Harris: Finding 'real people' to test civic apps

Daniel O'Neil of the Smart Chicago Collaborative aims to engage city residents in the process of building civic-minded technology

Daniel O'Neil is one of the founders of Everyblock. The now shuttered hyperlocal news website was among the first to exhume government data sets — reams of building permits, for instance — and publish them online for the curious and skilled to investigate.

O'Neil knows the curious and skilled type. His type. Often white and male. A city-dweller who's great with computers and numbers. Mature enough to care about his neighbors, his city — yet a tad skeptical of authority. Usually sporting jeans, thick-rimmed glasses and a collared button-down shirt featuring some sort of L.L. Bean-ish checkered pattern.

O'Neil, 46, now runs a nonprofit group, called the Smart Chicago Collaborative, whose mission is to help this community of hackers and journalists do better work. For instance, it hosts websites that do really clever and helpful things with data from City Hall. (See WasMyCarTowed.com.)

The collaborative's newest initiative is the civic user testing group. The group has recruited 400 "real people" — O'Neil's words — to test new civic apps. Every person who joins the group gets a $5 gift card. And test participants receive a $20 gift card and bus fare.

"The big picture is to get residents engaged in the civic technology process — because currently they're not," O'Neil said immediately after a recent test of Tom Kompare's almost-finished app, go2school.org, at a public library in Uptown. "There's a sort of practical goal — for this to happen right there. That's an actual developer who usually goes to Open Gov Hack Night on Tuesday nights at the Merchandise Mart and interacts with 25 white, male specimens and tries to make decisions about what the next app is that they're going to try to get somebody to write about.

"It's a process I find maddening because I've been at this for a while. And I've done that before. I've been the app-of the-day guy. It feels great. And then that's it. … It's not of any use."

Kompare, 43, of Rogers Park, has a full-time job at the University of Chicago. He builds civic apps for fun in his free time. (See Kompare's potholes.311servic.es for a map pothole complaints near you that haven't been addressed.) For his most recent project — an app that helps people find the quickest, safest way to get their kids to school — Kompare needed specific testers: Parents who take their kids to and from Chicago public schools and have two hours to spare on a weeknight to give the app serious thought.

Kompare asked the three women who showed up for a recent test to describe their typical morning.

"I look at the stove clock. If it says 7:43, I know I'm on target," said Melissa Sanchez, 43, laughing.

"I like your very specific time, that's good," Kompare said.

"And then we get in the car. So as I pull out of the alley, I'll look. If the Kennedy Expressway is moving, then I'll jump on the expressway."

"Oh, you can see it?" Kompare asked.

"Yes. If I know it's not (moving), then I'll head toward Diversey (Avenue). If Diversey is packed, then I go toward Logan Boulevard to cut out Diversey. If I take Diversey and I make it to Diversey and Ashland (Avenue) at 8 o'clock — 8:07 is tardy — so if I'm at the red light at 8 o'clock then I know I can make it in four minutes, blind. Then it all depends. I'll open the door and, if they have one minute, I'm like, 'RRRUUUNNNN!'"

It doesn't get more real than that. After sharing their stories, each participant tested the app in a one-on-one conversation with Kompare, O'Neil or a member of the Smart Chicago Collaborative's staff.

Sanchez suggested that Kompare change the wording on a few buttons for clarity. She said she liked Kompare's clean design and that he had pre-programmed the addresses of all of Chicago's public schools. But she wanted the app to do more — to supply her with a reverse route home; to store her home address; and to speak the route to her like a GPS device.

"You'll use this because you're in a rush and in a crunch," said Sanchez, who lives in Logan Square and works for the schools' head start program. "I'm not going to memorize the route because I'm already stressed and panicked. I'm going to need somebody to coach me, guide me."

On their way out of the library at 8 p.m., O'Neil asked Kompare what he thought of the test. "A home run," Kompare replied. "The woman I was working with. Faaantastic. She gave me at least three (improvements) that are doable." Kompare said the app suggested the woman's son take the Cermak bus to school, but she told Kompare that wasn't an option because that route crossed through unsafe gang territory.

"A better build-out of this is having the option to pick the bus stop where you want to start," Kompare said. "That way you can choose a bus stop you can logically use. That was something I picked up today."

O'Neil was relieved. Only six people had signed up to attend, and he had a reporter coming. Worried about how the small group would look, he almost opened the test to all 400 testers rather than limit participation to parents of children in Chicago Public Schools.

"I have this desire to have like a big raucous, big meeting," O'Neil said. "That's my nature. But we got three incredibly qualified, incredibly articulate people to give this guy feedback. Now (after two tests), he's got seven people. We've had geographic diversity. Two men. It was mainly African-Americans, come to think of it. That's worth it."

mmharris@tribune.com

Twitter @chiconfidential

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