Engagement through Advocacy

AIGA Pittsburgh has partnered with Be the Change to work on Get out the Vote initiatives this past fall, and is continuing to work with them to shed a light on design in civic engagement. We feel this is an important and overlooked aspect of design.

Legislative advocacy should be a positive experience and simple process. Be the Change makes that possible for you. Be the Change is a civic action platform that connects Pennsylvania residents to their state legislators to take action on issues that matter to our neighborhoods. The platform facilitates civic engagement through issue advocacy, direct outreach to elected officials, and digital community-building. If your state legislator has joined Be the Change, then you’ll get a response 100% of the time – no missed calls or ignored emails. You can create an account at changeourstate.com or find it in the Apple Store!

Be the Change shared with AIGA what they have done and where they are going. Reach out to Bhavini Patel at info@beam-data.com if you have any questions – and check out the app! 

Q: What is the purpose and goal behind “Be the Change” app?

Bhavini A: We built Be the Change as an effort to help people connect with their elected officials. One of the bigger philosophies behind this is that people who live in their neighborhoods are truly the experts of what’s going on, they are the keepers of history, the knowledge of social economic transitions, and the ups and downs of particular neighborhoods. The idea is that we should be able to capture that expert knowledge in a way that informs policy and helps drive  community development.

And so, the inspiration behind the idea is that I actually ran for Allegheny County Council in District 8, and knocked on a lot of doors and had really great conversations with people – some disagreements, some agreements. Eventually, when I didn’t win the race, I started to think how can I build upon that experience and widen that and really think about how we can include innovative technology to make this easier.

We create that direct line of communication for people to have conversations

That is where Be the Change came in, the goal is when people download the app, we basically tell them who their state representatives and state senators are, and then we create that direct line of communication for people to have conversations with them. Whether it is in the form of sharing legislative feedback or neighborhood concerns. The app enables that if the elected officials agree to be on the app, then they get a response. And then they are able to start a dialogue with their constituents through the platform.

Q: Tell me about the data you collected and how you used it to improve connection between the government entities and the communities they serve?

Bhavini A: We just launched August 6, with Senator Jay Costa, that was our kickoff for our pilot. The engagement is a build up. When you launch these apps it’s important to be community focused and intentional about building partnerships. That’s something we are actively continuing to do. Some partnerships have been more successful than others, but the whole point of marketing and building up community involvement, it’s all an experiment, figuring out what works with people and what doesn’t. We are still continuing to learn about that.

One of the biggest things that people appreciate about the app, people like to see that their elected officials are on it. With Senator Costa, our kickoff, which we will be reaching out to get other State Senators in Allegheny county delegation. We actually have a big announcement coming up in the next few weeks, we are launching our Android app as well as our web-based platform and after that, we will be announcing other elected officials that will be on the app. It’s slow and steady, how I prefer it so we can experiment and realize what is working, what is not working, and how we can be better.

When building a company or an idea you don’t want to move too fast, because you want to be intentional about bringing community with you. Especially when you are thinking about tech and data, it’s really important to answer questions, be intentional about who you are partnering with, and doing the work of not making people feel that you’re taking advantage of their data and not being considerate of their concerns. Slow and steady, we have some news coming, we are excited. There has been engagement, a lot about things related to COVID-19 with that on their minds, people have taken to the app things about redistricting, as well as concerns about transportation access, which has been limited as a result from COVID-19. There have been various angles of people sharing their ideas on the app.

Q: For creatives who are interested in design for good or using their skills to construct social change, what advice would you offer for bringing their ideas into reality?  

Bhavini A: I think this is a really important question to address how the data is used. One of the pillars on why Be the Change is built the way it is, is because we are focused on democratizing data. When you download the app and you engage with it, you will see that all the community posts that have been shared are public. So basically it is like a feed, you can see what is on people’s mind – what they are sharing, what categories they are talking about, what they care about.

One of the things we enabled is that you can stay anonymous, if you do not feel comfortable showcasing that you created the post, you can do that. The idea is anyone can have access to what is going on in the conversations on what is going on in their neighborhood. It’s all public information.

Our vision is that once people start engaging on the app, and there are a lot of different posts coming in, there is a lot of value in creating data visualizations, for example community causes by category what is being shared and showcasing for example, how that changes geographically. Are there more concerns about transportation coming in from one part of the district versus another? Are there more questions about environmental justice coming in compared to other areas of the community? And I think it’s important to be able to think long term like that and provide that information to our elected officials but also figuring out how we can provide that information in a way that showcases insights to nonprofits and other social mission centered organizations.

