5 Things You Should Know About the PHL Participatory Design Lab

Nandi O'Connor, Policy and Digital Content Manager, GovLabPHL

Have you heard of the PHL Participatory Design Lab?

It's not a lab in the traditional sense — we’re not wearing white coats or holding beakers — instead, we’re a small team of six City of Philadelphia employees using research and data to improve how the City interacts with residents.

Over the next 12 months, we’ll be redesigning City services to benefit the most important people — our residents!

The program is made possible thanks to a Knight Cities Challenge award from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Here are 5 other things you should know about the PHL Participatory Design Lab.

1. The work will be participatory. This means that the Design Lab team will work with City departments, organizations, and residents to improve services together. We believe that people closest to a service problem are closest to the solutions.

2. The Design Lab team will use social science. Did you know that you’re more likely to open an envelope with a handwritten address label over one with your computer-printed name? These are the kind of helpful insights that a social scientist can use to nudge residents into taking action. The PHL Participatory Design Lab recently hired a social science fellow, Nathaniel Olin, to advance this effort.

3. The Design Lab team will use service design methods. Have you ever been frustrated by a service experience? Maybe, a line was too long; or, a customer service representative didn’t have the information you were in search of?  Service designers look at these experiences from beginning to end to understand what works and doesn’t. With that understanding, they design improvements with those who use, advocate for, and deliver services. The Lab recently hired Devika Menon as its service design fellow. 

4. Two City departments are currently partnering with the PHL Participatory Design Lab. The Office of Homeless Services and the Department of Revenue are the first City agencies to partner with the Lab. In Revenue's case, the Lab will help improve the Owner-Occupied Payment Agreement program, which helps homeowners make affordable monthly payments on property taxes that are past due. For the Office of Homeless Services, the Lab is looking at the agency's centralized homeless  intake system, which provides short-term emergency housing for individuals and families.

5. Two women lead the PHL Participatory Design Lab. The Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation (ODDT) and the Mayor’s Policy Office accepted the Knight Cities Challenge award in the summer of 2017. Liana Dragoman, Service Design Practice Lead and Deputy Director in ODDT , and Anjali Chainani, Director of Policy in the Mayor’s Office, will be the fearless leaders of this work throughout 2018 !

Finding Freedom with Indego

Nandi O'Connor, Policy and Digital Content Manager, GovLabPHL

Despite growing up in the City, bikes have never played a major role in my life. My apartment is too small to store one and I live on Broad Street, so jumping on the Broad Street Line is usually tempting. 

Enter Indego. 

When Indego first rolled out, they built a station across the street from my apartment building. I walked past it every day for over a year pondering whether or not I should rent one. I hadn’t ridden a bike in over eight years, so I was nervous about even getting on one. What if I embarrassed myself?

One day, when I was feeling particularly brave, I finally approached the station, curious about what the process for renting a bike was. I suspected that I might be required to sign up for a membership before using the service. Imagine my excitement when I found out that all I needed was my debit card. 

The process for checking out a bike couldn’t have been easier. For $4, I was able to rent a bike for 30 minutes. All I had to do was insert my debit card, input my phone number, and select the bike that I wanted from the station. Within moments I had a shiny, blue bike unlocked and ready for me to use. I took the time to adjust the seat of the bike, threw my purse in the basket and timidly pushed the bike to the corner before hopping on. 

I admit that I was rusty at first. I’m sure that I probably looked silly wobbling down the road for the first several blocks, but there was something nostalgic about being back on a bike again after so many years. The bike itself rode smoothly and had handlebar brakes, so I felt in control of my ride. It was also fun smiling and nodding at all of the other Indego users as they buzzed by me. 

After that experience, I signed up for an Indego30 membership. It only cost me $15 per month and I could take an unlimited number of one-hour trips around the City. Perhaps I went a little overboard, but I began to check out Indego bikes to do everything from going to the grocery store to just exploring my neighborhood. 

Most recently, I used Indego to participate in Bike to Work Day with my colleagues. Riding with morning Center City traffic was definitely more challenging than my usual leisure trips but my boss and coworker rode with me in the bike lane and encouraged me when we got to busier intersections. 

I’m no longer confined to public transportation or cars - my Indego membership takes me everywhere. I encourage everyone to give Indego a try at least once. There’s so much freedom in being able to peddle yourself anywhere you want to go. Don’t be afraid to take that first step. 

