Case Study: An Activist Dashboard

How do we help underserved communities gain a voice?

The Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), based at the University of Minnesota, extended a challenge to find digital solutions that elevate citizen interaction with their government. Two design strategists, Sandy Wolfe Wood and Ange Wang, collaborated with the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy (CEED), an environmental justice nonprofit based in the Twin Cities. Together we submitted a proposal to the CURA Tech Challenge and won a $10,000 grant to develop a prototype for an ‘online citizen activist dashboard.

Our Challenge

Neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor or comprised primarily of minority populations are more likely to be saddled with environmental hazards than are their wealthier or whiter counterparts. These communities regularly deal with poor air and water quality due to the proximity of expressways, toxic waste dumps, incinerators, and large industrial sites. All too often residents of these communities are not consulted as decisions are made about these hazards. CEED developed a mapping tool that overlays income, race, and environmental hazards, and looked to design strategists to develop an online tool that can help citizens make use of that information to change outcomes in their neighborhoods.

Barriers to change

One of the biggest challenges in working with communities whose voices have long been ignored is that it is difficult to gain and keep their trust. We met with skepticism over whether we would 1) truly listen to this community’s needs, and 2) recognize the expertise present among community members. Accessing CEED’s strong relationships with activists in many of the affected communities opened doors so that we could pinpoint the most salient issues and move forward with the project from their perspective.

Evolution of the dashboard

Our initial proposal to CURA was based on two conversations with CEED staff and CEED brought its own assumptions to the table. So, after winning the grant to develop a prototype, we revisited our problem statement to include what we learned from direct interaction with community organizers.

We started by writing down everything we heard about community needs, then identifying 1) who would use an online dashboard and 2) how they would use it. This helped us build an ‘activist persona’ which we used to inform the finished prototype. We worked back and forth with CEED staff to understand what tiers of information are most valuable to that persona and how to balance the complexity of information with the need to take action.

The end result was an online dashboard that aggregates events (key government hearings); civic leadership (legislative committee chairs, mayors, city council members); the environmental justice mapping tool; and local, regional, and national developments that impact a particular issue. It offers access based on a particular neighborhood location, then allows the user to go broader on an issue—city, county, state, region, and entire country. The ultimate goal of CEED is to build connections across the country so that individual activists can learn from each other.

Outcomes

At the project’s conclusion, CURA Tech awarded our dashboard a $40,000 implementation grant. The dashboard is still in the development stage.

Leadership

Sandy Wolfe Wood and Ange Wang, Design Strategists; Shalini Gupta, Executive Director, CEED.