Research and UX design at Code for America

Increase trust and communication between the Vallejo police department and community, through technology.


  • Design research within the police department and City of Vallejo to identify sources of distrust through ethnography, contextual interviews, and user testing
  • Government culture change with the City of Vallejo and their police department to more human-centered, easy to use, and efficient services for residents
  • Product development and user experience design of web apps that work towards helping the police and community work better together

Project highlights

We rode along with police officers, listened in at the 911 call center, and sat at the front desk of the police department to witness their interactions with residents first hand.

The access we were given to the police department allowed us to spend time learning about their systems and interactions. This resulted in over 25 shadowing sessions, a first hand analysis all of their data, and an understanding of police culture and processes that was essential to the success of this project.

After a 12 hour shift, I watched as patrol officers transfered their paperwork to their record management system online.

We collected notes on miscommunications and inefficienies that foster frustration and distrust on both sides.

Residents invited us to their homes and community meetings so we could learn about how they work together to keep their neighborhoods safe.

Vallejo’s neighborhood watch communities are thriving and play a big role in the safety of their neighborhoods. I was given tours of neighborhood watch captain’s houses and blocks they patrol. In addition, my team and I attended various church gatherings and other community events to learn about their models of safety and police relationships.

Neighborhood watch captains create maps to track burglaries, thefts, and assults in their neighborhoods.

We wanted police and residents to design together, so we brought design activities to their communities and events.

A big highlight was our CodeAcross event. We set up a design studio at the Vallejo Farmer’s market, where residents and police spend time every Saturday. The goals were to get them to work together to think of ways to improve their city and learn about pain points we could address with technology. You can read about our CodeAcross event here in the Vallejo Times Herald.

A Vallejo police officer and resident participate in our CodeAcross design studio at the Vallejo Farmer's Market.

We created this "spectogram" using most commonly heard statements from our 1st month of research and asked residents to weigh in.

One morning, we hosted a workshop attended by police officers and city staff from Oakland, Indianapolis, Richmond, and Vallejo where we discussed how to rebuild trust between police and residents.

During the discussion, one officer pointed out that he noticed our conversations around resident's fear and distrust in the police is rooted in strong emotions and personal stories. On the other hand, he realized police departments and City governments often speak to residents in numbers and legalise. The group then discussed how we can bridge the gap between the two different communications and be more inclusive of resident's experiences and emotions.Read more about our safety and justice workshop here.

Here is a snapshot from our safety and justice workshop with sketchnotes drawn in real-time from the discussions.

We organized our research insights using journey maps, affinity diagrams, and quantitative analyses of the Vallejo Police Department's data to decide where to target our efforts.

Before picking a direction to start drafting build ideas, we wanted to make sure we narrowed down the probelm from broad "distrust" to services that disappoint or frustrate residents and officers that foster distrust. Through journey mapping, we noticed there were gaps in emergency services that could be filled to increase confidence in the police. By placing my coded research notes in affinity diagrams we were able to see themes of miseducation, slow response times, and miscommunications. Additionally, we sifted through the police department's record management system data to find trends to support our qualitative research findings. All of this helped us fine-tune our focus for the rest of the project and narrow our ideas down to one that we thought could really make a difference in the City.

From our research, I created this journey map visualizing the lifecycle, actors, emotions, and pain points involved in a 911 call.

This is one of the visualizations we created using the police's data. It shows where one patrol officer drove during his shift.

We quickly prototyped many different ideas for apps that could help make the police and community relationship stronger.

We decided to focus on sources of distrust, like police efficiency, feedback loops, negative interactions, and lack of education about the parameters of police work. With not much time during this fellowship, we found quick ways to prototype and test our hypotheses about how each idea would increase trust. Then we took the things we learned from the last test and tried out more ideas until we narrowed it down to three ideas to move forward with: 1) a way for residents to report quality of life issues to all public safety departments at once 2) a space for residents to find information about police resources they need 3) a tool for patrol officers and dispatchers to see the locations of all patrol cars and service calls.

Here are snapshots of some of the rapid prototypes I created to test a few of our early ideas.

I created a few storyboard slide decks like this one to communicate different prototype ideas to our city partners.

Now I am leading my team in the interaction design, user experience, and front-end development of the product we’re working on building and testing now.

We've decided on building a case management app for the public safety departments in the city to handle persistent, non-emergency, quality of life issues in neighborhoods. First, it automates the intake process that police staff were doing manually through personal voice-mail, email, and excel spreadsheets. Second, it allows one place for all departments working on public safety to collaborate where their work overlaps, making them more efficient. Lastly, it provides tools for analysis to see where they're having the biggest impact and where they should target their efforts. We’re doing sprint cycles of designing and building our ideas in code, testing them with users, and then using that feedback to continue developing the app to be deployed in the City come November.

Community Service officers can log in and see all quality of life reports from residents in one place.

Officers can see a map of properties they have to visit today so they can efficiently plan their route.

Community Service officers can keep a log of contacts and documents for legal purposes and share between departments.

This is a quick task flow I drew while explaining how the CSS-tool will work for it's users.

In a recent user testing session, we had over 40 patrol officers in one room giving us feedback on the tools we're building.

This project is still ongoing, we're currently building the tool for real use by the Vallejo Police Department. Check back in November, when this fellowship ends and the City launches our app to see the final results.

Things I learned from this project:

Experience working with city government towards tech and culture change

Rapid prototyping, testing, and validating design hypotheses

Using showing (rather than telling) and inclusive design as agents for organizational change

Investigating an abstract concept like trust and reframing it as a design problem

Deeper understanding of police culture and processes

If you want to learn more about this project

Thought this project was interesting, or have more questions? Let's chat!

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Code for America is a non-profit organization who partners with city governments around the country with the goal of making government work, in a more human-centered way, for the people it’s supposed to serve. For 11 months, I worked on a team of 3 and the City of Vallejo on this project.