Elizabeth Hunt is a user experience strategist and designer. After graduating from the University of New Mexico with a Ph.D. in English Literature, she began working in the technology industry. Over the past ten years, she’s worked as a web designer, instructional designer, user experience designer, and creative director. During that time, she’s designed applications and online experiences, as well as a travel program, for clients such as American Express Travel, Target, and Microsoft.

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Civic Apps and Ecosystems


The Code for America Brigade recently announced the Race for Reuse, a new kind of apps contest. What’s new? Teams will be judged on how well their application performs. For example, teams deploying Adopt-a-Hydrant are competing for prizes based on how many people adopt a hydrant in their city.

With this apps contest, the Brigade has reached an important milestone. Not satisfied with evaluating success just on number of apps deployed, the Brigade is actively championing app use by real city residents. This is huge. After all, what good is an application if no one uses it?

Hydrant Hero

That question was on the mind of Code for America Fellows this year as we worked with our city partners to market our applications before and after they launched. Fellows tried a variety of ways to do that: cards, posters, digital communications, press releases, radio shows, and even video.

Finding the right outreach strategies is important to any application’s success, but it is vital to the success of a civic application. Why? Because we’re battling an entrenched mindset in which many people don’t think about their city as something for which they have personal responsibility. So before we can convince people to make use of a civic application, we first have to convince them that they should care about their city enough to act on its behalf.

We can, of course, continue to believe that people “should” use our civic apps out of a sense of community responsibility. There will always be some naturally-inclined do-gooders to do that. You know these people: they’re the movers and shakers who are already cleaning up vacant properties, taking care of hydrants, and organizing fundraising events at local schools. But we can have a much bigger community impact if we find other motivations that inspire broader audiences to act.

Join the Snow Patrol

This was our task a couple months ago when Fellows Sheba, Angel, Emily, and I organized a workshop at UX Week 2012 focused on “Designing for Civic Engagement.” What was most interesting to me was the astute way attendees thought about Adopt-a-Hydrant as part of a larger ecosystem of community engagement.

For instance, what could happen if we created a program in which kids received “rewards” for doing something creative with the snow they just removed from a hydrant? There are a lot of possibilities for community involvement here. For example, local artists help kids build “snow art,” local businesses provide tools to do that, local firefighters act as judges, local government officials reward prizes, and local newspeople broadcast praise.

Snow Furniture

In just this one concept, we moved from thinking about Adopt-a-Hydrant as a simple application to thinking about it as an important piece of how a community lives and moves together. For me, this is the most important thing I’ve learned this year at Code for America.

We don’t just make apps or instill agile and startup values within city government. We’re actively re-imagining how a community can work together in the commons — a public space that truly needs more of us to take responsibility. And that’s where the real value and power of civic applications lies — in their ability to inspire and motivate us to act in common cause.

You can find more of our concepts from UX Week on GitHub. You may not be able to implement these ideas in time for the Race for Reuse, but we hope they provide a jumping-off point for thinking about your civic app as part of larger community-making.


Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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