Ekim Tan

Seven Keys for a Successful City App

We, at Play the City, established the Digital Urbanism research project to evaluate interactive city tools, both analog and digital, such as apps, interactive websites or crowd-sourced data sites for the 'Smart City' or rather 'Smart Citizens'.

The research is an ongoing progress; we are currently working in the differences between these tools depending on the field in which they are being used. However, we have already detected some patterns which are common to all the interactive city tools (both physical and analogical). Any interactive city tool should pay attention to these questions in order to be successful:

1.- Feedback
The usage of a tool will grow as fast as the users get responses from it. This seems obvious in tools for government, such as SeeClickFix, where the citizens can report any issue in the city to the city council directly through this platform. If the response from the government is fast, that citizen will use the tool again and will recommend it to a friend.


Nevertheless, feedback can be something different than an action on the street. It does not even need to be a direct reply.

As Usman Haque reflects perfectly in his "Notes on the design of participatory systems", the rewards are key to making the participation as great as possible. In these cases is the same: the citizen needs to feel that their participation is useful, and that they are somehow rewarded.

Enjoyment (if we add gamification to the tool), connecting with new people or geting new knowledge about something are examples of rewards that can attract more people to our tool.

2.- Datasets and visualization of data
One of the main works of urbanists in the following years will be trying to give a meaning to data mining. As Saskia Sassen explained in her conference at Picnic 2011, the goal is “create stories from the data”.

This work starts with choosing the correct parameters to compare. If the datasets have too much data, it will be impossible to read them. Therefore, so we need to decide which data give appropriate answers to the questions we are asking.

As an image is worth a thousand words, a good data visualization can be worth a thousand statistics. Data visualizations can also save time and be helpful in our mission of telling a story from data. Using the same example as Saskia Sassen in former video, the project from MIT Senseable City Lab, Trash Track is very handy.


With the visualization of that data, we have new answers (and even more questions) to the question of recycling: if a paper has to cross all the United States to be recycled, is recycling not more harmful to the environment than landfilling? Does it make sense?

3.- Frequency of use
In the same way that a survey is better when more people participate in it, a crowdsourced app will be better when more people collaborate in its creation. That's clear. However, the frequency of use of a tool can be helpful for other reasons other than those for which it was created.

For example, look at this image taken of Four Square's checks in Manhattan:

FourSquare geo-locations
FourSquare geo-locations

Although Four Square or Twitter are not tools for urban planners, their high usability make it possible to give meaning to their users' geo-located checks. This is just the consequence of open data policies, which finally goes in the favor of urban planners.

4.- Interface
We all know about the importance of design in our society–even in our daily decisions. If choosing a cool design for a poster announcing your project is important, choosing the proper interface for your digital tool is vital.

It is not a coincidence that many successful tools we checked have similar interface: just 3 buttons.


The simplicity of an interface make it more attractive and usable.

If the project is too complex you should make an effort to show it in the simplest way possible. If after that there are still too many things in the interface, your project may be too ambitious and it could be a problem.

5.- Social Ties
When we think about social networks, we picture Twitter and Facebook, but social networking is more than going to these websites.

It is true that the connection of any website or app through Facebook or Twitter is useful. Almost everyone has a profile in one or both of them and it gives you the possibility of integrating your project in a network of almost 1.5 billion people. But social networking does not finish there.

Meet Up is good example of how combine the digital world with physical interaction. Other examples, such as Thuisafgehaald (LINK) or Peerby (LINK) show how important it can be to create a social network focusing in something specific. In these cases, finding people with your same interests (Meet Up), buying or selling homemade food (Thuisafgehaald) or sharing stuff with your neighbors (Peerby).

6.- Addressing the users group
If our project is addressed to a certain group of people, the way we try to reach them has to be specific as well.
The reachability of apps for urban issues is still small. Even the access to a website can be difficult for someone without computer skills if the website is complex and has too many functions.
If we want to engage different groups with our project, we may need different platforms of advertisement and participation.

7.- Launching of the project
Without a good launching program, a good project can quickly become a failure. Once we know which people we want to involve and how can they participate, we need to think how to inform them about our project.

If we want to launch a digital or a mixed (digital-analog) tool quickly, an internet launching program may be not enough.

For instance, here is a screenshot taken yesterday of one of the most interesting and replied projects from MIT Senseable City Lab: Adopt a Hydrant (LINK). Green points are hydrants already adopted, red points are hydrants waiting for their adoption.

AdoptaHydrant screenshot
AdoptaHydrant screenshot

Although this is one of the most interactive city tools in the world, its popularity in the city of Boston is not as large as we may think. Why? We really don't know, but it seems that the person in charge of taking the snow off of a hydrant is not a person connected 12 hours per day to the internet. Instead, it seems to be people jubilated, housekeepers and other people with a local/neighborhood profile. Therefore, if adopting a hydrant would be an urgency in Boston, some “analog” launching program should be necessary somewhere close to the actual hydrants.