Participants Engaging with the Prototype
Two of our Givens Rec Center participants engaging with the prototype.

While this man stayed with us throughout our time at Givens, only a handful of other people wandered over to see what we were doing. After some side arguments spurred, we were instructed to leave for our safety.

The biggest learning from this location is that context is key. We were interrupting an afternoon ritual in a sacred space. This community did not trust our intentions, nor did they take our experiment seriously. Of the three people who engaged with the board, only one responded to the prompt of how Austin made her feel.


Prompt interpretation for how Austin makes him feel
One Givens participant’s response to the prompt

We found ourselves in an unexpected environment at Givens, and we pushed to see if we could capture the moment. Unfortunately, the context just did not fit, and we have some challenges to consider as we strive to capture the voices of all Austinites moving forward.

Stop 3: East 11th Street

We moved on from Givens and arrived on East 11th Street at about 4:30 pm on Thursday, where we did not happen upon much foot traffic, and those passing by generally did not want to write on the board. The few whom we did speak with either worked in the area or were eating at the place next to us. What we learned here is that catching passing traffic is not going to be effective, but perhaps going to people’s places of work could be.

Odessa Texas Participant
A visitor from Odessa, Texas who spent time at the adjacent businesses

Captured Responses

All responses captured this week
All responses captured this week

Next Steps

The next piece of the idea we need to prototype is the  facilitated pop-up conversations around a specific topic.

Our plan for next week is to head into a neighborhood, post up a table with chairs with some coffee and cookies, and invite people to come out of their homes to speak with us. It is crucial for us to learn if people will leave their homes, and if residents will be engaged by impromptu guided discussions. Will they want to share? Will they feel comfortable enough to offer differing opinions?

Area for Support

Moving forward, how might we build trust with people who dissociate from us? How can we find common ground and tap into what might motivate people to share their thoughts with us? Kaley and I would love to engage in conversation around these challenges.