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Case Study August 19th, 2021
Cities • Innovation

TOPcities sprint toolkit: a guide for community-driven innovation sprints in cities

About the sprint toolkit

This toolkit was compiled following the first iteration of the TOPcities program, an 18-week innovation sprint through which two local governments worked with community and tech partners to develop tools that would address pressing local challenges emerging from COVID-19.

The Centre for Public Impact and the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University partnered to launch the TOPcities program, and have developed this toolkit to document best practices and lessons from pilot sprints conducted in San José, CA, and Saint Paul, MN. The TOPcities program was developed with generous support and guidance from the Knight Foundation and Google.org. The TOPcities program was based on The Opportunity Project (TOP), created by Census Open Innovation Labs in 2016. This toolkit was designed for local governments as a companion to the TOPx Toolkit for federal agencies. This toolkit was written by Katya Abazajian, Katie Stenclik, and Andrea Mirviss. It was released on August 19, 2021, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license and should be cited as: “TOPcities sprint toolkit: a guide for community-driven innovation sprints in cities” (2021). Washington, D.C.

Contributing organizations:

  • The Centre for Public Impact is a not-for-profit founded by Boston Consulting Group. Believing that governments can and want to do better for people, we work side-by-side with governments—and all those who help them—to reimagine government, and turn ideas into action, to bring about better outcomes for everyone. We champion public servants and other changemakers who are leading this charge and develop the tools and resources they need so we can build the future of government together.

  • The Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University reimagines systems for public impact using design, data, and technology. Beeck Center projects test new ways for public and private institutions to leverage data and analytics, digital technologies, and service design to help more people.

  • The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy.

  • Google.org, Google’s philanthropy, supports nonprofits that address humanitarian issues and apply scalable, data-driven innovation to solving the world’s biggest challenges. We accelerate their progress by connecting them with a unique blend of support that includes funding, products, and technical expertise from Google volunteers. We engage with these believers-turned-doers who make a significant impact on the communities they represent, and whose work has the potential to produce meaningful change. We want a world that works for everyone—and we believe technology and innovation can move the needle.

Purpose and goals

The TOPcities project was launched in February 2021 by the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) and the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University. Together with the City of San José and the City of Saint Paul, CPI and the Beeck Center helped sprint teams complete an 18-week sprint to leverage public data, government and community perspectives, and tech talent to build products that meet residents’ needs emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more about our first iteration of TOPcities in our 2021 sprint report, The Opportunity Project for Cities: Lessons from Saint Paul and San José. 

This toolkit is a resource for people working in local governments to chart a path to transform public data into digital tools that address pressing local challenges while building participants’ skills for tech, design, and data use. TOPcities brings together technologists, public servants, and community organizations to prototype solutions that use local data to meet real community needs. 

While CPI and the Beeck Center provided hands-on support to cities running complete TOPcities sprints, this toolkit allows anyone to replicate the TOPcities model on their own. By following the guidance in this toolkit, participants can: 

  • Find meaningful applications for local data to tackle community needs; 

  • Identify new models of collaboration with community partners and technologists through civic innovation; and

  • Learn ways to leverage human-centered design for public interest technology.

The sprint is designed to lead participants through an inclusive and collaborative process to design technology that centers residents’ needs and priorities. Cross-sector relationships can supercharge efforts to innovate when using public data and public interest technology, and are most impactful when community members are active and engaged stakeholders in the work. Delivering equity through public systems requires incorporating the voices and needs of community members in civic innovation. 

Even if you’re not able to replicate an entire TOPcities sprint, you can adapt the milestones, tasks, and resources in this toolkit to design your own innovation sprint to co-create digital tools that serve your community. Anyone can use the lessons from this toolkit. Before you get started, we suggest reviewing the TOPx Toolkit Glossary to get familiar with key terms.

How to use the toolkit

Who can use this? 

  • Public policymakers and decision-makers;

  • Tech-interested government staff;

  • IT, data, and innovation experts in government or working with governments;

  • Technologists working on public interest tech tools built from open government data; and

  • Community organizations partnering on government innovation projects. 

What’s included? 

