About Habit@

Habit@ was a year-long experiment (2014) in designing and deploying a cluster of engagement tools to better understand the benefits and challenges of new technology in community organizations that was funded by the Knight Foundation.

When civic technologies are deployed in neighborhoods, they are often seen as one-off experiments, with little tie to larger planning and outreach strategies. Cities or organizations see a problem, and imagine a tool that might be deployed to solve it. In their imagination, this tool provides increased capacity and efficiency (maximization of outcomes / minimization of costs). What isn’t necessarily taken into consideration is that new technology often requires some degree of time to be assimilated by both the end-users and the organizations that seek to engage their publics more fully. A single-tool, single-implementation approach might not be the best strategy to understand how tools get taken up by the community or integrated into the outreach and communications culture of an organization. Indeed, such an approach might well prove frustrating for both organizations and their publics – too much emphasis on novelty, not enough focus on integration and assimilation.

Enter the Habit@ project, conceived as a means of testing whether a more sustained engagement in a community while deploying a cluster of tools might prove more effective. Our approach was to work closely for 10 months with a community development corporation (CDC) in a Boston neighborhood to test the impact on the community of a series of tools for participatory planning – both digital and offline – all branded as part of a unified array of technologies: a Tech Habit@. Simultaneously, we conducted an organizational ethnography of the CDC to help them better understand their capacity in the area of communications and technology; we worked closely with youth affiliated with the organization to do outreach; and we helped the organization to create and deploy this cluster of tools according to their planning goals.

Our cluster of tools – lightly branded with the Habit@ logo – included:


Two touch screen displays with apps co-designed by Engagement Lab and DSNI.

Community PlanIt

Two implementations of Engagement Lab’s online game platform for participatory planning and community organizing. Content for the platform would be created by the staff at DSNI, with an emphasis on empowering the Youth Staff at DSNI to do outreach to spread the word about the games and help people to register.

Planning on the Street

Conceived as creative ways of engaging and surveying community members about planning in their neighborhood. Using an array of communications modalities situated in a particular place (iPads, vinyl cut signage, chalked sidewalks), passers-by would be invited to give their input to a planning question by texting their responses using the app Poll Everywhere. Input from participants would then be displayed, live on the iPads, and also relayed to display on the TouchScreens at DSNI.

Visioning Cart

4’ x 6’ clear Plexiglas board installed on a movable frame so that it could be rolled out to be used in the community, for example to envision the way a vacant lot might be put to better use as a community garden.

  • Planning on the Street - installed vinyl signs near vacant lot with SMS poll questions
  • Vacant lot where Habit@ youth ambassadors are setting up a Planning on the Street sign
  • TouchScreen installed with bus tracking app screen saver
  • Find a Construction Job app on TouchScreen - map view
  • Construction job app with data source from city's API - list view
  • Email job info interface on TouchScreen
  • Resident using TouchScreen installed in local community development center
  • Mock-up of TouchScreen menu page
  • Logo for Community PlanIt game played in conjunction with the Habit@ project
  • Sometime lo-tech solutions are less intimidating - pen-and-paper poll posted in local business