Affordable housing calculator: expert input and community engagement

Expert input and team engagement: Bringing the affordable housing technology leads, coordinators, stakeholders and municipal liaisons to communicate to enable better product design was the goal for this effort.

Research Methods used: Interviews, heuristic review of current affordable housing websites, community discussion, developers’ feedback.

Communication for a team of people with disparate backgrounds is a challenge when you have to code and build something together that serves a third party- here the public at large. It is furthermore a challenge when the task is a volunteer effort for some and is a job for some others on the team. The key stakeholders are the public, the users who need the technology to better their lives. This disparate team sometimes is speaking different languages- which for all purposes they will, since they have become experts in their chosen fields. But in order to innovate successfully, this team needs to talk to each other and communicate well.

This is where my expertise came in- I created the setting to enable conversations to happen.  It is a fulfilling effort to not use a survey but use empathy, to connect first at a level that is about the person and about the moment (context), and then the questions and answers arrive and get addressed quite easily. I work with a bullet-ed list of queries that come from the developers and users and it is a fruitful exercise in writing a story for each participant-stakeholder. Code for Princeton’s community of developers and designers communicate on Slack and GitHub to accomplish the back end and front end of the “calculator” they are working on for Affordable Housing in Princeton.

Research outcome: Bringing a subject matter expert to the team was essential to the conversation to go to the next level. I enabled this conversation to happen by first meeting 1:1 with the program liaison for the municipality of Princeton, Ms. Christy Peacock, who had 20+ years of experience in the field. The meeting was fruitful in that I was able to connect Ms. Peacock to the insight and motivation that is underlying the work done by the volunteer developers. I was able to tell her how far they have arrived at in terms of actual coding and creating the calculator. On another page, for the team of developers at Code for Princeton, I was able to convey the kind of work the four different housing organizations have been doing and what needs to be done to bring a useful and innovative tool to the community. This understanding of the “why” behind the confusion in the workings of the organizations, the apparent dissonance in purpose and intent of the organizations had to be spelled out to the technical, problem solving minds of the developers.

The back-and-forth of the conversation, translating the social, the municipal cause of providing housing and technological innovation happening with the volunteers- I want to call it “Research in the Margins” or maybe Lean Research. This piece served as a missing element in the overall picture, something that maybe got left in the margins when folks work. The conversation was part of the hack night hosted at the Princeton Public Library on August 8, 2016 where the program liaison Ms. Christy Peacock spoke to the developers explaining to them the critical nature of each sale/rental that entails the affordable housing process.

It feels just about right to say this: the developer, the program liaison, the designer and the public are all participants in this conversation and to me they are all key stakeholders. One can start with the public as a primary here but each participant in the conversation takes on a unique role and plays it out till the very end and this is what brings in the energy to the work we do. Each member of the team has a role to play and is unique.

The work done by volunteers at CfP is to build and design websites and apps for Princeton residents -the public at large. Although, these are at no cost to anyone and are available for public use, a lot can happen when there are a motivated set of volunteers. The project on affordable housing organizations in Princeton caters to different demographics and categories of people and the task is to create a calculator to find out eligibility. This is a work in progress and more insights to come as we move along. In case you are interested to find out more about Code for Princeton, email us at codeforprinceton@gmail.com and join us at our Meetups.

Insights for users: The outcomes were interesting for the developers. It was well established that in-person conversations between the AH organizations and the public was the way to go forward and it did not have to be an online communication.

Privacy issues are critical when public shares information and hence it was made clear that too much information could not be shared online. The developers were able to work with the information and take the next step to work on the calculator.

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