New York City's Digital Deficiency

Sure, it would be neat if an app could help me find a local pickup game in my neighborhood, but is that something residents of New York City actually need?

New York City - Night Cityscape

You are circling the block yet again, desperately seeking a parking space—and then you remember there's an app for that. You whip out your phone and pull up Roadify, the high-profile winner of New York City's second BigApps contest, which is supposed to provide a real-time list of parking spaces near your location. You watch as Roadify loads and quickly discover there are no free parking spaces within a 10-mile radius of where you are currently circling the block. This shouldn't surprise you because there are usually almost no parking spaces listed in the app, rendering it fairly useless. Then, as you slam on your breaks to avoid hitting a pedestrian, you remember that driving while using your phone is difficult, dangerous, and often illegal.

And this is the app that won?

Undeterred by Roadify's failure, the city announced the third installment of the BigApps contest in September, in which the city awards $50,000 in cash to the best app that uses city data. So far the first two contests have yielded apps that have received a fair amount of media attention but have lagged in user adoption. Sportify, another winner that garnered a lot of press, also relies on a critical mass of users to function. It, too, is a great idea in principle (find people near you who want to play pickup sports!), which has yet to catch on. All of this is the predictable result of the city's approach to digital development, which focuses on plenty of sizzle, not much steak. It's time for the city to deeply explore what New York's citizens actually need, and the ways in which those citizens are likely to behave.

In the professional digital development world, website and app development begins with a deep look at what the end users need, and how they are likely to use sites and apps in the course of their day. The problem with the BigApps contest is that it leaves both user needs and likely user behavior out of the equation, instead beginning with an enormous data dump and asking developers to make something cool out of it. Sure, it would be great to have an app that tells me where I can find a parking spot, but does it have any relationship to how people are likely to behave? Apparently not. And yes, it would be neat to find a local pickup game in my neighborhood, but is that something residents of New York City actually need? Some quick user experience work would have made this abundantly obvious and saved the city $50,000.

These missteps tend to be true with all of New York City's digital efforts. Was anyone thinking about user behavior when they printed a long URL on all subway maps directing subway riders to a buried page on the MTA website to find out about service changes? Subway riders who were underground and therefore unable to access the web? The new pilot program allowing bus riders to text for the location of their bus offers another example of what not to do. Bus riders who text a number posted at their bus stop are rewarded with a text back from the MTA that says something like "your bus is 0.8 miles away."

I suppose in some city, somewhere, 0.8 miles might be a meaningful designation for the distance between two points, but in Brooklyn, where the program is being piloted, it leaves riders with exactly the same knowledge about their bus's whereabouts they would have had before texting. Is 0.8 miles very far away? Is there traffic? Why not text back the location of the bus ("Your bus is at Atlantic and Court St."), or an estimated arrival time, both of which should be easily calculable based on the user's location and average bus travel times? Instead of just throwing technology at New Yorkers purely for technology's sake, why not start by spending $50,000 on talking to the people who live in the city and finding out what they really need?

In other cities they take digital seriously. Boston, for example, won the Digital Cities award for their Citizens Connect website and app, which allows Boston residents to access nearly all government services online. Need a birth certificate? Done. Want to get a pothole filled? Done. Best of all, Boston was able to do all of this with a budget of $25,000.

But the biggest success for Boston is that people actually use the app and the website, unlike the BigApps contest winners. And this is because Citizens Connect takes into account the needs of the citizens of Boston. The starting point for its development wasn't, "Hey, let's make something neat." Instead, the team took a look at Boston's 24-hour call center system and tried to figure out how they could get people's questions answered more efficiently. In other words, the team started with the end users of the system, understood what people needed, and went from there.

New York City also lags far behind Louisville, Kentucky, another Digital Cities winner, whose website greets users with links to information on drivers' licenses, garbage pickups, and permit applications among other items that clearly match up with the reasons citizens would visit the website. New York City's website, by contrast, provides a quick link to the new New York City Food website as the most prominent call to action, clearly matching up with the goals of someone in the media relations or publicity department. It is possible to access some New York City services online, but information is spread out over 100 websites, each with a different UI, all presented in a giant list as though purchasing a Queens Midtown Tunnel magnet is as important as knowing when to put out the recycling. And the widely publicized "Re-Invent Hackathon" held over the summer is only going to encourage more Roadify-like ideas, rather than address what people really need out of the city's website.

Mayor Bloomberg has taken several public actions indicating that he's interested in making New York into a truly digital city, but the approach the city takes always ignores the most important aspect of creating a digital entity: the people who live here.

Those people want to be able to find the school lunch calendar (I challenge you to try and find it now in under an hour), learn how to handle a speeding ticket (currently a Kafkaesque process online), and find out how to appropriately dispose of paint thinner (not possible as far as I can tell). Once all of that has been accomplished, then we can turn to apps for organizing pickup games. But only if that's what the people want.

[Image: Flickr User AndrewHavis]

Hana Schank is a Principal at Collective User Experience. Follow her on Twitter.

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