“Cities are in many ways natural monopolies – there’s only one place to go and pay your parking ticket and that’s City Hall!” jokes Lauren Lockwood, the City of Boston’s first Chief Digital Officer. “With this unquestionable customer base, it’s becoming clearer and clearer just how important it is to have the right digital tools, and that’s the benefit of bringing people with private sector mentality into government.” A Harvard Business School graduate, Lockwood comes from a startup and innovation background, “where half of the headcount is dedicated to sales and marketing” and has found government work to be a refreshing departure from having to convince customers of a product. “We literally pick up your garbage! Government services have somewhat unquestionable value so our challenge isn’t sales, but focusing on the tools and techniques that make lives better,” she explains. Pointing to the notoriously failed launch of healthcare.gov in 2013, where the much-hyped site crashed when users attempted to log in, Lockwood notes a renewed and heightened expectation for high quality digital tools – in terms of both form and function – among American citizens. Her first mission? A total rebuild of the City of Boston’s official website.
“When I first stepped into this role, we spent some time conducting user research regarding the City’s current website, and one striking comment was ‘It looks exactly like what you’d expect a government website to look like,’” says Lockwood about her appointment in December 2014. “That was difficult to hear, but it’s so true! Even now as we test our pilot site, we hear things like ‘It’s great…For a government website!’ We don’t want to just be good as far as government goes. We want to be plain good and so we hold ourselves up to private sector standards.” Indeed, the new incarnation of the Boston’s official site is familiar and user friendly in the commercial sense, with a dynamic user experience more akin to online media platforms than a static government portal. “In our first round of qualitative interviews and focus groups, we worked hard on gathering the insights to inform a new visual identity for the City itself. It’s very important for a city to have a brand. When citizens interact with the City, it’s crucial they know they’re interacting the City. If you’re paying a property tax bill, for example, you need to know you’re dealing with a legitimate entity and not a scam. It’s extremely important that people recognize, without the use of a lot of text, that this portal is part of the City. So for the first time ever, Boston has a style guide.”
Thanks to months and months of research and analysis, the pilot site is the product of true need as Lockwood and her team tackled the accessibility of the vital information the government site needs to host from several angles. “I’m a huge data geek, but sometimes data alone doesn’t paint a full picture. When you look at how long someone spends on a site, you can’t decipher whether it’s because the content is really engaging or because they can’t find what they’re looking for. There’s an awful lot that numbers don’t tell,” explains Lockwood. “So we made a big push to just talk to users in different groups, and an especially big effort in talking to those who might not be using our current website at all. We made sure to go and talk to people whose first language isn’t English and might not speak English at all. We also asked ourselves how are we serving people who are not web savvy?”
Armed with feedback on user experience, the next challenge for the team was to make sure that the content is useful, relevant and understandable. “We spent time in the City’s call center to find out what queries people are asking about. Reworking the website is not just layout and experience, but the content too. There’s a difference between making informational nominally available and truly accessible and that’s what we’re trying to hit. We need to provide tools that are really useful for citizens,” she says about the huge effort put into the development. With accessibility as a key goal, the site was trialled in a user testing lab where they monitored behavior and even brought in the City’s Disabilities Commission to make sure those who are visually impaired had positive experiences. “We strive to collect feedback in ways that are actionable, instead of feedback that kind of goes into a black hole. We’re developing iteratively, so it’s a process that will continue,” explains the Chief Digital Officer.
Design, user experience and content are not the only areas which Lockwood and her team found needing deep, thoughtful and feedback driven strategies. “The City has a concept of using ‘topics’ as a department-agnostic way of displaying information. On the website, those ‘topics’ had really good reception, but only when a user saw an example of what we meant by a ‘topic.’ It was not obvious what we meant and it was certainly not something people were clicking on. We have now changed the title to ‘guide to’ – that simple word change has led to a dramatic difference in how people access information,” explains Lockwood. “Another example is our use of a ‘hamburger menu’ (menus signified by three horizontal lines), which is a big trend in web development. It’s become something recognizable for people who are web-savvy, but it’s not intuitive for people who don’t regularly surf the internet so it becomes polarizing. We got around that by simply including the word ‘menu.’” With semantics and style taken as seriously as the technical and informational elements, the new website is among the most vibrant and useful we here at progrss.com have seen emerge from the slew of cities now finally taking the digital world as seriously as the physical one.
“Meanwhile, there’s a lot of examples where it doesn’t make sense that the City build proprietary software or platforms,” says Lockwood. “One prime example is notifying Boston residents of trash pick-up days – there’s a company that already has a brilliant platform for that, where a city only needs to plug in their local information. So we bought it as an off-the-shelf product and branded it with our new identity.” Meanwhile, the City of Boston has a strong social media presence, with Twitter announcements going out regularly and City Hall meetings broadcast on Google Hangouts for people who can’t make it in person. “We’ve also partnered with Waze, for example, which has about 400,000 users in the city, so a lot of information about our roads is generated every day. So we can use that information in a lot of really cool ways. We’ve looked at potentially giving green light priority to certain bus routes, for example, and the data from Waze lets us analyze the ripple effects of that. In exchange we tell them if and when we’re going to close a road, for example, and they can push that out to the users.”
“Our underlying priority is to get information into people’s hands, and the first step to do that is to build an audience,” continues Lockwood. “But that’s difficult in many ways, since the City doesn’t have a marketing arm. So where possible we’re meeting the audience where they are and using the tools they use every day, instead of asking them to download a new app which is a hard sell. It’s a lot cheaper too!” This keen resourcefulness has also meant the City is now on the hunt for a Chief Data Officer and a supporting analytics team to utilize data in efficient and informed decision-making, as well as service delivery. “It’s of course a huge trend and there’s plenty of opportunity in employing data. While some are focusing on advanced uses of data, like machine learning, there’s still a lot of basic things that can be done. For a long time we’ve had an open data portal, making available lots of unfettered information. But again it’s the difference between availability and accessibility. Making it available isn’t enough so we’ve introduced a concept called CityScore which aims to normalize this wealth of numbers and figures.”
CityScore aggregates key metrics from across the City into a single number that represents the City’s overall performance day-to-day; a score of 1 means the City has met targets, a score greater than 1 means they’re exceeding them and a score below 1 means the opposite. Contextualizing numbers regarding metrics like criminal incidents, emergency response times, street repairs and library users, the CityScore is updated daily to give a comprehensible look into how well the city is functioning. “These dashboards are customized for our department heads to inform their decision-making, but it’s also freely available for the public which lets them hold the City accountable. I think the public get the most of seeing these numbers normalized, while the officials are concerned with the absolute figures,” explains Lockwood.
“In this day and age, I think we should be regarding connectivity as vital as water and heat. We’re focused on digital equity over data collection as we work to increase that,” says Lockwood, pointing to a recent deal made with mobile network provider Verizon to increase WiFi in public areas and facilities. “A smart city needs to make its residents smart too, and that’s why accessibility is key for us. All of this revolves around people thinking Boston is a great place to live and that includes job opportunities and other economic incentives, but also a good quality of life. So there has to be a lot of basic needs served by the City like housing and transportation. That’s where the Mayor’s head is. How to make this a liveable city and that will help us retain the talent that comes here naturally for the universities, startup ecosystem and big business.”