Boston Public Records 2018
How can the City of Boston improve the experience for public records requesters and custodians while complying with applicable laws and regulations?
- Jackie Chea
- Thad Kerosky
- James Moffet
- Erica Pincus
- Jonathan Truong
In his first inaugural address in 2014, when Boston Mayor Marty Walsh laid out four pillars for his new administration, the final point was a pledge to “increase trust and transparency in city government.” Recent events surrounding the bidding process for Amazon’s second headquarters have brought this to life, suggesting that the City is capable of setting national standards for transparency and open government.
But the process of making a public records request is a black box for journalists, activists, researchers, and constituents nationwide. And it’s not just requesters: City staff that act as custodians of records also suffer from an opaque and unmeasured process.
Twenty-nine interviews, 48 pages of notes, and hundreds of hours later, we grouped our user insights into four key challenges:
- Routing: Who could best fulfill this request and how do we make sure it gets to them?
- Scoping: How can requests be more specific so that City staff can effectively fulfill them and requesters get what they need?
- Timing: How can the City set and provide a clear timeline for the progress of responding?
- Accountability and Trust: How can we help requesters trust the process, maintain open lines of communication, and recognize when requests are fulfilled well?
We created a prototype of Tippy, a smart suggestion tool that helps people narrow down their public record requests with more specificity. As a person types their request, helpful tips appear based on key “trigger” words. For example, when someone types “email,” tips pop up to remind the requester to add a date range or an email address they’re interested in. That way, requesters will be more likely to get what they need while city staff can more easily find the records in question.
Tippy is just one of ten ideas we had for prototypes that could solve these key challenges and improve the public records experience for both requesters and City staff; we also tested a Department Suggestor and a Status Tracker. We translated our research and prototypes into specific evaluation criteria on the City of Boston's new RFP to buy a public records request tracker. We look forward to seeing how the City of Boston, building on our insights and help, improves public records transparency!