On April 15, 2015, members of Wesleyan University’s CSPL 341 (for more information on the class as well as other projects and various resources visit The Cities, Suburbs & Schools website), traveled to the North End Action Team (NEAT) headquarters in Middletown, Connecticut to gather information on the public’s reaction to the Connecticut Open Communities Alliance (CTOCA) Mobility App. OCA is “a new Connecticut-based civil rights organization that promotes access to opportunity for all people through education, organizing, advocacy, research, and partnerships.” 1 As a part of their mission, they have created the Mobility App, a opportunity centric tool, intended to assist people with government housing subsidies (notably Section 8 Vouchers, an initiative that provides rental housing subsidies to low-income households) find housing in high opportunity neighborhoods with quality schools, low crime rates, high employment levels, and various other necessities for success. Housing mobility, although it may seem trivial, is crucial for helping low income families gain upward mobility socially, economically and educationally.
We interviewed adults in the community, asking how they felt about their current housing situation, whether they were looking to move, whether they were regular computer users, and other questions, in order to assess the efficiency and applicability of the current app’s design. Our findings reveal that current app is not fulfilling its mission of “help[ing] people with government housing subsidies…find homes within thriving communities.” 2 The App is conveniently available through the OCA website but is relatively new and underutilized. A participant begins by inserting an address (perhaps his/hers 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.
The “Opportunity Index” is based off of three qualifiers: economic quality, such as unemployment rate and job diversity, educational levels, such as connecticut math and english exams, and neighborhood indicators, such as crime rate and percent of people below the poverty line.
PROBLEMS WITH THE APP
While the Mobility App provides baseline support for housing movement, it is falling short. Technologically, participants are not meaningfully engaging with the app. In the aforementioned trials done with NEAT while nearly 65% of these people were looking to move only 29% of participants changed how they thought about housing. In addition, many users experienced challenges navigating the website with 57% unable to enter their addresses without assistance. When exploring the tool, 78% clicked on one or fewer facets, showing that without explicit instruction participants cannot effectively use the website. 3 Some of these issues are due to the fact that many of our participants had low literacy levels. The biggest issue with the mobility app is that it lacks links to available housing, thereby not fulfilling its mission to help participants find housing. Without direct links to housing, the tool cannot fully promote actual mobility into higher opportunity areas.
Considering the effectiveness of this app 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 which includes two larger factors: an instructional video and a more comprehensive interface.
As discussed, many users do not possess the technological skills to navigate the website alone. Therefore, to make the app effective, a feature needs to be created to provide explicit usage instructions. The inclusion of a video would visually demonstrate to participants how to effectively engage with the app many of whom have limited literacy. Hopefully, an instructional video would make the website understandable to the extent that users could navigate it alone. This video would pop up automatically when the user enters the website. If he/she is not a first time user, the participant would have the option to skip the tutorial.
The video tutorial would consist of multiple chapters: the first would introduce the app and explain what it is designed to do, reciting the mission statement. The following chapters would explain more specific features to the app. The first specific chapter would be the “Opportunity Index” gradient. The narrator would clarify that it ranges from very low, the tan color, to very high, the dark orange color, and that it is determined based on “economic, education and neighborhood quality”, meaning the caliber of nearby schools, amount of job opportunities, level of crime, and more. 4 Next the video would explain the color coded amenities (that should be expanded beyond what they are now) below the opportunity index such as health centers, daycare facilities, grocery stores, transportation, and more. This portion would show the user how they can select amenities that are important to them specifically, and how the map would then automatically show nearby dots that represent chosen amenities. When a participant clicks on a dot, the title of the resource, the address, and the phone number would pop up, as well as a link to get directions to/from this amenity. The voiceover would explain that the button leads the participant to a linked website, Google Maps, where the user would be able to see the easiest routes by foot, bike, car or public transportation from the destination to the selected address. It would give a short demonstration of how to do so by entering two sample addresses and clicking on various routes. The next chapter would explain crucial new redesign aspects (discussed in the next section): the ability for two addresses entered concurrently and pegs with links to homes for rent in the area (marked with green arrows). At the end of the tutorial, a participant would click the “next” button, leading him/her to the Mobility App. If the user needs to go back to the video later for reference, there would be a link at the top of the page that says “How To Use This App.” 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.
Below is a sample instructional video of the current website. It does not include the interface redesign, mentioned above and explained in detail below,that we are hoping to implement. This video would need to be updated when the website is redesigned.
Sample instructional video, created by authors, on YouTube. 5
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” 6 would be to change the actual interface of the app. Currently, the app has too much writing for our literacy deficient demographic, no direct visual comparison between two different addresses (current and future), unclear coloration for the different opportunity areas, and most critically, no direct housing availability on the map. A potential redesign would accomplish four things: include a video (discussed above), remove a lot of the written information so that a person with minimal reading comprehension can understand how to work the app, provide space to enter two addresses (the second being optional) to make a potential mover think about opportunity level comparisons between his/her current location and a new location, and add in real housing options taken from real estate websites.
