Cool! Let me tell you a about my fellowship! In 2015 I spent the year as a Code for America Fellow assisting the Mayor's Office of the City of Albuquerque. As the designer on a small three person team of fellows, over the course of the year we built a product that helps residents get access to financial wellness tools. Don't know what financial wellness is? I didn't either before the fellowship. Keep reading and I'll explain.

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Code for America is a bay-area based non-profit that sends groups of fellows to build a digital service platform in a select few cities each year. My team and I were sent to Albuquerque, NM where we were given the task of assisting with economic development and social mobility by building a technological solution for residents. Most commonly in Code for America these are apps, dashboards, or APIs. As part of the fellowship we spent the month of February in residency interviewing leaders in the community and gazing at the wonderful sunsets that reflect of the Sandia Mountains that cusp the eastern edge of the beautiful high desert city. While in residency we interviewed more than one-hundred people and attended nearly as many public events. We were busy to say the least. This also included two press conferences and a morning news show announcing our arrival and intentions.

Upon our return to Code for America HQ in San Fransisco we spent the next few months synthesizing our research and building prototypes. Most of which were centered around assisting residents get access to capital through underwriting with data instead of the traditional credit checking methods. We also focused on delivering financial assistance resources in a timely and pointed way, that was aligned with the residents situation. One chilling fact of New Mexico is that 70% of residents are what the government considers "working poor"— meaning those residents receive a least one benefit from a social service. In other words, living in poverty and needing social support in Albuquerque is the lifestyle of the majority. Most residents can't make the bare necessities each and every month. Or if they can, it's only until they hit a bump like a child getting sick or a car repair before they'll be in dire straights. In fact, research shows that 47% of Americans cannot cover a $400 gap without need assistance.

The team and I then traveled back to Albuquerque to do more research and test some of our assumptions by showing some early stage prototypes to city officials, community leaders, and residents. We held a town hall meeting with most of the one hundred or so we had met in February. We asked them to help verify that what we were hearing from our design research were insights that accurately reflected what they had shared with us. During that event we presented our insights we'd gained from tools like brainstorming, storytelling, and ethnography. We showed some higher level design principles that included things like us needing to be culturally aware in our work. A finally we shared a few early stage prototypes in sketch and wireframe forms. After our presentation we held a community workshop where we asked attendees to play some design thinking games to help us zero in on the most useful interventions within the lenses of our research. Also, as part of the event we created a The Quote Wall. It displays quotes we captured from the interviews and sorts them by the themes of our research.

CfA ABQ Quote Wall

Before I get too far along I should mention that we built a lot prototypes in our discovery process and throughout. Some scripted. Some not. Most messy and quickly abandoned. Some simple and quickly constructed merely to test our own assumptions. Here is a list with links of many of them:

Halfway through the fellowship we were asked to present the city with this mid-year report and a presentation of our work thus far. Our focus up to this point had been helping residents with access to short-term loans that were not predatory. We had discovered that New Mexico had a disproportionate amount of predatory lenders compared to other states. It also lacked many of the newer regulations other states had passed to curb the dispersement of these types of loans. One of which limited these types of lending to interest rates in the the 36%–40% range and that type of regulation had effectively ended predatory lending practices in those states. As of many things in New Mexico, the state legislature was a little behind in the times. Though they had tried to pass the law twice in the last few years, each time it was easily defeated on the house floor. Note that New Mexico is unique in that the legislature only meets for one month on even years and two months on odd ones. As you might imagine, getting things passed in the state house can be difficult in close quarters. Another unique attribute is that no state politician is paid a salary in New Mexico.

Eventually though, our research lead us to spend time discussing the issue with the researchers who had created a report on these lenders at the Pew Trust in Washington D.C.. They informed us that this was a complex problem that required policy interventions, although they encouraged us to continue to pressure the mayor to talk about it. My team and I were excited to pull on this cord and we did so by focusing our mid-year report and presentation on some detailed user research we did on payday lending practices. We paid recruited ten people from craigslist and paid them $20 to come sit in the downtown library and talk to us about why they use pay day loans. Respondents ranged from a para-legal to students. One respondent resinated the most though and her name is Yvonne. We met with Yvonne on a sunny afternoon, arriving with a smile on her face. But what we'd soon find was a her aching financial wellness.

CfA ABQ Yvonne

Yvonne had been through a lot for a long time. And sadly, she shared a lot of things in common with many other residents of Albuquerque. She's had been divorced. She had lost her job recently. She had been wanting to start a new chapter and in had enrolled in a culinary program at a local community college. But she was being crushed by a payday loan that she'd taken out to cover rent when her student loans ran out. But really, Yvonne was un-well about two car title loans she taken out more recently. One of which was on her son's truck, again to pay rent and stay in school. She regretted taking the loan out on her son's truck so much that when she brought it up she uncontrollably burst into tears. If you'd asked Yvonne a few months before we met her she would have told you she was on the up and up. But "life happened", as she said it./p>

Here is the video of my teammate and I presenting at Code for America's BETA. We're mostly telling Yvonnes' story, how it related to our research findings, and why we made the Tia Sabia prototype as a potential solution.

