Competitiveness on the Gulf Coast
Why it matters
Hypothesis: If we improve the transparency, speed, and image of our services for new construction, renovations, and business start-ups, then we will see a growth in Mobile’s population through increased competitiveness in the Gulf Coast region.
Our work with Build Mobile was deeply significant to everyone on our team. The permitting process had long been a pain point for many citizens, prospective business owners, and investors in our city, so playing a role in making Mobile more business and family friendly was exciting and meaningful to each of us. The project was a unique combination of economic development, process improvement, and customer service initiatives all wrapped into one high-impact package.
How we did it
Objectives: In our research, we aimed to better understand the needs, desires, perceptions, and experiences of developers in Mobile, from beginner to expert. Simultaneously, we will sought to find the correlation between our customers' frustrations and the city's relevant communications, processes, and touchpoints.
Preliminary Research: Our team conducted twenty six internal research meetings & thirteen inspector ride-alongs (resulting in 96 data points), and took steps to lay a foundation for further research and initiatives moving forward. We built relationships with many city employees from front-line inspectors to the leadership team and consolidated several relevant city structures into a new department called Build Mobile.
Process Mapping: Furthering our understanding of the system as-is, we conducted 3 workshops comprehensibly mapping the process for developing in Mobile, as well as, several follow up meetings to share/refine our process map. To date we are on the eighth iteration of the map.
Qualitative User Research: With a solid understanding of how the system works, we were able to formulate a plan to strategically engage our customers. We interviewed a broad range of people who use our business and building services. Currenty we have conducted and transcribed 25 user interviews resulting in 462 data points. To ensure we were capturing our extremes, we de ned key characteristics from our interviewed users, and mapped them on relativity scales. This illuminated any sectors that our initial outreach had not captured and we tacked on several additional interviews to make sure those perspectives were captured. The experiences among each persona were largely similar, despite their different touchpoints within the department, which made our final assessments all the more impactful. We found that even if we addressed one group’s frustrations, it would have a cascading effect on all the others.
For decades, blighted homes have slowly affected the surrounding properties, dragging property values down and creating safety concerns in their wake. Even so, a true blight survey had never been conducted before this i-team project kicked off. In order to understand how deep a problem runs, you have to understand its extent, so we sought to create Mobile’s first inventory of blight. We used Instagram as a pilot, utilizing its mapping feature to take photos of blighted properties and map their locations.
Once the idea had been proven useful, the City’s GIS department took our idea and ran with it. They helped develop a true blight inventory map, and the Neighborhood Development department’s Code Enforcement team deployed and surveyed all homes in Mobile city limits. This helped us understand blight’s scope and impact on the city.
That’s when the tide began to turn on blight. With the invaluable partnership of the Neighborhood Development department, we worked to create a process for addressing blighted properties. We revisited state legislation to ensure we were using legal channels effectively and fairly, and the city began addressing blighted properties one by one. Today, the program is even more robust: grants are available for low-income owners interested in rehabilitating their properties; a free, legal will program helps owners designate their properties to their next of kin; and as a last resort, vacant, blighted homes are being demolished.
As with many initiatives, blight is continuous in nature: as time goes on, homes go unkept, owners pass away without passing the property on, and new properties find their way into the blight inventory. The City continues to work to reduce blight year over year, and based on our 2018 survey, blight is down by 43%, returning thousands of dollars in property values to Mobile citizens.
Revitalization efforts needs wind in their sails in order to be successful. In Mobile, the first step in that process began with telling the colorful history of the numerous neighborhoods that make up the city. Telling the story of the vibrant past of each neighborhood helps lay a foundational vision for the future of revitalized Mobile. We dug through city archives and spoke to local historians to capture the stories of each of Mobile's 99 neighborhoods, resulting in a spellbinding digital deliverable that can be shared throughout the city for years to come.