  • Milestones to help you structure a TOPcities sprint;

  • Step-by-step instructions for executing your sprint;

  • Tips and best practices; and

  • Resources from our pilot sprint.

What will you learn?

By the end of this sprint, you will have co-created a prototype of a tech tool that can grow into a robust and effective problem-solving resource for your city. This sprint is just the first step in a process to integrate your prototype into impactful innovation goals over time. 

Along the way, you’ll develop skills in: 

  • Human-centered design methods to incorporate community input and lived experience into tech and policy design; 

  • Strategies to identify impactful ways to use local data;

  • Cross-sector collaboration with people from tech, government, and community spaces; and

  • Product development workflows that serve the public interest. 

A core element of the TOPcities model is investing in community relationships and leveraging data and technology for equitable outcomes. By running a TOPcities sprint, you’ll develop stronger, more collaborative relationships with community leaders and residents. These relationships will help inform tools that are designed with the direct participation of the residents they serve and address real community needs. 

Tips and tricks 

To get your team started, consider these tips for overall sprint management. TOPcities sprints can create fast-paced opportunities to build momentum around new ideas and applications of open data, but they can also be challenging for those who are new to civic innovation. 

These tips can help you create a more seamless and engaging sprint for your participants: 

  1. Be flexible about “data.” Local governments won’t always have the exact data that users ask for or need. Data can be any form of structured information, so think big about what constitutes data and how you can use the sprint process to improve the quality of data that’s going into digital tools.

  2. Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good.” The first solution is rarely the right one. This project is about building a prototype and you’ll have limited time to complete it. The time pressure can help you get an initial product out, and, by making iterative improvements to the product over time, you can pave the way for longer-term success. 

  3. Lose the jargon. Sprint teams should be made up of people from different sectors, but this means that jargon and other industry language may not be known to everyone. Ensure that your sprint team has ways to call out jargon and use more accessible language.

  4. Recognize the importance of project management and facilitation. The sprint has many moving parts and diverse stakeholders from varying backgrounds that bring their own goals, personalities, and skills to the process. Leveraging these unique skills, while also working towards a common vision for the sprint, requires deft project management. Bring in expert project managers that can help form a cohesive team that empowers city, community, and tech partners to drive towards milestones in their area of expertise and meaningfully contribute to each sprint phase. Further, tap into expert facilitators for user research, research synthesis sessions, or other important sprint team workshops throughout the sprint. Project management and facilitation are not universal skills and getting the work environment right is essential to ensuring that the sprint moves forward.

  5. Prioritize community voices. Often, institutions and organizations can have strategies and plans that influence how and why public interest tech gets built. Pay attention to community members when they push back on the goals of institutions and organizations, seek to understand their interests, and try to adapt accordingly. Partnering with community organizations that are trusted by residents is one way to ensure the voices of those closest to the problem are prioritized. Providing funds or resources to support community partners’ involvement can ensure they have the capacity to fully engage with the sprint—and is just good practice.

  6. Recognize funding needs and get buy-in from the start. Sustaining public interest tech projects requires funding to continue improving, and support from leaders to iterate upon initial projects. Successful public interest tech requires collecting feedback and making systemic improvements over time, which requires funding. 

  7. Hold off on finalizing solutions and don’t be afraid to shift course. Agile and iterative development means there will be changes throughout the project. Your sprint team shouldn’t know what solution they’re building until after community research is done. The best-case scenario is that your prototype does change significantly over the course of the sprint to adapt to new findings and deliver more meaningful outcomes that are aligned with community needs.

Planning a TOPcities sprint

Use this outline to map out your TOPcities sprint week by week. Feel free to stack some of the tasks to occur concurrently. At a minimum, the TOPcities sprint should take 20 weeks, not including the pre-work conducted in Phase 0. 

Phase zero: pre-launch

In this phase, which occurs in the months before the formal launch of the sprint, you’ll need to get your ducks in a row to run a successful sprint. This might mean having early strategic conversations with key stakeholders who can support your project and ensure it’s tied in with government and community policy goals. You’ll need to dedicate time and energy to building your sprint team. Collaborating across sectors means connecting with people who have different working norms and expectations. Use team-building exercises to ensure your sprint team is ready to go on Day 1.  

