Introducing Boston’s New Property Info Tool

This is the fifth blog post chronicling a Harvard student team’s collaboration with the City of Boston to redesign Boston residents’ experience using City property information, including Assessing Online. To read about the team’s journey, check out our previous blogs.

Let us introduce you to Heather. Heather is a wonderful realtor we worked with throughout our project. She has lived in Boston her whole life and, in the past year, helped more than 20 families buy or sell their homes in Boston. She takes pride in her job, telling us, “Buying and selling a home is a big step in life, and I love being the person who helps people in this process.”

Heather’s story was a feature of our final presentation that, after 14 weeks of research, interviews, and testing, answered the question: How might we enable citizens—individuals and commercial users—to easily access, understand, and trust city-based property information?

Designing Around the User

We were impressed by the many roles realtors take on while serving their clients. They are:

  • Detectives, trying to understand any information disparities between different sources.
  • “Nervous Nancies,” seeking to understand every data point possible on a property.
  • Educators, identifying and relaying all pertinent information on a given property.
  • Supporters, helping home buyers and home sellers make informed decisions and providing much needed comfort.

Currently, realtors’ days are filled visiting to dozens of websites, calling multiple offices, and even physically visiting City Hall or available properties to answer questions like: What’s the assessed value of the property? Was the lead paint removed? Can a porch be added in the backyard? Charged with streamlining this process, we wondered: how can we make this information accessible in one place?


Introducing The Property Info Tool

Based on our user research, we created a prototype of a digital solution that will help realtors—and really, anyone—find relevant information in one place. Key changes in our redesign include:

  • Creating an “one-stop shop” prototype: Having all the city’s property information in one place will reduces the total number of sites (online and in-person) a user needs to visit and simplifies the search process.
  • Integrating permitting information: Surprises in homebuying (such as—and this is a true story we heard—having a car stuck in the walls of a home!) are often unwelcome. Therefore, our prototype integrates a history of work done on a property based on permitting data.
  • Introducing field descriptions: Ensuring a common understanding of available information empowers users to make better decisions.

What’s Next?

The City of Boston team will build upon our prototype, research, and findings moving forward. While we are proud of what we accomplished this semester, the work to improve how citizens access city based property information is just beginning.  We suggest:

1.       Ensure that the new Property Info tool meets the needs of other user groups:

Our prototype is designed around the needs of “super users.” Testing the Property Info tool on other user groups will generate helpful insights about its design, layout, and attributes. Two important populations to test with are taxpayers, who visit Assessing Online to file and dispute their taxes, and City of Boston employees, who need the tool to answer Bostonians’ questions.

2.       Explore sharing Assessing Data with third parties:

An Application Programming Interface (API) for the city’s data could allow for more seamless integration of the City’s data into the lives of its citizens. For example, an APIs could allow websites like Zillow, a site frequently used by homebuyers and home sellers, or MLS, a tool that realtors use, to directly and continuously pull in assessing information.

3.       Improve the offline process

Some individuals choose to either visit City Hall in-person or call the Assessing Department’s assistance number for property information and assistance. To improve their experience, the City can use survey questions or track their requests to understand who these individuals are, why they are going offline for assessing information, and what challenges they might face.

4.       Advertise the new tool

In order for the Property Info tool to improve how Boston residents find and access city based property information, users have to, well, use it! Therefore, the City should have a plan to inform users that the tool is available and how to access it as well as guides/resources to maximize the value they get from using the tool. 

Thank you!

The entire Harvard team wants to communicate their heartfelt thanks to all those in the City of Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology and Assessing Department. A special shout out goes to Lauren Lockwood, Reilly Zlab, Matthew Englander, Phillip Cheetham, and Francis Gavin who were instrumental in this project’s success. Additionally, we want to thank everyone who we interviewed for their insights. Finally, none of this would have been possible without our course’s teaching team.

Osama Arif, Elle Creel, Doug Lavey, Marta Milkowska, Emily Terwelp