Understanding the Citizen

May 8, 2014  • Ellen Miller

Originally posted on the Knight Foundation Blog. Written by Ellen Miller.

Ellen Miller is executive director and co-founder of the Sunlight Foundation, a leader in developing Internet tools that promote transparent government. With the input of Miller and other thought leaders, Knight Foundation is launching OpenGov and You, a companion to the 2013 Aspen Institute Forum on Communication and Society (FOCAS) that explores how we might tackle the obstacles to government openness and transparency.

FOCAS | Ellen Miller from Aspen 82 on Vimeo.

How do people want to engage with government and what would best expand citizen engagement, participation and demands for accountability? These are all questions now topmost in the mind of everyone working in the OpenGov community.

During last summer’s 2013 Aspen Institute Forum on Communications and Society, leaders of the open government movement dove into some honest and contemplative conversations about who we serve, how to engage citizens in the work of opening and engaging with government. And no one disagreed, as the subsequent report stated: We must start with a more sophisticated understanding of “the citizen.”

At the Sunlight Foundation, we very much began by letting 1,000 flowers bloom, developing many products that were designed to appeal to the online active citizen. In our eight years of experimentation we have come to one clear conclusion: We must be more strategic, and rather than develop projects based on what “we” think will be attractive to the users, we need to test our assumptions with our intended audiences. We need to apply human-centered design processes to fully understand what our audiences want and need—and why. Since our goal—and that of most of our colleagues—is to use technology to engage more people with their government and their officials, we need to understand their needs to make engagement easier, more meaningful and more significant.

Toward the end of 2013, we began to use a human-centered design process to redesign some of our most successful tools and websites. Through intense research, observation, extensive interviews with a gamut of potential users and more, we’re finding out what information and data people want almost before even they can fully express it. This approach places the utmost priority on understanding the potential user of the app, dataset, public policy, etc., that we plan to create so we can better understand their motivations and ways of interacting with government information. Our first major effort is to redesign our OpenCongress platform and our Congress mobile apps to better meet citizens’ needs. This work all began by talking with citizens, policymakers, issue groups and elected officials about the challenges in communicating the specific information that citizens need. And to ensure we continue to meet the needs of the existing user base, we’ve balanced our human-centered design research with user surveys and analyses of usage analytics.

Understanding this user-centric process is like a Zen koan; it seems so obvious once you realize it, and yet its impact is profound. It’s very different from an individual or any organization thinking it has a brilliant app to help solve a problem, building that solution and then hoping the people will come and use it. We all have to not only put ourselves in the place of our potential users and let empathy inform our prototyping, but we have to go beyond our own worlds and ask actual potential users about their needs.

For instance, if housing/blight data is something that people want to know about (and there’s been tremendous interest in this issue around the country), organizations working on that issue need to engage with a wide range of constituents to understand both the issue and why it matters to them but also to use the opportunity to engage them in  monitoring it. And in order to understand any issue, you also need to understand the larger context of how policies are created and the politics that shapes that policymaking. Without all this information, we may be trying to solve problems that don’t exist.

Using a human-centered approach informs Sunlight’s ability to create something that is better and more widely used, and most importantly something that is useful to the citizen. It is how we were able—with support from Knight Foundation— to create with design firm IDEO our award-winning Sitegeist mobile app, which makes understanding U.S. Census data appealing and fun. (So much fun that more than 108,000 people have downloaded the app!)

In the early days of Sunlight, civic tech was a wide-open field and open to wide experimentation. We’re not advocating for that to change—there’s still plenty of room for experimenting—but we need to become smarter about designing for citizens’ use.

Indeed, we have learned from experience that it’s imperative that the civic tech field not start out with a premise that we know what citizens need but to engage with citizens in understanding what they want. The two might not always coincide. Of course, it’s a happy accident when they do. And we cannot always focus on the already connected citizens, but we have to find ways to broaden and deepen the communities who have access to civic information.

We are sharing our stories and experiences along these lines—both successes and failures so that everyone can learn from Sunlight and our processes. Not only does a human-centered approach provide a mechanism for better understanding the citizen, but it also ensures greater public use of government data. In turn, this can lead to a more informed citizenry that is more equipped to hold policymakers accountable. And that’s key for democracy to thrive.