  1. Set up a cross-functional city team

  • Spread the word about the TOPcities model and bring executive champions into the project. Share key resources like this toolkit, the report, and other resources about the TOPcities model to ensure stakeholders understand the project and its goals. 

  • Create touchpoints to engage key leadership and stakeholders. City leaders will be important advocates for improvements to your prototype later on, and building in regular opportunities to update them can ensure you’re not going it alone. 

  • Use the potential roles and responsibilities resource to identify the appropriate participants to include in the city team. As facilitators of the TOPcities sprint, the city team needs to set internal roles before seeking out sprint participants, including additional city staff, community partners, and tech partners.  

  1. Define a problem area and project charter

  • Determine the problem area. Try to define a problem that is smaller than a general issue area (like “housing”) but larger than a specific challenge you already know about (like “difficulty accessing assistance”). A right-sized problem area leaves room for research to expose challenges but provides a clear direction for investigation.  

  • Make a list of potential community partners based on local organizations that directly serve residents, engage residents as members of their organization, or have working relationships with other community organizations. Find a community partner who has direct ties to community members, prioritizes equity, and is willing to provide substantive input on user research and product design. 

  • Assess strategic plans of all major stakeholders. Look at the city and community partners’ strategic plans and identify salient issues with broad support and opportunities for tech improvement.

  • Complete the problem statement template and project charter template. Share them widely and ensure that anyone who might benefit from your work is aware of and supporting the project. This activity may also help to ensure resources, staff, and funding are contributing to sustaining and improving the product after the sprint.   

  1. Recruit sprint participants

  • Make a list of potential tech partners based on partners who will be able to lead development in the sprint, integrate community input into their work, and account for the longevity and sustainability of the product they build so that city and community teams can later support the products on their own. At a minimum, tech teams should be staffed with UX researchers, designers, program managers, engineers, and product managers. 

  • Once your partners are on-boarded, set up team norms, communications, and meeting structures. Share materials about the TOPcities sprint including this toolkit, the TOPcities report, and other relevant websites or onboarding materials. 

  • Determine who project leads are for city, community, and tech partners. Set project lead meetings and working meetings. Understand that partners will have different expectations for how meetings are run and set norms early. 

  • Assign roles using the potential roles and responsibilities resource to identify the activities for participants from community partner organizations and tech partners. 

  • Decide who is the decider about product decisions; if you can, assign a product owner who will own development of the tool after the sprint. This can be a city team or community team representative. Later on, you’ll also need to decide who will work with the product owner in the long term to support the product’s development and improvement over time. 

  1. Conduct a data inventory

  • Create a list of data systems with information relevant to the selected problem area. Liaise with owners of those data systems, including looking across departments and jurisdictions to build new relationships with data owners. The list of data systems does not need to be complete in order to be helpful! 

  • Create a list of datasets, or a data inventory, that includes which system data is contained in and other relevant metadata. Share the data inventory with sprint teams and begin ensuring that data in the inventory is accessible and usable, and that problem understanding research in the next phase connects to available data. 

RESOURCES

Phase one: define & understand the problem

In this phase, you’ll conduct interviews and desk research to determine what your community needs from public data or technology. Leveraging human-centered design strategies, you’ll conduct interviews with people who have direct experience navigating the problem area you’ve selected and find opportunities for data to play a role in making their lives easier. It’s important to keep an open mind and remember that iterative learning is a core part of this process. Expect your ideas and understanding of the problem to change in new and exciting ways. 

  1. Launch user research 

A. Review research and understand the landscape

  • Review existing research or speak to key informants who can tell you how the problem area works, what major barriers exist, and how people generally navigate challenges. Have city and community teams present what they know to the sprint team so that tech teams and other stakeholders are up to speed with institutional knowledge. This may include presenting existing research on user journeys and known barriers.

  • Conduct a landscape scan of existing open source solutions that address the problem area that your team is attempting to tackle. Speak to technologists who have attempted to solve this problem before. 

B. Interview stakeholders and potential users 

  • Set research questions that will expose new information about how data and technology play a role in the problem area in your user interviews. Ex. “Who’s working on this problem? What data do they need? Why do they need it? How do residents use data to address or navigate this problem?” 