Our long term vision is to make that information accessible to everyone.

Our elected officials are so important when it comes to allocation of funding, when it comes to policy, but nonprofits also do so much of the ground work, and how are we thinking about their impact, nonprofits are often resource scarce, it takes a lot of time and money to invest in data, there is a learning curve involved in that. Be the Change is unique in that the app is very simple, the UI is phenomenal, anyone can intuitively figure out how to use it. And then thinking about how we can introduce this data to nonprofits, thinking about community generated feedback as a way to measure impact, thinking about data as a way to change policy in programming in nonprofits to better serve the communities. You can also use community generated feedback to make a call to action for fundraising for foundations as well. Our long term vision is to make that information accessible to everyone. So they can do the work they’re already doing in a more efficient, impactful manner. 

Q: How has working alongside a designer helped your overall creative process and the user experience of the app?

Bhavini A: Working with Dorcas has been amazing, I really worked a lot in terms of the importance, it’s not all about content, anyone can do the research and teach yourself current issues when it comes to social justice or environmental advocacy, but it truly is the way we display the information and how we use design to capture people’s attention to get them excited and curious about this. I have been really lucky to work with Dorcas, she has really helped us out in many key ways. She has curated our instagram feed in many ways, which was important for us to create a platform to not only help showcase the tech, but also provide educational engagement. You can’t just share an app like Be the Change and say “hey we built this thing you should use this,” you have to indicate why people should care, what are the key issues going on in the area right now that you should be paying attention to that should elevate your advocacy. And so she did a really phenomenal job of curating our instagram feed, it looks really beautiful, people engage, people follow up with questions, and i think that is because of the visual representation and the intent behind it. 

In terms of the app, I went to Dorcas with a really crazy drawn up UI of what it could look like and she transformed it into a real app. She took advantage of existing UX of what people are used to while they are scrolling through things like facebook and twitter. Our app is something you would expect in any conventional sense, it’s nothing that seems outrageous or has a different UI, it’s intuitive, it follows the methods of existing social media platforms. It’s such a simple thing, but it takes so much time to be intentional about that. Dorcas really worked closely with us, she came back with feedback. It was great working with a designer like her because she was not afraid to tell us when we were wrong, or when we should start questioning a particular design decision. I think that is something I continue to value, when someone can tell you maybe why you are wrong. Even though you are the person leading the idea, it is great for people to work with you that are not afraid to do that. I think it’s a large reason we were able to do the work we do and why Be the Change looks the way it does. 

Q: It’s clear you view design as an important part of civic tech and social change. How would you guide other entrepreneurs who are looking to make a difference in their communities on engaging with designers and the design process?

Bhavini A: Civic tech in general, local gov, it’s the last thing they will pay attention to, the design aspect of it, although it should be the first. Civic tech is about engaging the community and having conversations with people. If it’s not intuitive design, if it’s not engaging, no one is going to want to use it.

It’s important to be fearless and not follow the norms, cause sometimes the norms are what you are trying to change. It might be uncomfortable to do that because it requires you to be intentional, really do the work on figuring out ok “how do I clean this mess up.” I want to do something unconventional, but that is messy and not intuitive, so how do you approach it from a different perspective. I think that doing that in a fearless way will catch the attention of entrepreneurs in many ways because people are trying to innovate in this space right now, there is that urgency, how do we build better tools to engage people. COVID-19 is the best example of that right now, when people were trying to apply for loans the random companies were coming up with random platforms for people to apply.

A lot of these platforms where you submit the information were not intuitive, it made it very difficult for people. I think moving forward 5-10-15-20 years from now there’s going to be a massive industry and need for designers that get it, ones that can identify the need and build a cool and innovative design around it. 

Q: What are you working on next?

Bhavini A: A couple of exciting things are in the books, in terms of the app we are thinking about a new feature for legislative community updates. When there is a new legislative bill that is being voted on, for example, in Harrisburg, how can we provide summaries of those bills to provide summaries of those legislative bills to combat things like misinformation and give people access to unbiased content so people can interpret it for themselves. So not only is it giving you a direct line to communicate to your elected officials, but its also educating you on what is happening, so you can advocate for yourself. 

