Students address Jackson community issues from small business startups to snow removal

MSI student Jason Lam presents his team's project, I Can't Prove I'm Me, to community members at the Civic Tech Exposition in Jackson.

UMSI students outlined solutions to community issues and discussed their impact at the Civic Tech Exposition in Jackson, Michigan, in December.

The projects, part of the Citizen Interaction Design (CID) initiative directed by UMSI associate professor Cliff Lampe, partnered teams of students with local government and community groups to identify specific problems and develop solutions based on information resources. After working for a semester on the projects, students presented their solutions to community members at the expo and received feedback from three panelists. 

MUP student Drew Phillips explains his group's project, Business Connect.

One team partnered with the Jackson Interfaith Shelter on a project titled I Can’t Prove I’m Me.

Katie Anderson, the shelter’s manager, said the project tackled a problem commonly faced by their clients, who often lack one or more of the three forms of identification—birth certificate, social security card and state ID card—needed to apply for Section 8 housing. “That’s a big barrier for anyone who’s trying to get a house, trying to get a job, trying to vote,” she said. People with various comfort levels with technology had tested the students’ system and given positive feedback, she added.

MSI student Erol Basusta’s team, Access For All, partnered with disAbility Connection, an organization that works on behalf of area residents with disabilities, to create a searchable interface for the results of a survey on the accessibility of local businesses. Basusta said he enjoyed the CID course because whereas other classes mostly involve professors and books, “in this one, you’re actually working with people. You’re actually thinking of limits on resources or time.”

Han Na Shin, a BSI junior who worked on the Welcome to Jackson team in partnership with the City of Jackson, had a similar experience. “It’s exciting to be able to actually shape a project that people are actually using,” she said. 

BSI senior Melissa Weintraub’s group partnered with B2 Watchers, a neighborhood watch group, to increase the group’s visibility. She valued the opportunity to work with residents, police and others. “I learned a tremendous amount about what it means to work with communities and the value that good information resources can give to communities,” she said. 

On the technology side, she learned that “it’s important to design something that’s sustainable,” she said. “An easy, simple solution is more important than a fancy solution that won’t be around after this semester.”

Lampe echoed this view. “It’s the capability to carry the projects from term to term that lets them have more impact than the typical student project does,” he said. To this end, Weintraub’s group designed a logo to clearly represent the group and made stickers, flyers and T-shirts with the logo. After learning that 82 percent of Jackson residents were active on Facebook, they created a Facebook page, which will be easy to maintain. For people who are less comfortable with technology, they also utilized the bulletin board outside the community center, which has 100 visitors a day.

A combination of online and offline efforts was also adopted by the Making History group, which worked with the Ella Sharp Museum on local history preservation. Postcards will be sent to city residents throughout 2016 asking about different aspects of their family’s past in Jackson. Citizens can respond through post or e-mail, and the stories will be posted online, said MSI student Elizabeth Gadelha, a team member.

BSI student Wu Wang was a member of the B2 Watchers group.

The panelists praised this two-pronged approach. “I love the idea of taking the postcard and making it interactive. I saw that in a few projects,” said panelist Garland Gilchrist II, deputy technology director for civic community engagement for the City of Detroit. 

“You were able to bridge the physical and online in a very creative way,” said panelist Mary Morgan, founder, executive director and president of The CivCity Initiative, a nonprofit that focuses on fighting civic apathy and increasing community engagement.

The third panelist, Grand Rapids city treasurer John M. Globensky, said his experience in city government brought home the potential of the Jackson Snow Squad project, which allows citizens to report sidewalks that have not been cleared of snow and volunteer to shovel for neighbors. “When you think about it, the last thing I want to do is bill somebody because I had to send a snow plow to clean their sidewalks,” he said.

Other 2015 CID projects included Business Connect, part of a $50,000 Small Business Administration grant to streamline the process of obtaining local and state permits for people who want to start small businesses, and Breadcrumbs Nature Guide, a phone application designed to enhance the experience of blind people on the city’s nature trails.

Lampe says Jackson has been a good partner city for the program because “it’s big enough that there’s enough going on,” with a strong civil society layer, but not too big.

City manager Patrick Burtch told the crowd that at the beginning, he didn’t know how the city would come up with enough projects to keep the students busy. “I’m here to say that it worked out far better than I ever expected,” he said.

After three years and 24 projects in Jackson, CID will move on to other partner cities next year. 

Several of this year’s projects had the potential to impact City Councilman Freddie Dancy, who lives in the B2 neighborhood, owns a small business and is on the board of disAbility Connections in addition to representing Ward 2.

The students’ projects had a lot of great information that could impact the city once people find out about them, he said. “I wish it was televised,” he added.