  • Conduct stakeholder mapping to identify which stakeholders are doing work related to your chosen problem area. Listing out these stakeholders, or mapping them by influence and interest can help to identify who to interview for user research. Often, stakeholders can also connect you to other members of their trusted networks, like residents with lived experience.

  • Create a plan for building trust with potential interviewees, including by safeguarding their personal information. Separate interviewee names from interview insights and communicate to interviewees how their information will be protected. 

  • Create an outreach list including potential end-users or people who have direct experience with your problem area. Begin conducting interviews to map the journey that residents take when dealing with your problem area. Pay particular attention to specific barriers and their location within the journey. Identify how data and information play a role in navigating that journey. 

C. Document observations and insights 

  • Conduct synthesis sessions to collate the user research and begin documenting observations from users about data-specific challenges and technical needs. Try connecting things people say in interviews to data sources that you have available. 

  • Use whatever framework you like best (sticky notes, asynchronous brainstorming, interview tagging) to identify major themes from your workshops and isolate key insights. Highlight themes or insights that are associated with a high concentration of observations about data or information challenges; these might be particularly impactful to address with a technical solution.  

  • Include a part of your synthesis workshop dedicated to exploring how people need solutions. What features matter to people dealing with this challenge? 

D. Refine your understanding of the problem

  • Create a problem statement (that is relevant within your problem area) using the problem statement template. A problem statement is a specific element of your chosen problem area that exposes the challenge that your future tool is going to try to solve. The problem statement should clearly identify who is affected by the challenge and why it matters to your community. You should also try to avoid including an answer to the problem within your problem statement.

  1. Conduct city data assessment

  • Review your data inventory and identify data that maps to the problem statement. Any data that was highlighted by user interviews can be considered high-value data.

  • Compile high-value data from city departments or community partners. Ensure you can access it, and that it’s high-quality, complete, with metadata, and machine-readable.

  • Improve data that is not high-quality by working with data owners to process and analyze raw datasets, with a focus on improving high-value data. This often takes time, resources, and data processing expertise.

  • Investigate any needs to protect sensitive data. Make plans to protect personally identifiable information if any exists, and work directly with project leaders, including the product owner if one exists, and data owners to ensure that data protections are written into data and product governance.

  1. Brainstorm and prioritize solutions

  • Work with sprint participants to think creatively about how you might address the problem statement identified in the synthesis stage. Don’t be afraid to take a few turns at brainstorming solutions and vetting them with city or community leaders to assess viability. 

  • Prioritize solutions by feasibility and potential impact. Consider which community partners might support the tool, and count this under feasibility. Spending more time in this phase ensures a more impactful product later on. 

  • Decide as a team on which solutions are most feasible and impactful. Actively seek input from community partners and their constituents to decide whether solutions are a right fit for the sprint process. Be sure to socialize final ideas with senior leadership and sponsors early on.

RESOURCES

Midpoint review

Take a beat to sit down with your team and think about where you’ve been and where you’re headed. Thinking about impact and sustainability is often left to the end of projects. Plan ahead by conducting midpoint workshops with your team to understand what you’ve achieved so far, what you hope to achieve, and how you might ensure that this project lasts into the future. Important questions to answer might be: 

  • Who owns improvements to the prototype after the sprint?

  • How do these improvements get funded?

  • What might be the deeper, broader impact of the tool?

  • What do we need to set in motion now to have that impact?

  1. Conduct an impact evaluation workshop

  • Ask your team to articulate exactly what is the expected impact of this work. Then go through the impact evaluation template and think through how your expectations match with reality. Evaluate the inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impacts associated with your project. 

  • Engage stakeholders to review your impact evaluation plan. Sharing an impact evaluation plan is a helpful way to let key stakeholders know what to expect and build buy-in for the future. Possible stakeholders could include executive champions who are not directly involved in your sprint or community leaders who are affiliated with your community partner organization.

  • Plan for impact evaluation in the future. Identify outcome and impact metrics that measure the equitability of your tool and the effects it has on users’ experiences.

  1. Confirm product owner(s) and identify funding 

  • Identify a product owner who can liaise with tech experts, delegate improvement tasks, report up to leaders, and define the strategic direction of the work. This doesn’t have to be a technologist, but they should be well-versed in communicating with tech workers.