It came as a surprise to us when the city responded poorly to our focus on predatory lending. As a team we had thought the city was going to support on this subject matter. Unfortunately, our presentation had stirred the pot a little too much. We had caused enough noise that people were asking questions like "is the CfA working on a solution to payday lending?" to the mayors office and CfA leadership. In the end the decision was made to un-list our presentation video and we pivoted our product to focus on supporting financial wellness through other politically agnostic means.

Financial Wellness is a metric created by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau to help them understand how people feel quantitatively about their finances. It's essentially behavioral economics 101. The premises are focused on thinking about how how people understand and manage personal finances relative to four core points. Future and Past. Security and Freedom. We defined it as a 2x2.

CfA ABQ CFPB Diamond Chart

The purple line on the chart represents where the data compares to the CFPB baseline. Anything inside the line is below the baseline and outside is above the baseline. The goal of a financial wellness is to get people as close to the baseline as possible. The result is happy residents that have the freedom and security to handle their finances in the present and future. You can read all about the research behind and creation of the baseline of financial wellness in the CFPBs public report.

In response to our learning about financial wellness we realized that it would make more sense to work proactively then keep trying to bandage an existing wound like payday lending with an alternative. As as the Pew Trust researchers had suggested, that would probably be in vain anyway. The refocus taught us a lot about working with stakeholders especially in the political arena. Whereas failing is coveted in tech industry and something encouraged. Failing in the political arena on an issue that polarizes people can be political suicide.

In our refocus we started by talking to those we knew had been working on financial literature and coaching in the community. Our colleagues at WESST and the Albuquerque Community Foundation helped us find many organization offering these services. we utilized those connections to build a database of resources. The data we collected was okay. We had over sixty entries offering everything from cash aid to car insurance assistance. There were a few over-arching issues with this dataset though.

First, many of the services were offered on a one time bases and the organizations couldn't offer them in bulk or had no plan to ramp them up. Second, some of the services were unclear as to how to get them and how timely they might be. Lastly, the many of the resources were focused on those who are in dire need (like homeless shelter and food banks). Those services are undeniably needed but our work was focused on people like Yvonne, people who were close to that disparity but hadn't yet fallen completely into that hole. We didn't want residents to think we were suggesting that what they needed was more help from social services. We wanted to help residents lift themselves up in a resilient way that was empathetic to them being "working poor" and not homeless. Here is a screen capture of the resources list as it has ended up in the final tool we built.

CfA ABQ Resources Page

After returning to Albuquerque with the resources database prototype we quickly caught onto users feedback that they wanted to see something along these lines to be offered by their employer or though a local organization. Many business and non-profit owners were interested in our product to assist their employees with financial wellness. In our research we had found that when someone needs a loan or some kind of financial assistance they tend to go to their family first and their employer second. Feeling that this was a great insight with built in community ownership we ran with this idea and it eventually defined our final product.

The final product we created we called the ABQ Financial Wellness Calculator. The tool helps organizations understand and offer curated and timely financial resources and recommendations to their workers through a simple yet comprehensive online evaluation and reporting tool. In addition the tool also creates a accumulative dataset for analysis for anyone interested that is owned by the city. I should mention Albuquerque has been one of the leaders in cities opening datasets to the public and the financial wellness calculator dataset we're hoping will be no exception.

Here are a few screen captures of the evaluation and report from the ABQ Financial Wellness Calculator:

CfA ABQ FWC Screens

The end of the journey of a Code for America fellowship is at the Summit. An appropriately named conference that the organization host every year in October. At the summit leaders in tech mingle with leaders in government, in hopes that more inspiring digital government services are seeded and blossom. So far the track record in this regard has been fairly stellar. The CfA Summit also where the cites and fellows showcase our work by presenting it and demoing our software in the main hall. Check out this video of my teammate, Will Tyner and our city partner, Mark Leech presenting our fellowship work at the CfA Summit.

When I first looked at the fellowship and left my job to take the offer I wanted to accomplish one thing personally. I wanted to help people. Clear and simple. And I feel as though we did help some people. We could have helped many more but things move slow when a mayor and a city are involved and in the end I feel we had many successes:

  • We created an evaluation tool that will continue be used and modified within the community.
  • We assisted local residents in creating a local chapter of Code for America in the city which has already done some incredible work. For example, building a voting location application and helping a mental health clinic digitize their on-boarding process.
  • In interviewing and holding design thinking workshops with city staff we hopefully challenged them to work differently and take an initiative in redesigning social services they control
  • Most importantly to me, we connected a lot of leaders and organizations who did not have previous relationships. I believe this will have the largest long term impact in my opinion as relationships grow organically.

I should say, we failed a lot here too. There were a lot of goals that we set early on that were not accomplished and a lot of milestones that were not met. Though through working iteratively and being process agnostic we built with and not for the residents of Albuquerque— a place that will now always hold a special piece of my professional career and a social product of my making. I loved the time I spent there and hope to see that our presence influences more design and development supported by everyone— the city officials, community leaders, and residents.