Pivotal Labs’ expertise in agile app development and iterative processes has made it the go-to house for developing innovative, reliable, and scalable software over its 20+ years. With offices in San Francisco, London, Los Angeles, Denver, Boulder, Toronto, and New York City, Pivotal Labs is well-regarded for its impressive roster of clients, including Best Buy, EMI, and ModCloth , and its forward-thinking office culture. While Pivotal Labs is well-known for its work with startups and industry giants, two recent civic apps developed out of its New York City office demonstrate the value of agile development practices in many other contexts.
Rapid development and iterative processes may seem oxymoronic in a government context, but in fact civic institutions deal with many of the same software development challenges as consumer Internet giants and enterprises. One needs to only look at the difficulties this week associated with scaling healthcare.gov to see this in practice. While agile development was fundamental to the Obama 2012 campaign — in fact, Pivotal Labs’ agile project management app Pivotal Tracker was used by members of Obama’s technology team during the campaign — bureaucratic hurdles, procurement difficulties, and institutional inertia can slow down software development projects at the city, state, and federal level.
Such a slow pace was inappropriate for NYC Votes, a voter registration and engagement app that Pivotal Labs’ NYC office built in collaboration with Method and AppOrchard, for the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB) and its Voter Assistance Committee (VAAC). The goal was to build a web app that would streamline and reduce barriers to engagement for both citizens and candidates. True to iterative software development practices, the functionality of NYC Votes evolved over releases to match the high-priority needs of voters at the time. On July 4th, the Campaign Contribution tool was released, allowing candidates to solicit campaign donations from citizens using their smartphones. The second version of the app added the Voter Tool, which allowed citizens to find the candidates within their district, view their official Voter Guide profiles, and connect with them on social networks.
NYC Votes served multiple purposes: it had to function as a payment processing platform, work on a wide range of mobile devices, and meet numerous regulatory requirements, while remaining reliable and nonpartisan. Pivotal Labs opted for a responsive web app that could shift its design for multiple devices and screen sizes, Stripe Connect to ensure secure transactions, and interface with legacy government systems. The resulting product was well-received by citizens, candidates, and garnered positive press in news outlets including The New York Times and Wired.
Pivotal Labs is known for its long-standing involvement in the burgeoning civic app development space. This also extends to social services. Case Commons, a company developing case management software for child welfare citizens, engaged with Pivotal Labs’ NYC office to develop a highly efficient, accessible, and holistic web platform to connect families in need with social services. Case Commons wished to avoid the bloat and user-hostile interfaces of legacy systems, while building a data-driven application that allowed agencies to track the progress of children and families and deliver better service.
Pivotal Labs worked closely with Case Commons to develop Casebook for the State of Indiana, a system inspired by social networking sites that met these needs. In the process of developing a prototype at the county level, Pivotal found that the legacy systems were so inefficient that workers had reverted to using paper files. Josh Knowles, Managing Director at Pivotal Labs’ NYC office, says that during this process, they found that “Caseworkers were spending too much time fighting the legacy technology as opposed to helping families.” Through this process of research, prototyping, and close collaboration and pair programming with Case Commons, Pivotal Labs built a user-focused alternative to the legacy systems, described as “a person- and family-centric experience that contextualizes the case in terms of relationships rather than isolating it from the larger social picture.”
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