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Building a Better 311 in Chicago

Infographic that shows the decrease in resolution time for five of Chicago's most popular service requests for a better 311 experience

Modernizing the Chicago 311 system has far-reaching benefits for the City and its residents. A new public-facing website and mobile application allows residents to submit and track service requests on a completely digital platform, like most are accustomed to. More importantly, City departments are operating on a fully-digital platform that allows them to keep tabs on the full lifecycle of a resident’s service request.

As a result, departments are working more efficiently. Take a look at our infographic that shows the decrease in resolution time for five of the city’s most popular service requests. You can also see metrics on the new external platforms available to residents and how this has likely attributed to a decrease in call volume to the 311 call center.

Through cloud solutions, we can help you build a better 311 from the ground up.

infographic that shows the decrease in resolution time for five of Chicago's most popular service requests for a better 311 experience

Eric Podlin

We’re celebrating this week’s Meet the Team with another one of our designers, Eric Podlin!

Eric’s work encompasses any sort of design and UI/UX work as well as some front-end development. Eric’s creativity took the front seat as he contributed to the designs of the CHI311 Community Portal and the CHI311 mobile app for iOS and Android. As such, he warmly mentions that his most memorable experience as a Catalyst team member has been playing a role in the implementation of CHI311.  

Eric first discovered his love for design in his high school years but decided to pursue it as a career after a profound conversation with a college professor. Eric has been with Catalyst for over a year now and notes he loves the profession so much because it’s constantly changing – and therefore easy to not get bored!  

Outside of work, you can find Eric playing video games, diving into a great read, and enjoying a night out at the movies, a concert, and the theatre.  

Crafting Impactful Design in the Public Sector

Five years ago it may have been fair to say that state, local and federal government were far behind the curve in terms of their approach to design. City websites and sites for government services often got a bad rep for being overloaded with information and difficult to navigate. Recently though, government bodies have placed more importance on design, understanding that the image they portray to their constituents is important.

Impactful design has always been an art, especially when trying to evoke a certain emotion or attempting to get something from your customer. It’s also always come with its own set of standards and challenges. When designing for the public sector, those challenges are often compounded. Since GovTech is our jam, we’ve dealt with a lot of the unique challenges that come with designing for the public sector.

Take a look at some of the things we’ve learned while designing city websites, mobile apps and overall branding.

Massive Pool of End-Users

When considering design in the public sector, this often means that your end users are extremely diverse, spanning wide age, cultural and tech experience ranges. When you design a city website you must design for the entire city. That means accounting for different accessibility needs (more on that later), language barriers, and age gaps. When we designed the web portal for CHI311, the website for the Chicago Department of Aviation, and the payment site for the Department of Finance Utility Billing and Customer Service we designed for the entire city.

Doing so came down to ensuring the sites were developed with strong UI/UX standards. One of the most important aspects of a good UI is providing for your user’s expectations. For CHI311, submitting a service request is the primary action. When we developed the public-facing website, these are some of the steps we took to make the most desired action easily accessible:

  • Ensure it’s very clear how to submit a service request with a main navigation item as well as a large section directly on the homepage
  • Include “submit request” buttons throughout the site when appropriate
  • Grant multiple methods of finding the desired request: users can use a keyword search or manually search through the categories to find their request
  • Simple iconography to quickly convey the meaning of each service category
  • The service request form is guided and broken up into step-by-step sections with minimal required fields and clear instructions to avoid burdening the user

Accessible Design Doesn’t Mean Boring Design

While all design initiatives should adhere to the accessibility guidelines set by the American Disabilities Act (ADA), city and state website must always adhere to them. Especially if your site is offering a public service or important information. Accessible designs allow people with disabilities to navigate, understand, interact with and contribute to the web. Disabilities that need to be considered when designing for the public sector include decreased mobility, color blindness, and varying degrees of vision loss. Thankfully the World Wide Web Consortium has already set standards called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Following these guidelines though should never restrict your creativity, and they never need to compromise your design. On the contrary, they often force designers to be more creative. This article does an amazing job of outlining what all designers should know about accessible design. It’s always more rewarding knowing that you’re crafting a product that can truly be used by ALL.

Design That Builds Trust

Did you know that most Americans tend to trust their local government more than their state government? According to Gallop, 72% of U.S. adults say they have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in their local government, compared with 63% who say the same about their state government. That’s a small win for local government but even still, public sector agencies must work harder to develop trust with their constituents to make them feel secure in using their site or service.

This means that the user interfaces (UI) for public sector accounts, payments or information requests must be smooth. All interactions with the site must translate as secure and cannot be disjointed or janky in any way. Here are some of the guidelines we follow to achieve this:

  1. Never request user information for an unclear purpose.
    People need to know that their information is being handled with care and that it won’t be abused.
  2. When possible, do not require users to create an account.
    In tandem with the first point, you don’t want to block users from using your service by hiding it behind an account creation process. That is especially true for government services.
  3. Keep your users up to date:
    For CHI311, we provide status updates for all service requests which proves users are being heard and that the city is not wasting their time.
  4. Do not make users commit to unclear actions.
    Every action a user takes must provide some form of reaction either with confirmation information or changing UI states. When an action is taken and there is no immediate response users will often be confused or worse, believe your product is broken.When an action is taken and there is no immediate response users will often be confused or worse, believe your product is broken.