5 Ways GovLabPHL is Creating Learning Opportunities

Nandi O'Connor, Policy and Digital Content Manager, GovLabPHL
GovLabPHL is an initiative that creates data-driven learning opportunities within government. Though we started small, we have grown into a large team of people from departments and agencies across the the City who support the  use of social science, design-thinking and the trauma-informed approach within government. The best part? We have some great academic partners from local universities who donate their time to help us do this work. Check out 5 ways GovLabPHL has engages City employees and residents. 
We launched a City employee book club. Yes, we convinced 100+ City employees to take time out of their day to read the same book, then come together and talk about it. We kicked off the book club series with “Nudge” by Richard Thaler which gave members an opportunity to read about the human decision-making process, then discuss ways they could apply this knowledge to their work. 
We held two behavioral science conferences. The 2016 conference introduced department leadership to the scientific study of human behavior and how it could be applied within City government. By the 2017 conference, some of those same department leaders were presenting on how they used behavioral science and how the results helped them improve a policy challenge. With momentum like that, we’re excited to see what our 2018 conference has in store. 
We held a free 10-month speaker series on human-centered design. The Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation partnered with GovLabPHL to put together panels and workshops on human-centered design. Together, we gave residents the opportunity to hear from experts and learn how human-centered design is being used across the country in the public and private sectors. People loved this free learning opportunity (and the free food couldn’t have hurt either).

We’re co-leading the Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge. Through this challenge, the City is working to create a trauma-informed alternative to police districts for young people. We’re collaborating with departments across the City to design and test a “hub” where children aged 10 to 17 would be taken when arrest. We’re consulting with service designers and trauma-informed care practitioners  to test and improve this idea throughout the summer. 

Local universities fund year-round fellows to support our work. Sometimes students have a background in social science, and sometimes we’re their introduction to it. One thing is for certain - we put all of our fellows to work! Our undergraduates develop research protocols, social media content, create code, and deidentify and randomize project data. It’s never a dull day in the GovLabPHL office.  

The PHL Participatory Design Lab: Working in the open 

Speaker Series.jpg

Nandi O'Connor, Policy and Digital Content Manager, GovLabPHL


When we launched the PHL Participatory Design Lab, one of our first commitments was to work in the open. This means making our research methods as transparent as possible so that residents and researchers can see what we’re doing, raise concerns, and learn from our work. The City of Philadelphia has been working in the open for years. Many of its code projects are available to the public on the City’s GitHub page, one of several web-based hosting platforms where users can create and share coding projects.


Check out three ways you can interact with the City’s coding projects through this platform.


You can look at other people’s software projects. Instead of showing off pictures of a new dog or family vacation like people do on traditional social networks, users share coding projects they’ve worked on. They can discuss and contribute to projects they’re interested in getting their hands on or want to help make changes to. They can also peer review coding projects and ask questions. For example, a web developer might be interested in the City’s new Parks and Rec finder, and follow a link to that project’s GitHub page where they can see how it works and make suggestions. The social networking feature allows them to easily connect with the author(s), express interest, and establish trust.


You can check out projects the City and the PHL Participatory Design Lab are working on. The City of Philadelphia has a public GitHub account and we use it a lot. Anybody can log in and see everything that we’re working on (hint, hint). The PHL Participatory Design Lab team has been utilizing GitHub to design an experiment for the Department of Revenue in an effort to improve their Owner-Occupied Payment Agreement program. The City also uses GitHub to build its website. Even for non-coders, the City’s GitHub page is a easy way to tune in to the digital side of City government. By putting our work online, others can see what we’re doing, ask questions, suggest improvements, and build on our work.


You can build or improve your coding skills. Are you an aspiring coder or just interested in developing the skill? Most open software projects give a plain-language explanation of the purpose of the code and how the author(s) created it, and projects range from personal hobbies to major open-source software development. Users can also “fork” (copy) code to their own accounts to play with safely, and ask questions if they run into problems. This allows users to learn, familiarize themselves with the language, and even replicate code. Open coding platforms connect coders of all skillsets across the world. How cool is that?


If you’re interested in learning more about the PHL Participatory Design Lab or our coding projects, email us at or keep up with the PHL Participatory Design Lab on Twitter at @GovLabPHL or #PHLDesignLab.