More immediately, we are excited about expanding about what is going on with our instagram page with a lot of civic education. We are brainstorming series around a social studies series basically, things like how to read a legislative bill, how to read a state budget. And basically creating engaging content that allows people to learn and can be shared in a school environment, but also for all ages. Basic knowledge that we forget, or were not taught in school. I think it’s important to go back to the basics in a sense, since we are so inundated with content from social media, sometimes we need to scale up and go back to the bare bones and go from there. I think that that is a unique thing that is not happening right now that we can fill that gap in, so we are reaching out to various community partners, working with Dorcas and taking advantage of design skills and centering that to build out another branch of what Beam Data can offer. 

Q: What design strategies and methods did you use throughout this process?

Dorcas A: In the startup space, you need to be adaptable, it’s really a combination of business strategy with design strategy, for example in the classroom you learn about developing personas and a target demographic. But what I found was in the real world, working on Be the Change, it’s really targeting a mindset. So it’s being able to take the historical context of what community engagement is like in Pittsburgh and designing and tailoring to that. Also taking more of a systems level approach, seeing how this app will endure overtime by looking at things from a macro to micro scale and that includes interactions within. I think when we launched we launched with a minimal product to experiment and to see how people would react to different features and we hope to do that throughout to help to flush out our visual identity and our brand identity. 

Q: While creating the brand for Be the Change, what were the core elements that kept your approach focused on the mission of the app?

Dorcas A: One of the things that really exasperated our focus was COVID-19, when we started building this idea out in January, we knew we wanted to focus on community, but we didn’t know how much that would be stressed in the coming months of March and April. So this really took form in our biggest core value of digital community building and really modernizing that process of how people connect with their elected officials. By focusing and problem solving in that one context we were able to focus and flush out our core values which is community, I would say that’s our biggest one. Tech driven solutions, not technology as a solution. That’s a very nuanced thing. Using design and technology as an aid to facilitate and make the public sector more accessible to the Pittsburgh community itself. 

Q: What advice would you give to the AIGA community about leveraging design in the context of social change?

Dorcas A: I think that has been a really prevalent question, especially the last couple of months. Coming from a design standpoint, where I am interested in civic innovation and the government space. What I keep hearing consistently is that everyday working with policy makers and engineers and interdisciplinary teams, is that you are always trying to prove yourself that design is not all about aesthetics, when really it’s about problem solving and mindset. So I would say to the AIGA community that burnout is real so I would build groups within each other to be able to support one another through the process. Being a designer in the public sector can be lonely sometimes cause it is still an emerging field, but it’s super important, and I think harnessing that and being able to discuss with one another is what is going to keep the community going and the progress of design in the public sector strong. 

Q: What role does design have in making our communities more accessible, equitable, and thriving?

Dorcas A: I think we currently live in an interesting time, in terms of the digital age, there is an over saturation of information, it is very difficult, even on social media for people to parse through what is correct and what is wrong. At its core, as designers, we are storytellers, our responsibility is to hone that narrative and connect people to each other. I think that is a core part to make communities thriving, equitable, to show people that hey you might be living in a bubble – people often refer to CMU as its own bubble – but here are some realities and things you can do. As Bhavini mentioned before, it’s about getting people excited about social change and issues integrated within their own communities so people can begin to look locally and uproot what they deem as normal and see the new emerge. 

Q: What are some social change projects you’re passionate about or are interested in working on in the future?

Dorcas A: Currently I am studying environments design, which is like experience design. Working on the UX on Be the Change has gotten me excited about screen base interactions and how that experience is for the user. But I would like to expand more on that, kind of more on the ground work in terms of spaces and how people can physically interact in different environments. I would like to work within an innovation team within the federal government. I know the federal government is seen as bureaucratic and stiff and rigid in their structures, but I know there are people who work on their interdisciplinary teams that take an agile approach, and I would love to be in that environment and contribute to those projects they are working on right now. 

Dorcas Lin is the lead designer at Be the Change working on the integration of tech and government as a platform to better serve communities at scale. Currently, she’s a junior at Carnegie Mellon School of Design studying experience design and cybersecurity with interests in data privacy and branded environments.

Bhavini Patel is Cofounder and CEO of beamdata, a civic tech company that operates at the intersection of policy and data. Her company built Be the Change, which was inspired by previous advocacy work. In 2019, Bhavini was a candidate for Allegheny County Council District 8, and came in second in a competitive three-way race. In 2020, she was appointed to the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Advisory Board, and also served as a Biden Delegate to the 2020 Democratic National Convention and Vice Chair of the Edgewood Democratic Committee. She has been recognized as 30 Under 30 by Pittsburgh Business Times, and 40 Under 40 by Pittsburgh Magazine. 

Special thanks to volunteers Cody Perrone for Video Editing and Apara Sharma for Visual Design.