The Mobility App run by Open Communities Alliance was created with the intent of helping people with government housing subsidies (notably Section 8 vouchers, an initiative that provides rental housing subsidies to low-income households) find homes in thriving neighborhoods with quality schools, low crime rates, and various other necessary amenities. 1 The App is currently available through the Open Communities Alliance website, but is relatively new and underutilized. A participant begins by inserting an address (perhaps his/her own or perhaps a desired location), clicking “Search,” and is then shown a peg on a map that reveals the location’s “Opportunity Index” (rated on a scale of “very low” (tan) to “very high” (deep orange)) as well as various “Neighborhood Assets” near the location (starting at ½ of a mile away and spanning up to 100 miles) such as public schools, daycare facilities, grocery stores, and places of worship. Each differently colored section is based off of census tract data.
Figure 1: The Mobility App by Open Communities Alliance.
The “Opportunity Index” is based off of three qualifiers:
1. Economic Quality – such as but not limited to unemployment rate and job diversity
2. Educational Levels — such as but not limited to state math and English attainment exams
3. Neighborhood indicators — such as but not limited to crime rate and percent of people below the poverty line. 2
Yet, while the Mobility App is providing baseline support for housing movement, it is falling short in many regards.
1. There are not enough neighborhood assets to give a robust picture of what living in a specific location would be like.
2. There is not enough overt explanation as to what “Opportunity Index” means.
3. Participants are not fully engaging with the app in a meaningful way. In a test done with the North End Action Team (NEAT) in Middletown, CT, only 29% of people polled changed how they thought about housing but nearly 65% of these people were looking to move. 3
4. Most notably, there are not direct links to actual available housing for rent, thereby undermining the singular mission that the Mobility App attempts to achieve through “help[ing] people with government housing subsidies interested in an opportunity move find homes within thriving communities.” 4
Considering this gap in effectiveness and the primitive resources currently given in the app, this essay calls for a redesign on the Open Communities Alliance Mobility App in order to create more opportunity and effective housing mobility.
HOW PEOPLE CURRENTLY ENGAGE WITH THE MOBILITY APP
On April 15, 2015, members of CSPL 341, the class for which this essay is being written (for more information on the purpose of this class as well as other projects conducted and various resources visit The Cities, Suburbs & Schools website), traveled down to the North End Action Team (NEAT) headquarters in Middletown, Connecticut to interview adults from the community in order to gather data on the public’s reaction to the Mobility App. We used audio and screen recordings to interview the subjects and track their movements and queries whilst interacting with the website. We began with an interview script that asked participants whether they were thinking about moving or not and what their level of competency was with computers. Out of fourteen participants, 64% said they were thinking about moving and 71% said that they were regular computer users. 5
As we began the demonstration, we asked the participants to enter their approximate address (not actual address to protect for anonymity) and then review what the search revealed about their current location. The participants were instructed to explore the app at their leisure, however, this proved more difficult than expected. 57% of the participants could not enter their address without assistance and when exploring, 78% of participants clicked on one or fewer facets. 6 After the participants browsed the site, members of CSPL 341 then explained what each element (the opportunity index, the colored location dots, etc.) was designed to highlight in order to teach participants what each aspect of the app meant. Next, we asked participants to enter a predetermined address (100 Main St. Portland, CT) and have them describe to us what they saw. From there we concluded the interview by asking the participants if what they learned through the Mobility App changed how they viewed their neighborhood and if they had any feedback for the creators of the app. The majority (71%) of participants did not change how they thought about housing mobility. We believe this was a result of the lack of an explicit explanation of each part of the tool. This application has proved not to be as easily accessible or self-explanatory as we once believed as many of the features were lost on the interviewees. However, once the application’s amenities were demonstrated and then explained in intimate detail, all but two users were not only able to navigate the application with ease but also were excited about its benefits. 7
WHAT PEOPLE SAY THEY WANT FROM A MOBILITY APP
