Whether you’re wondering how to renew a driver's license, trying to sidestep automated city answering machines, or just curious what to do in the event of a wild rooster invasion, the city of Honolulu may have the answer for you.
Sheba Najmi, founder of Code for Pakistan and a former Code for America (CfA) fellow, took a moment to highlight her popular question-and-answer application called Honolulu Answers, a free Web app for cities that uses search to direct citizens to specific reader-friendly answers. The Web app was designed in 2012 when Honolulu was a CfA host city sponsored by CfA for tech innovation. It was created jointly by Najmi and CfA fellows Liz Hunt, Mick Thompson and Diana Tran, and in 2013 won an IxDA Interaction Award for its design.
Sitting down to offer her own question-and-answer session about the popular app, most recently adopted by the city of Oakland, Calif., in 2013 and West Michigan for their Green Guide in 2012, Najmi highlighted the program’s origins and current developments.
We were inspired by GOV.UK [a United Kingdom questions-and-answer app], which, at that time, was in beta because, at that point, what people really wanted were answers to their specific questions.
We decided to put Google Analytics on the city’s website to see the main things people were searching for, and we found the top three things were related to renewing your driver’s license, motor vehicle registration and job openings in the city. So we created a prototype — a minimum viable product if you will — in which each page is an answer to a specific question that a citizen might have.
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The key is that you get a short little answer with "here’s-what-you-need-to-know’ five bullet points, a do this and do that written in plain and simple language as if you were asking your neighbor a question.
The content was supposed to be very citizen-focused writing and language from a citizen’s perspective, so we thought, "All right, what better way than to involve citizens in writing the content themselves." So we did a civic write-a-thon, a new thing we came up with, on a Saturday at 8:45 a.m. — a rainy Saturday with boat races going on nearby — and there were about 60 people who came and they came to rewrite their city.
We used Google Analytics to identify the top 20 items that people were looking for, and we put up questions to them all around the room. People would pick those questions or try to come up with questions of their own, and then research them by looking at the city’s website … It was fascinating to see as all of these government employees [that volunteered unpaid to attend the event] talking to these people and trying to explain things to them in lay terms. You could see that their own mindset was shifting, and they were verbalizing things from a citizen’s perspective; it really was sort of profound.
Others have reached out to us too in wanting to deploy it, and we’ve tried to document it well so people can redeploy it on their own, but we’re also working on it from time to time to put in a wish list of features. My real hope is that Honolulu Answers becomes a real template for people to find easy answers to questions about city services and information, it’s a template we hope government we’ll see value in.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.