Brainstorming and Sketching to Help Residents Keep the City Safe and Clean

It is expected to snow tomorrow morning. Remember, to shovel the sidewalk three hours after snowfall ends to avoid a fine. Please help us keep Boston safe and clean.”

Imagine receiving the text message above. Would you be more likely to shovel your sidewalk? What other ways might local government officials help residents better understand their responsibilities to help keep Boston safe and clean?

Over the past few weeks, our team of students in DPI-663, a Harvard Kennedy School field class on Technology and Innovation in Government, has brainstormed over fifty ideas, including the one mentioned above to help create behavior change in residents that results in less tickets given and more tickets paid. This brainstorming initiative is a vital part of our semester-long partnership with the Boston Code Enforcement, a division within the City of Boston’s Public Works Department. Code Enforcement officers patrol Boston streets by car and foot, ensuring that residents shovel their sidewalks and properly dispose of their trash. When officers see dangerous sidewalks or unsanitary conditions, they issue tickets in green envelopes to non-compliant residents.

Our team first met with city officials to understand the importance of code responsibilities and their role in keeping Boston safe and clean. Then, we spoke to residents to understand the motivations, values, and experiences that prompted them to pay or ignore tickets. We realized that many people are willing to pay tickets, but get stuck in the process, often unsure of the importance of violations and of the steps they should take to pursue payment. How do we help residents navigate the process?


Above: A team member uses the KJ method and shares the categories of our solutions.

Above: A team member uses the KJ method and shares the categories of our solutions.

To get there, our team first brainstormed solutions to our broad question of “How can we ensure that more tickets are paid and fewer violations are committed?”

To develop group consensus around ideas, we used the KJ method, a process that involves writing individual answers to a question on different sticky notes, and then collectively arranging the sticky notes into mutually defined categories. This process is demonstrated in the photo to the left.

Using this brainstorming method, our team organized our ideas into the following four categories: educational campaigns, ticket and envelope redesign, follow-up activities, and 311 app modifications.

We have shared details on these categories below:

  • Educational campaigns: Most residents we interviewed were unaware of code violations, and this was one factor in committing violations. Some of the ideas we brainstormed to educate residents were:

    • Flyers and pamphlets;

    • Proactive outreach before high-volume violation periods like snowstorms or September move-in;

    • Events where residents could meet their Code Enforcement Officer; and

    • Push texts.

  • Ticket and envelope redesign: We also learned that people often had difficulty navigating the ticket and envelope and also questioned its legitimacy. Some initial ideas for the ticket and envelope redesign were as follows:

    • Better quality paper and images;

    • City of Boston seal;

    • Clear payment date;

    • Concise, large, and accessible text; and

    • Clear steps outlined for the payment process.

Above: Current code violation ticket is contrasted to paper prototypes of new envelopes.

Above: Current code violation ticket is contrasted to paper prototypes of new envelopes.

  • Follow-up: The City of Boston sends letters to violators if ticket fines have not been paid. These letters are very effective in eliciting resident responses. Some follow-up activities that we brainstormed in this category include:

    • Proactive follow-up letter one week after ticket has been issued; and

    • Text or email reminders.

  • 311 app modifications: Boston residents use the 311 phone app to report issues that require the attention of city officials, like unshoveled sidewalks or potholes. Code enforcement officers then respond to these complaints. Given that a large portion of officer’s time is spent responding to 311 app requests from residents, our group brainstormed a few solutions that leverage the app, including the following:

    • Push texts from the app;

    • Alerts if you have received a complaint from a neighbor; and

    • Opportunities for citizen-to-citizen interaction.

From Brainstorming to Creating

Brainstorming was fun, but this project is not just about ideas—it’s about creating and testing solutions. As a team, we decided not to choose one category of ideas too quickly, and instead produced paper sketches of prototypes for each category of ideas. We worked on each prototype for ten minutes with a pen and a paper. To our surprise, there were many elements that were repeated in our drawings. We used those sketches to design different versions of the prototypes to test with residents for feedback.

We are excited to continue working on our prototypes and receiving input from our partners at the City of Boston and from residents themselves in the next few weeks.

Clare Herceg, Naeha Rashid, Ariana Soto, Elyse Voegeli, & Clarisa Yerovi