When thinking about redesigning the Mobility App, there were a few pieces of feedback that came up repeatedly in our interviews at NEAT that coincided with a couple key housing desires expressed in Connecticut Fair Housing Center Study’s “Housing Mobility: What Do Housing Voucher Recipients Want?” that we feel should be integrated into the redesign. First, there were some amenities that are not currently on our maps that interviewees mentioned were important to them when thinking about housing. This included both unquantifiable amenities such as “room to breathe” and “good neighbors” but also tangible amenities such as public transportation, affordability, and proximity to medical services and shopping centers. 8 Public transportation was an especially crucial amenity for both the NEAT participants and participants of the Connecticut Fair Housing. In fact, two members of the NEAT participant pool alluded to the fact they had no transportation at all and the Connecticut Fair Housing members ranked “Good Transportation” fourth behind “Safety”, “Cost,” and “Good Schools” (features which are already included in the current “Opportunity Index”). 9 At this point, the only reference we have regarding public transportation is the use of Google Maps. It would be incredibly beneficial to add local bus stops as one of the colored location dots on the map. Similarly, locations of hospitals/medical centers and shopping centers (but not limited to these entities) could be gathered through various data analysis programs. One of the other aspects mentioned was the issue of discrimination from landlords, with the participants in the Connecticut Fair Housing Center study, explaining that a bad landlord can ruin one’s housing search. Fortunately, a website, ratemylandlord.com, which allows tenants to review the landlords of their buildings and allows prospective tenants to read reviews before committing to living in the community. This website could be given as a link in the Mobility App to aid those looking to find housing in a building governed by equity and community.
However the most important piece of feedback that we received from our interviews, which was seen both through observation and explicit verbal feedback, was that the website was not as accessible as we once believed. As shown in the data earlier, users struggled with the website until the features were explained in detail, which goes against the creators’ hopes for the website: users who stumble upon this app cannot find better housing opportunities if they cannot use the website itself.
Based off of the above, we have compiled a few changes to the design and function of the app in order to make it more accessible and useful.
1. Add in an “Introduction” video explaining how to use the app logistically and also to explain what facets of the methods or tools are, like opportunity level, tract, and neighborhood amenities.
2. Have the participants take a quiz that first assesses their current opportunity level then offers suggestions for higher opportunity level neighborhoods near their work or loved ones.
The inclusion of a video would visually demonstrate to participants (especially those not competent on a computer) how to effectively engage with the Mobility App. Hopefully, the video would make the website comprehendible to the extent that users would be able to navigate the mobility app from any location without the help of a housing counselor. This video feature would pop up automatically once the user has taken a short quiz, which will be explained in detail later. If he or she is not a first time user, the participant will have the option to skip the tutorial. The video tutorial will consist of six components and will be broken down into short video segments for each feature. The first chapter will introduce the application and explain what it is designed to help a participant with, reciting the App’s mission statement. The following chapters will be videos explaining more specific features within the application.
The first specific aspect explained would be the “Opportunity Index” gradient located on the left side of the screen, as seen below. The narrator will clarify that the gradient ranges from very low, the tan color to very high opportunity level, a dark orange color, and that it was determined based on “economic, education and neighborhood quality.” 10 The narrator will go on to explain that that means evaluating the caliber of schools in the area, amount of job opportunities, crime rates and more.
Figure 2: Explaining the Opportunity Index on The Mobility App
Next the video will explain the color coded amenities below the opportunity index such as public schools, daycare facilities, grocery stores, and the new amenities included such as proximity to hospitals, shopping centers, etc. in addition to pegs with links to homes for rent in the area (marked with red arrows). This will show the user how they can select amenities that are important to them specifically, and how the map will automatically show dots that represent the amenities near an entered address. It will also demonstrate that when a participant clicks on a dot, the title of the resource, the address, the phone numbers associated with this location pop up, as well as a link to getting directions to/from this amenity.
