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We were asked to design and build a network of websites to help cities around the
country leverage citizen service to address local challenges. This network is
part of the Cities of Service initiative, a bipartisan coalition of mayors of
large and small cities from across the country. There are 115 U.S. cities that
are now part of the Cities of Service coalition. First-round member cities
using this online platform include Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, Newark and
Philadelphia. Recent member cities include Houston, Austin, Little Rock, Phoenix,
Indianapolis and Memphis.
In our initial discussions with the client, they considered cloning a website
for each city that wanted to join. We suggested an alternative that would prove
more strategic and cost effective: an online system in which each city’s
website would be an “account.” Future updates and changes would apply to all
city websites, saving time and resources. Similar to energy efficiency, this
system costs more money upfront, but over time the savings of using a
consolidated system is significant in terms of future maintenance.NYC
Service—New York City’s volunteer campaign—was the basis for this project. Instead of creating an
open-ended search that is the norm for many volunteer websites, NYC Service
actively promotes volunteer opportunities that are in line with city-identified
priorities. Since we had designed NYC Service 1.5 years prior to the Cities of Service project, we
had the opportunity to review and analyze quantitative data about what worked
and what didn’t work. We used this data to guide the Concept Development phase
of the project. Above all, we wanted to make it as easy as possible for anyone
The Cities of Service online framework allows member cities to engage with
their local organizations and volunteers. Creating a website within that
framework is simple and straightforward. Intuitive tools allow each city to
apply its own branding and style guidelines to create a unique look and feel.
Each city can also craft an overall message about service in its community.
Local organizations are encouraged to submit volunteer opportunities, which the
city can prioritize in accordance with the city’s identified needs and
For example, one of Nashville’s service priorities is the environment. The city
can now highlight and prioritize submitted volunteer opportunities that align
with storm-water management and flood mitigation. As envisioned, these
volunteer efforts may prevent a future catastrophe similar to the destructive
One challenge was the size of the project. Because it was so large, it was important to
thoroughly document design, information architecture and programming
decisions. Not only was this helpful to the client, but it was also helpful for us to
have an ongoing game plan as we proceeded, and made us better presenters
to the client and member cities. The process isn't perfect yet, but we hope that it will get better with every additional project that we
Another challenge was the time line: only four months. We followed an accelerated schedule to meet the deadline of Martin Luther
King’s birthday in January, a day of service and a federal holiday, and designed and developed the online system entirely in New York City, with no overseas outsourcing.
We like a challenge and we came up with a powerful, beautifully designed
interface that is intuitive, flexible and easy to use for volunteers,
organizations and city administrators. We consider this project successful
because our solution is perfect for the spread and amplification of
volunteerism and service nationwide: If a new member city provides all the
necessary information, we can have a website set up in less than an hour.
The client considers this project a success because it’s a comprehensive online
system that can easily accommodate any number of future member cities; cities
can be added quickly; future maintenance costs are kept to a minimum; and the
client can focus their efforts on getting more cities to join the network.
City governments like their websites because they can promote volunteer
opportunities that are in line with their priorities. They can also customize
their sites based on their city’s branding guidelines. Additionally, they appreciate the
control the administrative tools give them. Nothing can be published without
This project is the largest and most gratifying to date for our company.
Volunteer service should be a part of people’s lives, and it should be easy to
get engaged. We are thrilled that we had an opportunity to use our talents in
visual design, interaction design and programming to build stronger communities
across our country.
This case study is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Looking for additional ways to design for good? This list of organizations and programs is a great place to start. There are many more opportunities out there—so if you know of a resource we should add here let us know!
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