The Code for America team in the City of Charlotte is partnering with the Innovation & Technology department, Neighborhood & Business Services department, and the Knight Foundation to work on increasing citizen engagement. An important component to driving citizen engagement is providing citizens with access to relevant and accurate information. Easy access to this information can drive more informed decision making among organizations and communities, which can allow them to have the greatest positive impact by focusing on what the data shows is most important.
One way that Charlotte began this process of civic engagement was with the Quality of Life Study, which has existed in some form since 1993. The study provides a biennial look at social, physical, and economic conditions across the City of Charlotte down to the neighborhood level. The current version of the study has existed since 2010, where the focus spread from residential areas to include business districts.
In 2013, the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County launched the Quality of Life Dashboard, which allows for exploration and exporting of raw data. The dashboard came up repeatedly in conversations with government employees, citizens, nonprofit organizations, and neighborhood organizations during our February residency. The different groups use both the dashboard and the data to determine everything from resource allocation to home purchasing decisions. Initiatives like the Quality of Life Study and Dashboard do an excellent job providing Charlotte residents and organizations with a holistic overview of the city’s health in an easy to use and understand way, and we wanted to see how we could build on that approach.
Through all of our research in February, we discovered that “event-driven” information feeds like rezonings, new businesses, and construction were available in some form, but difficult to curate. Sometimes getting updates relied on citizens
actively seeking the information by regularly visiting a website or calling a department.
We’ve formulated three main areas we believe we can have impact in Charlotte:
1. We are supporting the city as they open up more datasets to the public.
2. We are helping the public connect to the “event-driven” information feeds in the most relevant way possible.
3. Finally, we hope to connect new and existing residents into Charlotte’s strong network of neighborhood groups so they can do more good together.
Over the past six months, we’ve narrowed our focus in Charlotte to one main project and supporting several initiatives. We’ll tell you more about them below.
The city is communicating with people in a lot of different ways, but some gaps still exist due to the trend towards digital communication. The primary gap we are looking at centers on communicating information digitally to citizens in a certain
geographic area. Door hangers, mailers, and postcards currently fill this space –– but as citizens become digital, these physical methods of communication lose their effectiveness and level of engagement.
We believe there is an opportunity to help citizens better understand what’s going on in their area, when it’s going to happen, and why. By providing timely information to citizens in areas that are relevant to them, the city can be proactive instead of reactive, build trust through transparency, and increase civic engagement across the board.
Citygram is a web platform that allows citizens to choose a topic area, designate geographic areas inside that topic, and delivers information to those subscribers whose areas and topics intersect with an event. To guide us through our development
process, we established four key design principles:
>> User Experience: start with user / citizen needs
>> Flexibility: hook into machine-readable data sources via common formats
>> Scalability: can be generalizable across cities
>> Accessibility: allow for individuals to contribute to the project
After our February residency, we built a rough prototype of the application to test the idea using one data feed, an address and radius to define location, and text messaging as the method of communication. When we demoed the prototype, we
received great feedback primarily around adding more feeds and providing more options for defining an area of interest.
The next iteration of the project is nearly complete, and will be ready for a round of user testing in early July. This version provides an expanded number of feeds across a variety of topics, multiple options for drawing an area of interest, and the ability to subscribe by email in addition to text message.
After user testing with this iteration, we will incorporate feedback received. For instance, some early testing shows that we may need to explore different options for users to choose geographic areas. After this next round of feedback, we would like to launch a beta in late July or early August.
Neighborhoods are crucial building blocks of Charlotte. Through our research with citizens and neighborhoods, one specific problem we’ve found is that new residents often don’t know much about their neighbors or neighborhood, and neighborhood
leaders and groups don’t know when new people move in or who they are.