Figure 3: The Mobility App with Added Amenities and Available Housing
The next chapter highlighted in the video will be an explanation of how to use the “Get Directions” feature attached to each locale. The “Get Directions” button, the voiceover will explain, leads a participant to a linked website (most likely Google Maps) where the user will be able to see the easiest routes by foot, bike, car or public transportation from the selected destination to a second address. It will give a short demonstration of how to do so by entering a sample address and visually revealing how to use Google Maps.
Figure 4: The “Get Directions” Button on The Mobility App
Figure 5: Demonstration of Google Maps
Lastly, the video will describe one of the newer features that would be added with our redesign: the landlord feature. As described in the previous section, many participants mentioned that one of the details they want to know about houses or apartments is the quality of the landlord. Many participants expressed having difficulties with discrimination from unwelcoming landlords that made finding a new housing unit difficult. As a result, we suggest that there be a link be added to the available housing feature so that a participant can read reviews by previous tenants of that space or other spaces that the same landlord manages. One website that could be attached is ratemylandlord.com (see image of website below) . This added feature would address the repeated concerns expressed in the Connecticut survey, and with one of NEAT’s interviewees, and would ensure that the user would be given a full explanation of what living in a neighborhood and potential home would be like.
Figure 6: Ratemylandlord.com
At the end of the tutorial, a participant would click the “next” button, leading him/her to the Mobility App complete with the new amenities mentioned previously. The video tutorial would make the Mobility App more accessible for all users, especially technologically challenged users, and would help the app become more efficient in helping low-income Section Eight voucher recipients find a more upwardly mobile neighborhood and home to live in.
The second major suggestion to enhancing the Mobility App’s mission of “help[ing] people with government housing subsidies interested in an opportunity move find homes within thriving communities” would be to add in a quiz component. The idea of this quiz is to not only make the app more readily accessible in that it would clearly visualize and explain, step by step, different opportunity levels, but also to individualize a participant’s search and to cater to the specific needs of a potential mover. As is clear from the many responses in the Connecticut Fair Housing Center’s report, “Housing Mobility: What Do Housing Voucher Recipients Want?” people looking to move desire a diverse array of commodities and assets such as level of safety, a “racially mixed” neighborhood, or a locale with schools that have special needs programs, just to name a few. 11 In other words, the inclusion of a quiz would make the app more applicable and would produce results that are actually representative of what a participant would look for in choosing individualized housing.
The first part of the quiz would ask a participant to insert a current or recent address with the intention of then providing information on opportunity in this location.
Figure 7: Opening Screen of Mobility Opportunity Housing Quiz
Then, the Mobility App would locate the inserted location on the map to visually elucidate the opportunity level and various neighborhood amenities nearby (or lack thereof).
Figure 9: In Depth Visualization of How Location Would Be Shown In Mobility App Quiz
After, this visualization, the quiz would continue by asking a participant to check off various amenities that are important to him/her such as but not limited to transportation, hospitals, job availability, places of worship, grocery stores, shopping centers, etc. In order to generate a full list of significant amenities, further testing of the current tool would be necessary. Further, the quiz would also ask participants to enter a location near their job or a family/friend’s home or a desirable location. The idea behind asking a participant to enter a location near a job or loved one is to reduce the time commuting and help create a more stress-free life. Individual transportation, as mentioned above, is not something readily accessible by many of the NEAT or Connecticut Fair Housing Survey participants and, as a result, high quality public transportation is something they rely on heavily. Next, the app would show the location a participant has just entered on a map with their chosen amenities.
(Note from the instructor: Students were ask to write essays under 2500 words, which would be about here. Evaluators may read as much as they wish, but should not rate the essay beyond this point.)
