Improving Adopt-a-sidewalk08 September 2013

Note: this essay was originally posted at the Smart Chicago Collaborative blog as part of my work as Civic Innovation Program Manager.

TL;DR: Adopt-a-sidewalk is a flawed, under-utilized application with enormous potential. By refocusing the user experience on addressing actual needs of people in Chicago and showing meaningful activity, it could be a powerful tool for engaging citizens in supporting and improving the civic infrastructure in their community.

Winter is officially in Chicago’s rearview mirror, although you would not notice from the chilly temperatures outside. This post is a reflection on one of Chicago’s winter-weather civic applications, Adopt-a-sidewalk, an application I helped bring online over a year ago, and how it can evolve to improve the lives of Chicago residents year-round.

Adopt-a-sidewalk is a Chicago-based version of the Adopt-a-hydrant web application built by Code for America in Boston back in 2011. Developed by Code for America fellow Erik Michaels-Ober, Adopt-a-hydrant lets residents of Boston volunteer to clear fire hydrants when there is a snow storm.

In the fall of 2011, City of Chicago officials, acutely aware of the severity and importance of swift snow removal, saw an opportunity to repurpose the code, and invited a group of civic developers to customize the application for use in Chicago. The key functional difference between the applications is that in Chicago, residents can request help clearing their sidewalk. Adopt-a-sidewalk first went live as part of in January 2012, and generated a bit of fanfare in local and national media:

Adopt-a-sidewalk saw moderate adoption, but quickly fell out of use due to a very mild winter, and the fast arrival of spring a few months later. In the fall of 2012, the City of Chicago asked the Smart Chicago Collaborative to assume the responsibility of hosting the application, and development responsibilities were handed over to the Code for America Chicago brigade.

To date, Adopt-a-sidewalk has seen very little adoption in Chicago. There are 557,793 individual sidewalk segments available for adoption, but only 75 registered users. 153 sidewalks have been claimed, either by volunteer shovelers, or people asking for help. That means that only 0.027% of all sidewalk segments in Chicago have been adopted. At its busiest, only 200 people visited the site in a given day.

There are three major issues that impact the usability and adoption of Adopt-a-sidewalk.

First, plainly speaking, the application is boring. In the case of a snow storm, there is a sense of urgency to responding and cleaning up the mess. The City deploys a fleet of snowplows to clear the streets, and neighborhoods are abuzz with residents scraping cars, shoveling steps, and snow-blowing their sidewalks and alleys. On Adopt-a-sidewalk, there is absolutely no perception of activity, urgency, or community. There is no mechanism to show users where activity is happening, or if there is a need for activity. On their first visit to the site, users are presented with a featureless, generic Google map of the city of Chicago, and no clear call to action. If the user does decide to register and adopt a sidewalk, there is little incentive to return or to refer friends to the site.

Second, the path to participating is laden with friction. Users must search using a real Chicago street address and register for an account before they may participate. Registering an account involves giving a name, email address, a password, and completing a captcha. There’s no mechanism to invite your neighbors to join you in shoveling, nor is there a mechanism to share your activity with your social network.

Third, the application is useless when there is no snow on the ground. Adopt-a-sidewalk is irrelevant in the summertime, and, for most of the winter spent between snow storms. There is no incentive to return to the site, and there is no meaningful action to take in between snow storms.

On a conceptual level, the premise of Adopt-a-sidewalk is flawed. Chicago residents are already expected to and, by ordinance, required to, shovel their sidewalks. Adopt-a-sidewalk provides no benefit to users who adopt the sidewalk in front of their house and dutifully shovel it each time snow falls. The steps to register and adopt their sidewalk is busy work.

The real work

Instead of asking users to do monotonous work, Adopt-a-sidewalk should focus on providing a real service: matching people in need of help with people willing to help. In that scenario, there are two key classes of users: people who cannot clear their sidewalks and people who are willing to help shovel sidewalks near them.

By shifting the interaction model from navigating a half million rectangles on a map to a focused, needs-based one, many of the core usability issues can be alleviated. It’s far easier to show activity, in the form of the most recent or most urgent requests for help, and the reward for participating is much more immediate and meaningful. Instead of highlighting what’s expected of people, the focus can be on enabling and rewarding people who want to help their neighbors.

The natural extension of this concept is to move beyond simple sidewalks and instead enable neighborhood adoption of any civic infrastructure. Adopting sidewalks could easily gave way in the spring and summer time to adopting parks and community gardens. In the fall, communities could band together to adopt a local school and fix it up before students return. A baseball team can adopt its ball field and organize events to maintain and improve it.

