Including Residents in Civic Tech Development

By Sean Thornton • April 27, 2016

Earlier this year, the City of Chicago launched OpenGrid, its latest and most interactive web platform for open data. OpenGrid lets residents visually understand and navigate map-based city data on their computer, tablet, or phone. Yet while the application is already up and running, it is by no means a final product: Chicago plans for it to be continually updated and upgraded, with input from the public along the way.

The first of these crowdsourced enhancement mechanisms has to do with OpenGrid’s open-source nature. Since OpenGrid’s code is available on the file-sharing site GitHub, Chicago encourages users with programming experience to contribute to the application’s GitHub repository. This means that the public can suggest or add new features, or report or fix bugs in the system that the City may not have noticed. By crowdsourcing these functions, Chicago is able to considerably expand its capacity to revise OpenGrid and help ensure it matures gracefully in the coming years.

Programmers, however, make up a very small portion of the overall population of a city – as a platform grounded in open data, OpenGrid’s mission is to be accessible by anyone who wishes to learn more about their city. The Smart Chicago Collaborative, one of Chicago’s partners in helping launch OpenGrid, is also helping ensure that the application stays true to that mission.

How, you ask? Through the Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup), of course.

CUTGroup, one of SmartChicago’s anchor programs, compensates residents from all corners of the city to test civic websites and apps. These tests not only engage all of Chicago in the civic app development process, but provide valuable information to developers seeking to enhance their apps’ usability and performance.

CUTGroup’s process provides a vital link between developer and user that the civic tech world sometimes lacks. It’s one of the most human crowd-sourced enhancement mechanisms that a civic app developer could have in her toolkit. In Chicago, CUTGroup has been a success, and given its adaptable model, the program has implications for other cities who wish to engage in similar work.

On April 19th, 2016, more than 20 testers from across Chicago came to test OpenGrid at the Henry Legler Library in Garfield Park, on the city’s West Side. To get a deeper understanding of CUTGroup and the impact it could have on OpenGrid, I attended as a volunteer. What transpired for me was a fascinating look into how the program is helping make the civic app development process – and the civic tech field - more inclusive and diverse as it matures.

The CUTGroup Experience

Upon entering the Henry Legler Library’s event space, I was welcomed to a large room filled with small tables, chairs, and laptops set up to accommodate one tester and one proctor. As a volunteer proctor, my job was straightforward: to spend some time one-on-one with a tester as he or she explored OpenGrid. For each session, I was tasked with asking a set of questions and reporting observations using Wufoo, an online reporting tool that specializes in survey documentation and analysis.

Each session lasted between 30 and 60 minutes, and it was the tester’s technical skill set that set the tone. As a map-based application that relies on querying specific types of data, OpenGrid came more naturally to some than others. Those who were regular users of popular applications such as Google Maps and Microsoft Access, for example, found OpenGrid more accessible than those who were not.

In the three full sessions I proctored, the diversity of those testers’ skills and backgrounds was remarkable. Testers ranged not just in technical skill level, but in familiarity with city data, as well as age, race and ethnicity, and neighborhood of residence.

For every session, I asked the same set of questions and requested the same set of exercises for each tester, remaining as neutral and objective as I could throughout the process. Some key questions included the following:

  • Review the homepage and tell us about the three things you notice first.
  • Who do you think this website is targeted to? Why?
  • Find 311 service requests that are currently open in your neighborhood. Tell me about your experience.
  • What improvements might you make in order to make OpenGrid easier to use?

Each tester was highly engaged throughout the process—so much so that it wasn’t possible to write down all of their feedback. In reviewing OpenGrid, tester responses and recommendations often centered around three aspects of the application: the user experience itself, the degree of understanding they had about operating the application, and the degree of relevance the application could have in their personal and professional lives.

These responses also fittingly align with the three main components that CUTGroup focuses on: determining an app’s usability, understanding digital skills required for use, and gauging an app’s potential for community engagement and impact.

Smart Chicago Executive Director Dan O’Neil’s 2014 book, The CUTGroup, details the history, purpose, and methods of the program. In doing so, it serves as a handy “how-to” guide for any other city or community that wishes to pursue similar efforts. In the book, he also describes how these three components are evident in the program.

“We struggle at Smart Chicago with how prescriptive we should be with our program,” writes O’Neil. “Clearly, any kind of user testing is helpful to the technology developers. The teaching and learning of digital skills is a worthwhile act, regardless of context. And any time civic hackers can get with community members—in any settings, for any purpose—that’s a good thing.”

For OpenGrid, this means that getting the CUTGroup experience is more than UX testing feedback—it is an educational opportunity, for both the testers and the developers present at the event.

As Smart Chicago continues to process OpenGrid’s results from last week’s event, Chicago will have substantial information to inform its continuous enhancements of the application. Chicago hopes that the CUTGroup’s process will help aid OpenGrid the way it has helped aid other local tech apps, including the EveryBlock iPhone App, FoodBorne, the Chicago Health Atlas, and, among others.

Integrating civic engagement into civic tech was a key part of the development of all these apps – since, after all, they were made to be used by people. Indeed, as SmartChicago’s tag line for CUTGroup goes - if it doesn’t work for the people, it doesn’t work.

Top photo credit by Smart Chicago Collaborative

About the Author

Sean Thornton

Sean Thornton is a Program Advisor for the Ash Center's Civic Analytics Network and writer for Data-Smart City Solutions.  Based in Chicago and working in partnership with the city's Department of Innovation and Technology, Sean holds joint Masters’ degrees from the University of Chicago, in Public Policy and Social Service Administration. His work has spanned the city's public, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors.