Transcending Neighborhood Boundaries to Connect Voices

At the end of  last week,  Nicole and I felt very unsure of where we were headed.

We had wanted to find a way to bring voices to the city, and take the pulse of the people (see our original concept of the Austin is Me truck). We felt it was important to bring Austinites together, but our experiments were forcing people to act unnaturally. When invited to come chat on the street, people didn’t answer their doors, and didn’t really want to be interrupted. The our aim was to allow people to recognize commonalities and feel empowered within their city. We thought that since neighborhoods had always been such a source of community for people, we should reignite this interconnectivity. But many people don’t seek to find community in their neighborhoods any longer. So how else might we do this?

Back to the research boards.

Having a second look at the research there were some strong themes that called to us. Voices from people like Ellen. She once tried to reach out to her councilman, but never heard back from him and became angry and discouraged. “Did he think I was just bugging him? Do they actually even care?” Ellen’s questions are echoed by citizens all over the city. This feels like the real issue. Instead of asking people to engage that normally wouldn’t, a good starting point might be to help the people that are inclined to engage with the city to feel successful.

The Feedback Loop

However, one of the biggest challenges to feeling success is  the current feedback loop. It works like this:


The way government works is obscure. Residents don’t understand what is happening at city hall and this lack of feedback causes them to lose confidence in the system, and even in themselves. Residents that do reach out to city government and don’t see any results start to think, Maybe I’m not very important.

The Success Stories

So where do we see success?

Nicole and I found success stories in people like Diego. A man that was once very anti-government, found early success when personally invited to participate in a petition against a local issue. He joined, and later spear-headed, a coalition that has gained traction and influence in the city. The difference in Diego and Ellen? He joined forces with many voices, and Ellen’s voice stood alone.

Engage with City copy@72x-100

However, Diego works to make his voice and opinions heard full-time. Engaging with the government can turn into a full-time job, but it shouldn’t be this way.

Our Concept

These two stories and what we’ve learned over the past two weeks, has led Nicole and I to some hone in on a slightly new direction with our concept. We are working with a couple of new design principles:

Our design should…

  1. Make participation feel open to everyone
  2. Require minimal time and energy commitments
  3. Include a feedback loop
  4. Help residents see that they are not alone in their struggles, viewpoints, or concerns
  5. Allow people to engage on their own time
  6. Lastly, it should give an easy to understand view of what Austinites care about

The last point moves towards our secondary hope for this platform. Our hope is that it can exist as a map that portrays the thoughts, feelings, and concerns in a snapshot that the city can use to better understand it’s residents.

Platform Collection@72x-100


The idea is that people’s voices will be joined together and a visual will be created that tracks trends, giving more weight to individual voices. It might be something like this:

Artboard 1@72x-100

This new concept isn’t perfect of course. We face the problem of collecting an adequate data set to start with.

We attempted an experiment this week.


The thought was, we’d have to draw people in and collect data from them, so we needed something intriguing enough to compel people to want to tell us what they care about. Maybe we could get data by making it feel like a fun personality quiz, or by pulling residents in with off-beat facts about Austin. Then we could use this information to start building the “Pulse of Austin” platform.

Question: Could we survey people at a coffee shop and use qualitative responses to create an interesting data set?

We set off asking people about their neighbors:

What do your neighbors think about you?

What do you think about them?

How many of your neighbors names do you know?

We heard some good stories but after speaking to 8 people, I’m not sure we were seeing any useful trends yet.

So I started to wonder, could we just build a data set from something that already exists? And then would residents come to use the platform, not because it’s fun but just because they care? After all, our early adopters will be people that want to make their voice heard anyway. People like Diego and Ellen.

Next Steps

Moving forward the biggest piece of the puzzle that is still missing is the feedback loop.

Our goals for this coming week are to:

  1. Gather data either through something that already exists, like at, or straight up ask people through a survey that we can then compile into a visual.
  2. Figure out the feedback loop part (!).
  3. Sit down with people and see how they respond to answering “what’s on your mind?” or “what do you care about?” and follow their thinking process to see how they phrase concerns or find alignment with the concerns of others.

It’s a lot to cover, so check back here for updates next week.