  • Prototypes need investment to survive. Plan ahead to identify funding streams associated with existing initiatives, upcoming grant opportunities, or even revenue streams that might sustain the tool’s use. 

  1. Start sustainability planning

  • Work with the product owner to ensure they have the tech capacity, funding sources, and data linkages they need to keep the product running. 

  • Hiring staff to support improvements to the prototype is the best way to ensure that prototypes are improved and integrated with broader strategic goals into the future.

RESOURCES

Phase two: design & prototype

In this phase, you’ll start building your prototype! You might prioritize spending time agreeing on features and elements of a successful tool with your sprint participants, or you could choose to begin by designing with target users and identifying additional features along the way. Regardless, you’ll need to adapt your product to users’ needs throughout this phase. Working in the open and building structured opportunities for community and stakeholder feedback into your process can improve the quality of your finished product.

  1. Build wireframes or initial prototypes

  • Using everything you learned in the problem understanding phase, work with the tech team to build out wireframes that prioritize users’ preferred ways to access information or data. Be sure to consider the accessibility needs of the population.

  • Begin noting where data linkages will be needed to ensure that data flowing through the prototype is updated automatically and with any necessary quality checks. Pull data owners into conversations as needed to validate expectations about data linkages.

  1. Conduct user tests

  • Work with your community partner to organize user tests made up of target users for the product. Note: beneficiaries of the product and target users might be different groups! Think about who will actually be using the product and speak directly to them.

  • Use best practices from Civic User Testing (CUT) group models to ensure that sessions are designed to be inclusive and engaging to participating community members.

  • Consider compensating users participating in tests for their time based on the recommendations of local community organizations and service providers. 

  1. Build the final Minimum Viable Product (MVP) 

  • Work closely with community partners and target users to integrate user feedback into the final MVP and set up data linkages that will make the prototype work. 

  • Liaise with data owners who are contributing data to the product to ensure that data will be stored appropriately in city or community partner data systems, and revisit data protection needs identified in Phase 1. Ensure that workflows exist to update the data regularly, and that relevant data owners are read-in to their responsibilities with regards to the product’s maintenance to keep it up-to-date and accurate. 

  • Conduct any final feedback sessions to ensure that final designs are aligned with the expectations of all stakeholders and team members. Prioritize feedback from community partners and adjust course depending on their expressed needs.

RESOURCES

Phase three: product launch

Time to launch your product! Let the world see what you’ve created. Remember that this is just the first step toward longer-term solutions that can make a difference in your community. Use this prototype as a foot in the door to build bigger and better things. 

  1. Demonstrate the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) 

  • Communicate the definition of an MVP to any key stakeholders and sprint participants to ensure that your collaborators understand the role of an MVP. Ensure that they understand the benefits and shortcomings of the tool and how it might improve over time, with the right support from stakeholders.

  • Share your product with anyone who has helped you along the way! Use this as an opportunity to open up a dialogue with community members and share how and why you built this prototype. Consider hosting a “Demo Day”, an event where you publicly launch and showcase your product to your community.

  1. Launch and collect feedback

  • Create permanent channels for users to submit feedback about the tool. This might be adding a comment form, providing contact information for the product owner, creating usability guides for the open-source documentation, and more. 

  • Continue incorporating feedback into the design of the tool and hand-off recommendations to the product owner. 

  1. Plan for long-term sustainability

  • Work across city and community teams to chart a path toward sustainability of the product, including by identifying funding streams and decision-making about the tool’s future. 

  • Identify which tech team participants will be available to support with tech transitions. Ensure you have a plan for hosting the tool and sharing access to adapt source code. 

  • Develop a sustainability memo that highlights key takeaways including ownership, funding streams, community partners/programs, and high-level strategic goals. Share this memo with your partners and key stakeholders! 

RESOURCES

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Download the TOPcities report and sprint toolkit

Does your team want to build data-led solutions to pressing community challenges? Download the complete TOPcities report and sprint toolkit for step-by-step instructions to run a TOPcities sprint in your city.

Click here to read the sprint toolkit and report online.

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