Nov. 10, 2017 10:23 am

Knight Cities Challenge winner PHL Participatory Design Lab is launching next week

The Office of Homeless Services and the Department of Revenue are working to improve their interactions with the public.

Nathaniel Olin and Devika Menon (right), the two new fellows working with Liana Dragoman (center) as part of PHL Participatory Design Lab.

(Photo courtesy of the City of Philadelphia)

Back in May, the Knight Foundation announced this year’s Knight Cities Challenge winners and one of the five from Philly was the City of Philadelphia itself.

The city netted the largest amount of grant money out of all the local winners — $338,000 — to launch what it called the PHL Participatory Design Lab.

Liana Dragoman, service design practice lead and deputy director of the Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation (ODDT), told us after the initial announcement that the project as a whole would focus on “find[ing] ways that will improve the experiences of the public when interacting with a particular city department” through human-centered design methods.

A press conference yesterday revealed the first two city departments that will be participating in the lab: the Office of Homeless Services (OHS) and the Department of Revenue.

Specifically, the lab and its two new fellows — service designer Devika Menon, who had a previous stint at Maryland’s MICA Center for Social Design, and social scientist Nathaniel Olin, previously with D.C.’s Analyst Institute — will be working to improve the ways residents interact with OHS’ intake system and the Revenue department’s Owner-Occupied Payment Agreement (OOPA).

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(These two departments have made efforts to improve Philadelphians’ experiences with their services before: Revenue staffers who worked at the call center were trained in trauma-informed service last year through a Living Cities‘ City Accelerator initiative and OHS has started using a data-informed approach to implement a more proactive homeless outreach program.)

Leading the effort are Dragoman and Anjali Chainani, director of policy in the Mayor’s Office of Policy, Legislation and Intergovernmental Affairs (who admitted during a panel at the Fels Policy Research Initiative’s first conference this past May that the city “may not be serving people as well as we could”).

While planning for the lab started in July, Chainani said the lab team and fellows will officially begin the first phase of the project this Monday. That will involve deep research into both departments to determine their service challenges and opportunities for redesign and collaboration.

The lessons learned during this initial process will also be public to other departments, Dragoman said. The civic engagement portion of the project will start sometime next year when the team shares what they’ve learned with scholars and city residents to get them involved in the process.

“The word ‘participatory’ in the title is meant to mean ‘highly collaborative’ not only across government but also across professional communities and residents,” Dragoman said.

You may have noticed that the two specific services being reworked in each department — OHS’ intake system and Revenue’s OOPA — are both aimed toward people who are somewhere along what Chainani called the “housing crisis spectrum.” That may have not been intentional from the get-go but the hope is to eventually find a way the two departments can collaborate more and maybe offer more holistic improvements to their services.

“Something that we may learn in the Department of Revenue, we’re eager to see if that can be applied to the OHS,” Chainani said.


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