Fahrenheit 212 is proud to have partnered with the City of New York to help advance one of their core missions to drive engagement with NYC Open Data. At Fahrenheit 212, we are driven by the shared desire to make things better and make better things. Fahrenheit X, our annual pro-bono program, is just one manifestation of this.
We sat down with the project leads, Adrienne Schmoeker, Director of Civic Engagement and Strategy at the City of New York in the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, and Shaye Roseman, Senior Associate at Fahrenheit 212, to discuss the project's purpose and process, what they're building, as well as their perspectives on the broader innovation landscape.
Let’s start with the project.
Adrienne, who are you, and what do you do?
I serve as the Director of Civic Engagement and Strategy at MODA, or the NYC Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. What that means is that I get to find creative ways to drive engagement, internal & external, as it relates to the City’s data products and services. A priority is working on NYC Open Data and bringing a data-driven and user-acquisition mindset and strategy to our work there.
Can you talk a bit about NYC Open Data?
Adrienne: NYC Open Data is a program, product and service. If you visit www.nyc.gov/opendata you’ll find a website with background information on a law passed in March 2012 requiring city agencies to publish all of their data by the end of 2018. You’ll also find the platform on which you can find nearly 2,000 different data assets—datasets, maps, charts, etc. We see tens of thousands of users per week.
NYC Open Data is the home for data related to how New York City operates. An example: 311 is a service that handles non-emergency requests made by New Yorkers. When a New Yorker submits a request (via phone, website or mobile app) that request becomes anonymized and a part of one of our largest datasets on NYC Open Data. This is information that New Yorkers can use to understand what others in their neighborhoods, boroughs or the City at large are requesting from the City.
Another example—traffic speed data. The Department of Transportation has a dataset that is updated every 5 minutes that pulls data from traffic speed detectors across the City. They use this data for emergency management purposes but release it to New Yorkers as well.
Our job is to make sure that our product and inventory is working for our existing users—and to find ways to bring more New Yorkers to this valuable resource.
Shaye, who are you, and what do you do?
I’m a Senior Associate at Fahrenheit 212 where I help our clients drive growth through innovation by delivering transformational new products and services. I also lead our civic and social consulting practice.
Can you explain a bit about Fahrenheit X and our partnership with the City this summer?
Shaye: Fahrenheit X is Fahrenheit 212’s annual pro bono consulting initiative, where we apply our innovation expertise in the service of mission-driven organizations.
Making things better and making better things are core Fahrenheit 212 values, and Fahrenheit X is one way in which we act on those beliefs.
Each summer, the firm comes together to select a partner organization that’s working to address pressing social challenges. We then deploy a full team to work closely with their staff over the course of several weeks to complete a rapid design sprint engagement.
This year we worked with Adrienne and her team at the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics in support of the NYC Open Data program.
What was the major challenge you tackled?
Adrienne: NYC Open Data has been around since the first iteration of Big Apps in 2009, and was then formalized through the adoption of the NYC Open Data Law in 2012—however we still have an awareness problem. How do we reach New Yorkers? How do we engage them in a meaningful way around our data products and services? I had a theory that a digital product to showcase outputs of open data would be able to drive more engagement—Fahrenheit agreed to test this theory, doing the research and testing necessary to turn this assumption into a potential solution worthy of the investment of time and resources. Working with Fahrenheit enabled us to tap into resources and new frameworks to tackle this problem in a way that we would not have had the capacity or skillset to do ourselves.
Shaye: Ultimately, our aim was to drive engagement with NYC Open Data by creating that “Aha!” moment, where residents and users realize its enormous value and potential.
Can you tell me a bit about the journey you took to tackle this?
Adrienne: This all got started at an event during our first Open Data Week, back in March. I met Shaye at an event called School of Data, produced by the civic tech organization BetaNYC. We got to talking about NYC Open Data and Shaye’s interest in smart cities—a few conversations later we were able to hone in on a tangible way that Fahrenheit would be able to have an impact on our team’s work, thereby impacting tens of thousands of New Yorkers as well. I gathered different internal stakeholders and we had a kickoff meeting in June at the Fahrenheit offices—a fun place to find new inspiration! We then continued to work with the Fahrenheit team over the course of the summer, wrapping things up in mid-August. We’re now working with internal stakeholders to map out a production timeline to make Fahrenheit’s recommendations a reality, hopefully in early 2018!
Shaye: Once Fahrenheit approved the project, the team began by interviewing users of NYC Open Data, non-users who are curious about Open Data, and experts in the fields of technology, open government, and open information. We then drafted a product strategy for the project showcase that Adrienne mentioned, prototyped the user experience, and tested a range of prototypes with target users. Finally, we refined the prototype, prioritized features, and provided a final recommendation to Adrienne and her team based on the user feedback we received. I’m excited to see the outcome of our work together when elements of the product go live in 2018!
Where did you draw inspiration from?
Adrienne: The NYC Open Data team partnered with the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications’ NYC Gov Lab & Studio to developed a new website that we launched in March of this year—as a part of that process we did some user testing to assess the quality and relevance of the site’s new content, layout and graphic elements. Through that testing we learned that for people who aren’t already familiar with the government transparency / government tech / data landscape—the term and ideas of “open data” were difficult to grasp. People didn’t know what open data was supposed to be, or what its promise was. We learned that open data products—like maps—helped make this connection clear for new visitors to our site. Trying to figure out how to take that one step further is what seeded the idea for a showcase product. Talking to Shaye and the Fahrenheit team was a way to take this initial research further and look for a tangible solution to meet these users’ needs.