One action that every new Charlotte resident must do is turn on their water. We see a great opportunity here for Charlotte’s Utilities and 311 departments to leverage their existing workflow and play a key role in better connecting citizens to their neighborhood groups. We are proposing the addition of one opt-in question while turning on water asking residents if they would like to be put in touch with their neighborhood organization, and then possibly developing a toolkit to help aggregate the most important information for new residents. This project is still in the discussion phase, but the technology component we would develop would likely be a simple application to look up the neighborhood organization that makes claim to the address where utilities are being turned on, to get new residents in touch with their organization’s leadership.
The city has a ton of raw data in many departments that is not always easily accessible. Right now, the City makes data available through departmental web pages on Charmeck.org (e.g.,
traffic incidents) and through map and data services on the public GIS map gallery. Mecklenburg County provides a large number of their GIS
datasets in one location. In late 2013, the City began the process of implementing an open data portal and drafting an open data policy.
As the City is finalizing the project charter, they are also working with Esri to pilot ArcGIS for Open Data as a possible solution. The pilot is defined to include datasets that support the Citygram application, among other spatial and non-spatial data. The open data portal is taking a federated approach to providing data access, so as existing feeds are identified that are relevant to the users, the feeds can be registered to the portal for easy, one-stop access.
In many cases, a public feed is not yet accessible. We are doing everything we can to help open up these datasets and link to them on the open data portal. This serves the primary purpose of building out the open data portal’s offerings, as well as supporting our project Citygram which depends heavily on open and regularly-updated data.
We’d like to take a moment here to highlight the Code for Charlotte Brigade. The Brigade began right around the same time we became fellows, and they have impressed us in how quickly they have grown and how excited members are to work on projects collaboratively with the City. Many members have been instrumental in helping us with research; others are excited to help with development and documentation of our project. We’re honored to be a part of their activities so far and will continue doing everything we can to support them.
Here’s a snapshot of the events we’ve been involved in over the past six months:
Feb 10 / Tiffany spoke at Charlotte’s User Experience Meetup Group
Feb 15 / Tiffany spoke at World Information Architecture Day in Charlotte
Feb 19 / Andrew spoke at Charlotte Front-End Developers Meetup Group
Feb 20 / Code Across + Code for Charlotte Brigade Launch Party
Feb 21 / Team discusses Code for America at Skookum Digital Lunch
Feb 24 / Team presented at City Council Meeting about Code for America
Feb 27 / Team hosted a Lunch-and-Learn at the Federal Reserve for City and County
Apr 17 / Team hosted a Breakfast-and-Learn at Spirit Square for City and County
Apr 17 / Team hosted Charlotte’s First Civic Mixer at Packard Place
May 6 / Andrew presented with David Leonard at 311 Synergy Conference
Jun 5 / Tiffany at Personal Democracy Forum in New York
Jun 7 / Danny at Charlotte’s first civic hackathon as part of National Day of Civic Hacking
Jun 17 / Tiffany and Andrew presented at the City of Charlotte’s Technology Summit
Jun 17 / Tiffany and Andrew represented Code for America with the Code for Charlotte Brigade exhibit at UNCC Data Day
Jun 25 / Danny at Inland Empire Open Data Forum
We were also excited to be featured in a few media outlets:Charlotte Observer: ‘Peace Corps for geeks’ brings top tech minds to help Charlotte UNCC VenturePrise: Why is Code for America Abuzz for Charlotte’s Initiative?Digital Charlotte: Code for America Lands in Charlotte. Charlotte Observer: Hackathon boosts digitizing city data to next stepSkookum Digital Works Blog: SDW Hosts Charlotte Code for America Kickoff Event ProgrammableWeb: Code for America 2015 Fellowship Seeks Developers, Designers
In the second half of the Charlotte fellowship we’ll work to create lasting structural change in three primary ways. The first is to support the City in its efforts to publish public datasets. The second is to continue developing and eventually
release Citygram to deepen the engagement between citizens and the City and County. The third is to facilitate additional programs which better connect neighborhood organizations to residents and to City services.
The ongoing work of the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County to engage with citizens in new ways is inspiring. As a fellowship team, we are honored to be a small part of this process.