In addition, a redesign could add in various other amenities (like proximity to transportation, hospitals, job availability, places of worship, grocery stores, shopping centers, etc.) to cater toward individualized amenity desires and keep the search as personalized and therefore as useful as possible. Moreover, the neighborhood amenities distance would automatically be set higher than half a mile (the current setting) because not all addresses have amenities in such a close proximity.
However, it is necessary to remember that amenities and opportunity level are not the same; opportunity level refers to “sustainable employment, high-performing schools, a safe environment, and safe neighborhoods” whereas amenities are just ‘cream on top,’ extra to make the app participant-centric. 7 The meat of the redesign falls in the former redesign ideas as these suggestions bolster the app’s ability to offer housing mobility into higher opportunity neighborhoods.
The redesign would include several links, the first of which would be “How to Use This Tool” located at the top of page that would open to the introductory video detailed earlier. This would ensure that a participant can return to the video if they need to be reminded of a specific instruction or purpose of one of the site’s amenities (i.e. what opportunity index means, what the tract (grey lines) mean, etc). Similarly, underneath the “ Opportunity Index” color-gradient chart there would be a link to the “methods” section that describes what “opportunity” means. While this link would be relatively superfluous with the explanation of what “opportunity” means in the video, it would ensure that categorization into how neighborhoods are being assessed remains as transparent as possible.
The next necessary edit of the website would be the elimination of some of the word-heavy areas and the addition of a space for two addresses. Our first deletion would be the introductory paragraph:
This would hopefully make the website less intimidating for low literacy participants as there are too many ‘advanced’ words. Replacing this space with the option of entering two addresses would permit a user to first enter his/her current address to see this location’s opportunity and then enter a second address (perhaps the address of a loved one or a place of work for comparison). As the NEAT data show, nearly 36% of people described themselves as “Stayers” and therefore the second address is helpful and optional, but not necessary. The app would then compare the opportunity levels of the two neighborhoods and of the neighborhoods in between, show available housing in and between the neighborhoods, depict nearby amenities, and transportation routes. Overall, the addition of two addresses would give participants a visual comparison of a current and a desired address in terms of opportunity level while simultaneously creating choice for participants through showing the opportunity levels of neighboring areas and nearby amenities as well.
If the participant enters two addresses the site would look like this:
However, if a person opted to only enter one address, the map would show the level of opportunity in this location, though ideally more zoomed out than in the current design, because it is currently difficult both to locate an address within a greater neighborhood/opportunity level context and see nearby amenities.
Lastly, the most apparent missing feature in the Mobility App is the lack of available housing displayed, which completely defeats the purpose of this app. How can an individual looking to move into a higher opportunity area do so without knowledge of what housing is available? Therefore, the new design would show housing opportunities on the map in locations higher than the first entered address (current address). The tool could pull from Trulia, Zillow, or CTHousingSearch for example. This in turn helps the Mobility App creators fulfill their mission statement of providing housing and their goal of making the app as opportunity centric as possible. (See mock-up below)
As the Open Communities Alliance Mobility App currently stands, it does not fulfill its mission. The Mobility App has a solid foundation for assisting Connecticut residents with housing subsidies such as section eight vouchers find homes in new locations with higher opportunity levels than his/her current home. Unfortunately, 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. Overall our submissions for the redesign would improve how participants interact with the app despite low literacy levels, create elements that help to make the app more opportunity centric through explicit visual instruction, decrease unintelligibly sophisticated language, and provide links to available housing. Once these redesigned aspects have been implemented and the app has been made as opportunity centric as possible, we believe it would be in the best interest of the creators to survey low income participants again to gauge whether or not there are some amenities missing from the site that they consider important and that they look for when searching for a house (such as adding a landlord rating for some of the housing units to eliminate concern), however, the primary focus on the redesign should be on making the app as user-friendly as possible. 8 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.
- Open Communities Alliance, “Open Communities Alliance Homepage”, Open Communities Alliance, Accessed May 11, 2015, http://www.ctoca.org/ ↩
- “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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- https://youtu.be/0EI3SAcUCXk ↩
- “Mobility App,” Open Communities Alliance, accessed May 1, 2015, http://www.ctoca.org/mobility_app. ↩
- Steve Gaul, “Connecticut Opportunity Index: 2014 Opportunity Index Levels for Connecticut”, Connecticut Opportunity Index, Accessed May 11, 2015. http://sgaul.github.io/opportunity/ ↩
- 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 ↩