Move San José, a case study

I am the technical designer for the platform called Move San José (https://www.movesanjose.org/). I also administer it and coordinate multiple teams from multiple orginizations that work with the City of San José Department of Transportation in their efforts.

In this topic I will explore the how and why of designing an online outreach platform. The general idea is applicable to most sites in this space, but we’ll also cover the particulars of the transportation “world”, as well as what “online outreach” means during a pandemic with frequent shut-in orders and lingering difficulties that changes the way we interact with the public.

If you have any questions please jump in and ask, I’ll be happy to answer them as I can; I don’t employ any propietery practices or technology, but I also can only answer questions relevant to my work in the design and ongoing administration of the platform (so I can’t discuss City policies or such, except as an outside observer). :slight_smile:

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What is MSJ (because I don’t have an easy way to type “José”, I refer to it as MSJ :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: )?

Move San José is a digital engagement platform for the City of San José’s Department of Transportation (DOT) Planning, Policy, and Sustainability division. DOT staff will share progress on future plans and upcoming projects in order to ask the community questions and receive feedback on topics that relate to moving around in San José.

That is the description in the footer of every page on the site, and I like referring to it. It is accurate, but a bit of history is useful to understand what “engagement” means.

In broad terms the folks using the platform are responsible for explaining and soliciting feedback for changes in the transportation network in San José. In the past this meant identifying the folks affected by changes, organizing engagement events to connect with those folks, and providing accessible feedback mechanisms (meaning the most folks may participate in regards to knowledge, language, and other barriers).

Some of these engagement events were in person gatherings where the public would have access to combinations of the following:

  • presentations from City staff and consultants
  • informational displays (such as poster boards, charts, maps, etc.)
  • question and answer sessions with experts
  • multiple survey approaches (ex.: paper questionnaires, maps with physical push pins for location-based feedback)
  • informative materials, such as pamphlets or “info sheets”

I’m sure I’m forgetting items used in those events. Hopefully that illustrates the kind of experiences, and the supporting processes to make them happen, folks had at in person gatherings.

And with MSJ we endeavor to fulfill the goals of the City’s DOT, while choosing the closest approximations or similar tools as possible, with respect to the existing processes, while also introducing new ways of engagement that are both easy to comprehend for the folks using the site (both City and site visitors) and aligns with ethical consideration for online engagement.

Whoo, tall order! But we do okay. With our goals and processes in mind, we’ll explore how we got to where we are today, one building block at a time.

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Adapting an in-person event to an online interaction is as much art as science. And what I mean in particular is it has a lot of contextual goals, and is fraught with difficult to understand gotchas that compromise everyone involved: yep, I’m talking about technology companies and their creepy practices. A lot of the solutions were guided by our intial research, as well as the guidance the City of San José provides.

Some principles we covered are listed at Digital Privacy | City of San Jose.

WE VALUE PRIVACY: We affirm that privacy is an inherent human right. San José commits to fully evaluating risks to your privacy before collecting, using, or sharing your information.

WE COLLECT ONLY WHAT WE NEED: We collect only what is required to provide and improve city services and comply with the law. We seek community input about what information is used and collected.

WE ARE OPEN AND TRANSPARENT: We are transparent about what information we collect, why we collect it, and how it is used. We commit to being open about our actions, policies, and procedures related to your data. We make our policy documents publicly available and easy to understand.

WE WILL GIVE YOU CONTROL OVER YOUR DATA: We will provide you with the information to make an informed decision about sharing your data. We have clear processes that ensure data accuracy and provide you visibility into what data the city has collected from you.

WE SHARE ONLY WHAT WE NEED: We anonymize your information before we share it outside the city, except in very limited circumstances. Business partners and contracted vendors who receive or collect personal information from us or for us to deliver city services must agree to our privacy requirements.

WE DESIGN FOR PRIVACY AND SECURITY: We integrate privacy and security into every aspect of our designs, systems, and processes. We commit to updating our technology and processes to effectively protect your information while under our care. We follow strict protocols in the event your information is compromised.

I was relieved to learn the City and I were in alignment, and I am very familiar with the diligence we used to move the project forward, as the City does it’s homework and required we document the platform extensively, where I provided per-vendor private policy assessments, and a full report for each technology component.

In other words: the City of San José is serious about digital privacy, and is a feature of the MSJ platform.

I really want to jump into the technology and decisions we made, but when we were presented with challenge our first steps were to learn as much about our platform users, roughly categorized into two groups: publishers and visitors. There were other outliers, but most features of the platform serve one of those two groups.

Publishers

A lot goes into creating content for MSJ. It’s jumping ahead a bit, but let’s examine the materials for the most basic engagement event with the public:

  • text content that is easy to understand for people aside from transportation engineers
  • accurate imagery to explain changes
  • geographic data (maps)
  • web forms for soliciting feedback
  • video presentations (which is more technical than presenting to a room of people)
  • all of the above in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese

Oh yeah, did I mention MSJ is multilingual, and those three languages are the base content languages, with some surveys being additionally translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Tagalog. So everything on that list is created at least three times.

I call this group “publishers”, because we collectively publish the site, each contributing along the way. The people in this group are employees of the City and their contractors (like me, teams helping on campaigns, translators, etc.).

This group is distinguished in that most of their interaction with the site is in the dashboard, meaning features for publishers are largely hidden benefits that assist in content creation and receiving feedback from the public.

Our areas of concern for publishers are:

  • Content creation
  • Good defaults
  • Training and documentation
  • Creating new processes that met the same or similar goals as in-person engagements

Visitors

Most people using the MSJ site are “visitors”. Compared to publishers their experience with the site is very simple, though often arduous.

How so? Well, we ask a lot of visitors. If you attend a public meeting at your library branch, you got up and walked out the door at a designated time, you are invested in the event. We moved that online where people click a link and are presented with anything from a video, a series of maps and diagrams explaining a major change, an in-depth survey, or all three. It’s the equivalent of walking into a library and seeing a major thing happening, and deciding you could come back later…

And because we are including so much content and interactions, we have to ensure we aren’t excluding those with devices on the lower end of the power spectrum from participating. If the website only full loads on a new phone in an office building with enterprise bandwidth, how we will know how to serve the areas with less access?

See, it’s tough being a visitor! :slight_smile:

Our areas of concern for visitors are:

  • Accessibility across many dimensions
    • content is encoded correctly
    • translations
    • resource respectful
    • cognitive (ex. non-technical jargon)
  • Digital privacy
  • Ease of use
  • Follow-up engagement

This “case study” is really me taking notes in public, and so now I’m gonna share a bunch of interesting things I’ve done with various technologies to make the platform interesting for users. These will be practical explanations.