Figure 10: Visualization of Mobility App Opportunity and Housing Quiz
However, simply asking a participant to insert a desirable address is not enough in supporting movement into more thriving communities. Therefore, based off of the information given in the quiz, the app would then compile a list of neighborhoods or towns that were in a higher opportunity index than the original address entered but that also had all the amenities that the participant listed were important to him/her and were close to the desired address. The app would provide this list in full as to give a participant as much choice as possible. Yet, one of the biggest downfalls with the original design of the app is that it fails to provide actual listings for available housing. Therefore, in this new design, the app would provide external links to rental homes (from Trulia or Zillow for example) as well as to ratemylandlord.com in order to make finding affordable housing as streamlined and pleasurable as possible.
When coming up with the idea of the quiz, one of the ideas discussed was whether or not to include a section that asked for a participant’s income and/or his/her desired rent. However, after consideration, it seemed that although this question initially makes sense in order to ensure that people were not spending beyond their means, considering Section 8 housing vouchers, inquiring about a participant’s income or rent constrictions is counterintuitive. Moreover, the Mobility App aims to close arbitrary socioeconomic stratification. Therefore, we would not want a participant to feel marginalized or forced into certain locations based off of money constrictions that may not even be relevant in light of subsidies.
The point is to keep choice as open and participant-centric as possible.
As the Open Communities Alliance Mobility App currently stands, it does not fulfill its mission. The Mobility App attempts to assist Connecticut residents with housing subsidies such as Section 8 vouchers find homes in new locations with higher opportunity levels than his/her current home. While the Mobility App is a good start to attenuating the issue of socioeconomically and racially stratified housing, it does not provide enough resources to make meaningful change. However, with a few simple additions and edits, the app could be more applicable, pertinent, and easy to use. The inclusion of an Introduction Video would show those new to the app (and potentially not comfortable regularly using computers) how to interact with it and what each facet and aspect of the app means and how they function. This would ensure comprehension. Further, the inclusion of a Quiz would help personalize a participant’s experience with the app to create housing choice catered to individual needs and therefore more useful in terms of suggesting relevant housing. On a more microscopic scale, the list of neighborhood amenities should be expanded to include (but not be limited to) public transportation, location of hospitals, and proximity to shopping centers. Most importantly, as the app stands, it does not assist participants in “find[ing] homes within thriving communities” because it does not offer any links to available real estate to rent in these new and higher opportunity levels. Therefore, the most critical, and perhaps most basic, change that the redesign should address is the inclusion of a list of or external links to open homes.
If the Open Communities Alliance Mobility App included the aforementioned redesign suggestions, we believe the tool could assist those looking to move find long-term and stress-free housing within his/her budget, desired location, and specific amenities.
- For more information on how these thriving neighborhoods are defined, see the methods section for the Mobility App. ↩
- Ibid., ↩
- “Mobility App Participant Spreadsheet,” Jack Dougherty, accessed May 1, 2015, https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1dbwO9jooBxvxZIuLaZzwAXX21LxRHy7k_jfeKadpIKk/edit#gid=0. ↩
- “Mobility App,” Open Communities Alliance, accessed May 1, 2015, http://www.ctoca.org/mobility_app. ↩
- “Mobility App Participant Spreadsheet,” Jack Dougherty, accessed May 1, 2015, https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1dbwO9jooBxvxZIuLaZzwAXX21LxRHy7k_jfeKadpIKk/edit#gid=0. ↩
- Ibid., ↩
- Anonymous Participants, Interviewed by CSPL 341, NEAT Headquarters: Middletown, CT, April 15, 2015. ↩
- Connecticut Fair Housing Center, “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice 2015”, Government of the State of Connecticut Website, Accessed May 1, 2015, http://www.ct.gov/doh/lib/doh/analysis_of_impediments_2015.pdf.
- Ibid., ↩
- Jack Dougherty,”Mobility App Interview Guide.” Paper presented at the CSPL 341 Choice- A Case Study in Education and Entrepreneurship class at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, April 18th, 2015. ↩
- For more information on the different responses, see Section 4 of the report entitled “Your Ideal Neighborhood” ↩