The Pulse of Austin Goes Mobile
After a short break The Pulse of Austin is back in action and we are finally building out our design! Nicole and I did a lot of spinning our heads this past after a couple of meetings with local stakeholders that did not go as we’d hoped…
As a brief recap, we’ve been looking at civic participation in Austin and how residents reach out to local government and their experiences in doing so. During our research we learned that there are a few primary sentiments that serve as barriers to being civically engaged:
- “I don’t know how it works”
One woman we met expressed interest in letting her local government know about a concern at her grandchildren’s school. However, she didn’t know to whom she should reach out, or how to go about it. As a result, her efforts were unsuccessful, and she is now angry and disengaged with her city government.
2. “I have a job and two kids. I can’t attend a bunch of meetings”
Educating oneself on local issues can take a lot of time. The city’s website is filled with hundred-page PDFs that aren’t reader-friendly. Attending a meeting at City Hall or even a neighborhood association meeting isn’t reasonable for a lot of people due to work constraints and family obligations. Existing opportunities for citizen input are typically during work hours or on weeknights, and they consume at least one solid hour. This doesn’t fit with people’s schedules, nor their priorities.
3. “Government doesn’t feel like it relates to me”
Many people are concerned about local issues, like traffic, but they don’t see their connection to a potential solution. People do not feel a strong sense of agency in creating change at the local level.
Initially we wanted to focus on closing the feedback loop for residents. We focused our goal this week on simulating a topic driven complete feedback loop with a community advocate.
We met with two people specifically we hoped to pilot with. However, after meeting with them, we were forced to reevaluate our original design. What we learned is that we can’t predict the best time for a resident to chime in with their opinion in order to receive timely feedback. The unfortunate truth is, if residents speak up at a city hall meeting, they aren’t likely to make an impact. Agenda items often have already been decided upon by the time they make it to city hall. We don’t want to create a scenario in which a resident voices their concern and still feels unheard because their timing did not work with the issue’s lifecycle. There is something more broken about the system than just a feedback loop solution can address.
While we still believe the feedback loop is crucial to building trust between residents and local government, it doesn’t feel like the best place to start in order to create lasting change and encourage more participation.
Instead, we are starting with the basics.
Regardless of education or income, I can’t tell you how many residents in Austin we’ve met that have no idea where city hall is located, who their representative is, or the fact that Austin is divided into 10 districts.
What if we start by educating residents on how local government works, and in a really personal way? What would civic participation look like in a world where everyone knew what issues were being discussed, who to reach out to with a concern, and even how budgets were decided upon?
Theory of Change
If residents gain more civic confidence, then they will be more likely to participate in their communities, engage with local government, and contribute towards solutions. As Austinites engage with city government more regularly, their voices will carry more influence in shaping their city.
We are creating an an app called the Pulse of Austin, as a way for Austin residents to keep a pulse on what’s happening in the city. Conversely, our hope is that it will also be a way for city stakeholders to better understand the residents’ concerns and sentiments. Not only will users get bite-sized chunks of information about how the city around them functions, but they will be able to weigh in on the things they care about as well as see the perspectives of others.
Although it’s admittedly a bit cliché to for a design solution to take the form of an app, we thought this format would prove especially powerful. With a mobile app we can leverage the GPS within a phone to provide the user with tidbits of information that relate directly to their lives. Making government feel personal will start to build the missing connections between individuals and their city.
For example, if an Austinite regularly takes a walk on the trail around the lake, they might see an alert like this:
Over the next couple of weeks our main focus will be to build out the design and create some of the content that our app will provide. Additionally we will be conducting user testing to seek regular feedback and adjust our design accordingly.
Questions we are still asking
In the short term can we create something valuable enough to keep residents coming back?
And in the long term, is our theory of change correct? Will creating civically confident residents lead to a more collaboration in shaping the city?