Fostering community around shared civic infrastructure is not a new concept. However, using technology, it is possible to integrate the real world thing with an online community, and the vast network of people and data that exists there. With the rise of open government data, not only is the civic infrastructure as physical object or place, it’s a continuous stream of data and interactions. The baseball diamond around the corner is not just a sandlot for shagging fly balls, it is a collection of data points: tweets, photos, and events created by community members, and crime reports, 311 requests, park facilities data from the local government.

I look forward to seeing where Adopt-a-sidewalk goes from here, especially if Code for America or one of the brigades takes some of the concepts from Adopt-a-sidewalk and pulls them back into the mainline repository. Adopt-a-sidewalk is, despite its flaws and low adoption, one very small step on a long path to building, enabling, and merging real life and online communities.

Montana Trip18 August 2013

Lake McDonald

Melissa and I spent a week exploring the great state of Montana earlier this month. She was in Missoula for work; I joined her there and we headed to Glacier National Park and points north. We explored Missoula and took in the Ospreys vs. the Helena Brewers at Ogren Park Allegiance Field.

Our stay in West Glacier was mostly a bust thanks to ceaseless rain. Thankfully the bar and restaurant at the Belton Chalet were a cozy setting to pass the time with endless games of Uno.

From West Glacier we headed north to the Way Less Traveled Bed and Breakfast, a delightful place far, far off the beaten path. Our hosts Nancy and Paul were adept at feeding us and making us comfortable.

We spent our daytime on hikes around the Bowman Lake area, in the northwest corner of the park. It's far quieter and undeveloped compared to the West Glacier area.

On the way back down to Missoula, we swung back through the park and drove up Going to the Sun Road. This time around the weather was perfect, and we were treated to endless vistas and, much to Melissa's delight, a pack of mountain goats up near Logan's Pass.

See more photographs over on Flickr.

Coffee bitters12 May 2013

In anticipation of an upcoming "Stock the Bar" party, I made a batch of coffee bitters to give as gifts. Thankfully there was enough left over to keep some for myself.

I followed the recipe outlined at Liquidity Preference with a few variations. I was unable to find whole orris root. Spice House, a delightful spice shop here in Chicago, only had powdered orris root. I used a small amount of the powder wrapped in a coffee filter, which seemed to work fine. The orris root from Spice House was labeled "not for consumption" but cursory Googling showed it used in enough consumables that I am not concerned. I also removed the orange peel after a few days, instead of letting it steep for all seven days. A previous batch I made came out far too orange-flavored, to the point of masking most of the coffee flavors.

The bitters work well with a classic Old Fashioned or Manhattan, and I'm eager to try them with a rum Old Fashioned.

Cambodia01 February 2013

In December 2012 Melissa and I spent 10 days in Cambodia. It was a joint reward, for me finishing the campaign, and her finishing her first semester of graduate school.

We spent the first three days traveling with our friends Sarah and David to see the temples of Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage site, outside the lovely city of Siem Reap.

Melissa and I then went to the coast, to Sihanoukville, for a few days of nothing but being lazy on the beach on the Gulf of Thailand.

We then packed up and headed to the capital, Phnom Penh, and visited sites there, including the killing fields near Choeung Ek.

Here are some favorite photos from the trip. The entire collection, all 238, are over at Flickr.

Resetting an AWS IAM Account with 2-factor Authentication23 January 2013

I use Amazon's AWS extensively; their two-factor authentication is pretty great. Recently I had the pleasure of resetting an Amazon Web Services IAM user account after losing my virtual MFA device. Thanks to a botched iOS 6 update, I lost everything on my phone, including all of my Google Authenticator profiles. That meant I had no way to log in to any of my protected accounts, including AWS. Yikes!

Amazon's MFA FAQ addresses this scenario, but doesn't say what is involved in the reset process. Here's what I was asked to do when I contacted Amazon support:

  1. Identify myself by name and email address.
  2. Provide the address on the AWS account, with absolute precision. There was a bit of back and forth until I refined my answer to include the type of street (e.g. "Avenue").
  3. Last 4 digits of the credit card associated with the account.
  4. Exact amount of a previous AWS bill.
  5. The agent then emailed me a PIN number and asked me to hang up.
  6. The agent then called back at a phone number associated with the account, and asked me to recite the emailed PIN.

I hope this helps someone else in a similar situation.