Technology and Innovation

Expedia Group volunteers build portal to help ease cost of living challenges in the City of Seattle

Tom Shivitz



Tom Shivitz | Principal, Technical Product Manager, Brand Expedia

Introduction

If you live or work in the City of Seattle, you may have heard or have directly experienced how expensive it is to live in the city. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey indicates roughly 48,000 households in Seattle (renters and owners) are spending half or more of their income on housing costs.  In 2017, a study published in the Seattle Times showed rents increased 57% over a 6-year period in the city. The Seattle Times also reported that in 4 years, from 2014 to 2018, Seattle’s average home prices increased by 73.6%, making it the 3rd most expensive city in the United States to buy a home, with an average purchase price of $753,600. 

To address these issues, and other challenges facing the city, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan launched Seattle’s Innovation Advisory Council (IAC) in 2018. By way of Executive Order, Mayor Durkan invited 16 Seattle-area tech companies to help build innovative technology-driven solutions to aid with the city’s most pressing priorities: affordability, homelessness, mobility, and delivery of basic services. Expedia Group (EG) believes strongly in being good neighbors and investing in the communities in which we live and work. In addition to joining the IAC, we accepted an invitation to become one of four co-chairs to help lead the council and partner directly with the Mayor. Aman Bhutani, then-President BEX Group, joined co-Chairs from Tableau, Technical Access Foundation (TAF), and Artefact Group. 

We also volunteered to lead Phase 1 of an IAC 2019 priority project, now named Affordable Seattle (formerly Affordability Portal). The project stood out to us from the beginning as one where we could use our in-house talents to help build a solution which would rapidly — and at scale — help educate Seattle families about city available services to alleviate some of the cost of living burdens low to mid-income families experience. 

The Affordable Seattle Phase 1 hypothesis: Enrollment for City-offered programs will increase as:

  1. access to program and services information is centralized in one place;
  2. users can parse programs by household size, income and zip code;
  3. potential savings are calculated and displayed up-front with a summary view of qualified programs;
  4. users have a single, consistent, and mobile-ready web experience.

Identifying our Desired Outcomes

At EG, we believe in the power of focusing on desired outcomes, and we know we do our best work when it’s purpose-driven. What this means is by establishing clear and focused objectives driven by data and empathy, we achieve the most beneficial results which can make a real difference. When we accepted the opportunity to develop the first phase of Affordable Seattle, we determined two primary objectives:

1. Use technology to ease the cost of living burden for low to mid-income families living in the City of Seattle.

The City of Seattle offers dozens of programs which provide cash benefits to qualifying households, but the complex and varied application processes for each deters many residents from accessing the help they need. Other residents with privacy concerns also have been reluctant to engage directly with social workers from the City. Addressing these issues through technology, improving accessibility to information, and simplifying the process could save families hundreds of dollars each month.

2. Influence the City of Seattle to adopt modern approaches for solving complex problems through the power of technology.

City government IT infrastructure typically lags behind the capabilities and advancements of the private sector. We saw this as an opportunity to make EG’s technology expertise available to City staff to help drive IT evolution and build capabilities to improve how they operate.  

How Our Team Formed and Delivered

The chance to work on a meaningful project, solving real-world problems, proved to be irresistible. When we approached various groups to ask for volunteer contributors for the project, the genuine excitement and desire to help showed that the project sold itself. We were blown away by the amount of EG employees who willingly raised their hand to help — in fact, we had more volunteers than we could use on the project!

Though we initially thought we would only need a small agile development team, we considered our second objective (influence the City of Seattle to adopt modern approaches for solving complex problems through the power of technology) and felt our opportunity to tap into our internal expertise went beyond pure application development. We approached more specialists, and our ‘volunteer army’ of contributors grew to include a spectrum of skill sets, fueling our ability to build a cutting edge website for the City and to influence their technology practices. The specialists included:

  • Content creators and strategists
  • Designers
  • Developers
  • Pipeline and infrastructure engineering
  • SEO specialists
  • Technical Product Managers 
  • Technical writers

What formed was a tremendously passionate and dedicated group of EG employees who navigated around their everyday responsibilities to work together and build a portal that we all are truly proud of. All told, over 30 volunteers contributed to this project. We are truly grateful for the time that each donated!

