At the end of April I will be wrapping up nearly four and a half years at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. If you want to see a local government that punches above its weight, Boston’s regional planning agency is the place to look. While state and federal government is place where millions of dollars are spent on probable failures, local government is a place where thousands of dollars are spent on improbable success. Public service is a place where failures are loud and success is quiet. Here I am going to light that tradition on fire.
Youth Jobs was my first product at MAPC. Working with the City of Boston we created an app to match thousands of young people to summer jobs. I built an API integration with the City of Boston’s HR system and coded a version of Gale-Shapley to match young people to jobs. However I also built a system to text the young people about their job offers with a link to accept them. It turns out when you text people, they start texting back. They did not just click the link we sent, but also started responding with notes of appreciation. In the end we matched 3,300 young people to summer jobs.
Some products are born from passion. That is the case for Trailmap, the most comprehensive map of trails in the Boston region. Transportation Planner David Loutzenheiser forged the data from his own sweat. He rode and mapped many of the trails himself. David was excited to help us bring in two groups of Trailmap users to provide feedback on their experiences. In addition to the focus groups we conducted usability tests where we observed people trying to do the things they wanted to do on the app. The result was a list of features and improvements that lead to the biggest year for Trailmap ever: sustaining over 1,000 monthly active users for most of 2020.
Broadband Data Visualization
What impact can data visualization have? If you find the right idea: a lot. With more people working from home the media and elected officials were thirsty for data about the quality of Internet they were getting. Using data from Measurement Lab I published a visualization of broadband speed tests for each municipality in Massachusetts. People were excited to see how well the Internet worked for residents in their municipalities and we even got local newspaper coverage in places like Everett. Ultimately this visualization lead to cultivating new relationships and participants in the creation of digital equity and access plans. When money arrives from the American Recovery Plan, Chelsea, Everett, and Revere will be well equipped to “build back better” with a plan to improve their Internet.
What is so improbable about any of this? Most of my projects were built with shoestring budgets. I am software developer, not an expert in design nor user research. Yet leaning on the advice of friends, colleagues, and my experiences at Code for Boston I was able to bring these techniques to bear on these projects. Most of them were not fully baked when they shipped. But as a poster on the wall in our office proclaims: done is better than perfect. These things were good enough to make a difference, and that is what mattered.