Shaye: We conducted a formal design audit as part of our process, where we looked to the visual and user experience design of existing government websites, NYC Open Data communications, and successful web-based project galleries like Pinterest, Kickstarter and Behance for inspiration. But we also drew a lot of inspiration from our own experiences as New Yorkers and the everyday curiosities and questions we encounter in and around our city.
Did you come across any road blocks? How did you overcome them?
Adrienne: I think the biggest road block from my perspective was thinking about how to work with an external party, like Fahrenheit, to support building a technical product—knowing that technical products require ongoing maintenance and can be difficult to hand-off successfully. Figuring out where the technical scope of work would end with Fahrenheit then pick up with our internal team in such a way that nothing got lost in translation was what I was most concerned about. Good intentions are fantastic, but I wanted to make sure that the work the Fahrenheit team was doing for us would translate into impact without losing too much time through handoff and not just merely end up as a strategic report that would gather dust on the shelf. I think we solved for this well by looping our internal development team into the project from the get-go.
Not to speak for Shaye—but my hunch is that the Fahrenheit team’s biggest hurdle was likely figuring out how to work with a complicated government team for the first time! We have so many constraints as a client—I was really impressed with Fahrenheit’s willingness to learn and work with our constraints at every step.
Shaye: I wouldn’t call it a road block per se, but the team realized early on that open data has enormous potential to be this incredibly dynamic resource that supports civic engagement, technological innovation, and that catalyzes community advocacy. As a result, we really opened up the aperture at the outset to consider that entire universe of potential impact and the various products we could create to achieve specific outcomes.
Despite this excitement, we of course couldn’t tackle everything in just a few weeks. So when it came time to prototype our ideas, we had a conversation with Adrienne and her team about prioritizing initiatives and picking off a handful of features that were most feasible and realistic in the near term.
As for navigating city government, we were lucky to have Adrienne as a guide. She expertly coordinated diverse stakeholders and domain experts to ensure everyone was present when they needed to be and able to share their thinking. The unique constraints of the public sector call for immense creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and agile approaches, which makes our job as innovators really fun!
What will the real-world impact of this project be? How will the product help the City and New Yorkers?
Adrienne: The idea is that our team will be building out a project gallery tool, based on Fahrenheit’s research and recommendations, which will help the “open data curious” better understand what one can do with Open Data and encourage them to use the product. The theory is that the more New Yorkers we have using Open Data, the higher the chance that New Yorkers will be able to make the business case for change and impact in their communities. This will be a powerful the first true civic engagement product built for the NYC Open Data community—the team is very excited about it.
What was your favorite thing you learned throughout this project?
Adrienne: I loved being able to tap into the creativity and enthusiasm of the Fahrenheit team. We’re constantly go-go-go on a daily basis running the operations of Open Data that it’s hard to helicopter up sometimes and think about our work from a different angle. Hearing the Fahrenheit team frame the potential for Open Data engagement in different ways really helped connect dots and spark new ideas which will have a trickle down effect in multiple areas of our work in the months and years to come—I’m sure of it.
Shaye: Learning about the many ways people use open data today to advocate for themselves and their neighbors was really inspiring. Knowledge is power!
Let’s step into the world of innovation, beyond just this project.
Who is the most innovative person today?
Adrienne: I have to admit I can’t pick just one person—so many people come to mind. What I am always impressed by is when problem solving comes from under-resourced places. It’s one thing for a resource-rich, time-rich individual to create a new mobile application to serve a new market—but when I hear about individuals or groups of people developing new solutions (not necessarily technology based) in developing countries, rural areas or disaster areas—those are the stories that move and impress me the most. Some groups that come to mind include Ushahidi, One Acre Fund or the Guifi network in Spain. Leapfroggers and community-based developments—that’s what inspires me when it comes to innovation.
Shaye: I’m inspired by Luis von Ahn, the creator of language-learning app Duolingo, and of reCAPTCHA (those short puzzles websites occasionally ask you to complete to prove that you are human). On the front end, Duolingo is an engaging educational tool that teaches users new languages through simple, interactive exercises. On the back end, the app leverages user inputs to translate web content from sources like CNN and Buzzfeed into multiple languages so they can be accessed by a broader audience (or at least they did at the outset).
Similarly, reCAPTCHA asks users to complete a simple task, like typing a word from an image into their web browser. This action is simultaneously used both to protect websites from bots and to digitize vast archives of books and records that computers can’t read. As of 2011, reCAPTCHA had successfully digitized the complete New York Times archive of more than 13 million articles.
I love how elegantly von Ahn’s projects demonstrate the power of crowds and collaboration. 200 million individuals each spending 10 seconds a day to type out a few letters translates into 500,000 hours of useful effort when harnessed in the service of a common goal. These are brilliant examples of what we at Fahrenheit call two sided innovation.
What is the most innovative product or service of the past 6 months?
Adrienne: I have to admit that I’m having a hard time with the 6 month timeframe on the question here! What I am impressed by in the area of innovation is the growing trend towards taking a humble approach in solution development. This often comes under the umbrella of human-centered-design thinking—at the end of the day it’s about remembering that we’re not developing solutions for the solutions’ sake but to solve a problem for an end user. Seeing this mindset go more mainstream over the last few years has been really encouraging. I hope it means we’ll see less “if we build it they will come because this is a great idea” and more authentic and empathetic problem solving across all industries.
Shaye: Gene therapies and gene editing techniques (like CRISPR) that allow us to correct disease-causing genetic errors, and retrain our own bodies to fight illness are blowing my mind lately. Humans themselves are amazing pieces of engineering, and scientific breakthroughs in the last 6 months have demonstrated the development of smarter, safer interventions as we understand more of our own biology. As with any breakthrough innovation, this of course raises a nest of ethical and regulatory questions. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling like we’re living in the future.