Approach and Technology

The workgroup’s interests were less about specific ceremonies and rigorous work planning. Instead, we were agile and adaptable, adjusting our technologies, calendars, and work methods frequently. We were compelled to move very quickly. After all, we wanted to meet the needs of the City and its residents by delivering swiftly what we knew would be a big asset to Seattle residents. (Plus, we were feeling a little competitive and wanted to be the first IAC project to go live!)

This speed and flexibility was critical to our success. The City recently hired a new Chief Technology Officer (CTO), and his arrival was introducing positive changes within the City IT department. With change comes disruption, but our purpose did not change. 

The planning and work process methods we used to build the Affordable Seattle portal were: 

  • Mini-inception to identify a MVP, milestones, targets and project scope
  • Monthly demos to stakeholders from the City and EG
  • Development cycles with committed stories
  • Functional and strategic milestones to drive delivery
  • A ‘Hack Day’ near the Development Complete deadline to help focus the team to squash our largest remaining bugs, clean-up the UX, and bridge remaining functional gaps

In terms of the technologies we employed, we used (among others):

  • React, Next and Node .js
  • Material Design
  • Cloud Tech (AWS)
  • Container Technologies (Docker)
  • Github Repo and Jenkins

The choice of open source technologies and processes needed to take into account that the ultimate owner of the portal was outside of EG’s infrastructure, so we couldn’t rely on any internal-only utilized platforms or technologies. We also needed to take into consideration the capabilities and maturity of the City of Seattle IT department, keeping in mind our goal to hand-off the solution to the city for effective future development and operational sustainability.

Results and Takeaways

With the remarkable work of so many Expedians, and with the help of our partners at the City of Seattle, on 21-Nov-2019 Affordable Seattle became a reality. We are proud to have collaborated and iterated with members of Seattle’s IT department with great success, and our partnership with our City partners has been an exceptionally positive experience.  We recently had the opportunity to showcase what we built to the collective IAC companies during a quarterly review with Mayor Durkan and her Deputy Mayors. The excitement level for what we’ve created was palpable in the rooms and the Mayor has said several times Affordable Seattle was her favorite project in 2019. The Affordable Seattle project was a realization of a vision that was 18 months in the making, starting from the idea’s inception occurring long before EG committed to the project. Our successful delivery proves the model outlined in the Mayor’s Executive Order to tap into Seattle’s private sector technology leadership does in fact work, and we’re excited to share our learnings and best practices with other IAC companies so they too can be equally as successful. 

A few other points worth celebrating:

  • Affordable Seattle is the first public-facing application utilizing cloud technology that will be supported fully by City of Seattle developers
  • Other IAC companies and Department leaders within the City of Seattle are asking to learn from our team and understand what made our project successful
  • The Innovation Advisory Council and the City’s IT department is adopting EG learnings for other City projects. In fact, CTO Saad Bashir is committed to harnessing methods used in IAC projects to evolve tech as part of his efforts to modernize services. The CTO is also putting in a place a proof of concept structure to allow for more agile development of new and innovative tech projects!

As for my personal takeaways: As the project manager, I am humbled and grateful for the team and what they were able to accomplish. It was because everyone involved approached the problem with open minds and open hearts that we were able to deliver on the outcomes we set out to achieve. What we built should make a real and direct impact for thousands of residents, our new neighbors! I am grateful at Expedia Group there are opportunities such as this project for great people to come together to be creative, explore and grow new skills, and to seek out ways to utilize a passionate desire to make a meaningful difference in the community we live and work in.

You can read more on Geekwire – https://www.geekwire.com/2019/expedia-seattle-debut-affordability-tool-help-residents-find-city-services/

And if you would like to see Affordable Seattle in action, nav to – https://www.affordableseattle.org

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