Willingness to Teach

The public sector must often find ways to do more with less. Funding is not always readily available like it is in the private sector. However, the importance of design is not lost on state and local government. Now more than ever, they are setting resources aside to develop meaningful digital experiences, consistent branding, and impactful design. Doing more with less may mean that managers in the public sector who are tasked with spearheading a new web initiative may not always be experienced designers or even be familiar with web development.

Consulting designers must possess a willingness to teach their clients about design standards and exercise patience when working with people who may not yet know the ins and outs of design. They must often inform their clients of design best practices and why it’s best to do things one way over another, making a strong understanding of design principles a requirement. This can make design in the public sector more challenging but also more rewarding in the end.

Focus Groups Are Imperative

Testing your site, service or functional design is extremely important when designing for the public sector. If you’re developing a new website for city residents, you want to have buy-in from the actual end-users. When we designed the portal and mobile app for CHI311, resident focus groups helped us decide the names of service categories as well as the icons we used. They also validated the service request submission process. This ensured that the design decisions we made were in the user’s best interest.

Working on design in the public sector can be a major undertaking. With so many variables and complexities, it’s not unusual to find yourself feeling a bit lost or overwhelmed. That is why it’s incredibly important to use all the tools available to have a solid grasp of the goals and requirements of the project. Through preparation, careful planning and a solid foundation of fundamentals, success is always within reach.

Here are some examples of sites we’ve developed for the public sector:

Kevin Porter

Let’s give a warm ‘Meet the Team’ hello to Kevin Porter, a Web Developer here at Catalyst. Kevin’s work encompasses front-end development and website design, and he also contributes to various graphic design and video editing projects for clients and internal purposes.   

Kevin started working at Catalyst after being notified of a job opening by one of his best friends, who just so happens to work here as well. 

Kevin recently celebrated his one-year Catalyst anniversary and notes he’s learned so much that, though it wasn’t directly UI/UX-related, has still proven to be extremely useful in his day-to-day work and life.  

After work, you can often find Kevin playing Super Smash Bros with coworkers. Talk about team bonding! Thanks for sharing, Kevin.  

Anthony Lungaro

Say hello to Anthony Lungaro for our first Meet the Team of October. Anthony is a Junior Geospatial Analyst at Catalyst responsible for validating location data updates for the CHI311 solution we implemented for the City of Chicago, working with Salesforce’s Field Service Lightning, and QA testing.

Anthony enjoys working at Catalyst because he has a hand in the technological advancements that are moving local government and the public sector forward. He is particularly enthusiastic about working with a client as large as the City of Chicago and notes that his work with the City’s 311 implementation has been his most memorable experience at Catalyst thus far.  

Outside of work, you can find Anthony looking for any way to be active, from playing basketball to attending concerts to skydiving. Thanks for sharing, Anthony!  

Alex Devries

Today, we’re excited to share more about one of our Enterprise Architects, Alex Devries. As an Enterprise Architect, Alex is responsible for designing and implementing solutions that optimize business processes while remaining focused on performance, scalability, and data integrity. 

Alex recently celebrated his ten-year anniversary at Catalyst; he credits his high school AP Computer Science course, as well as his college curriculum, with opening the door to the world of software engineering and the career possibilities that stem from it. In his 10 years here, Alex notes that his most memorable experience has been being part of the team that launched #CHI311. 

Outside of work, you can find Alex seeking out a live concert or adding to his LP collection. In fact, Alex has curated a playlist to accompany his feature this week! Listen here: [Math and Shoegaze]. 


Arvin Talwar

It’s the last Monday of August, so we’re wrapping up the month with a very special #MeetTheTeam Monday. Please welcome Catalyst’s Founder, Managing Principal, and CEO, Arvin Talwar! 

Arvin founded Catalyst in 1992 after working and traveling as a consultant. He was eager to dive into the “messiest, most challenging projects” because he found them to be the opportunities through which he would learn the most. However, in his experience at different firms, he noticed a gap between tech leadership and business leadership. With the goal of bridging the gap between technology and business, Arvin started our company. 

Throughout Catalyst’s nearly 30-year history, Arvin notes the most memorable and rewarding experiences have been the times when Catalyst, a small business, won large projects while competing against “brand name” consulting firms. It goes to show that a company’s reputation must extend beyond how many offices it has or how many thousands of folks it employs; instead, the skillset, drive, and experience of the team is key to meeting and exceeding the expectations of clients. 

Arvin has continuously advised the Catalyst team throughout the company’s history to treat every client like it is our only one. This guidance has become a Catalyst “creed” of sorts. 

Outside of Catalyst, you can find Arvin reading or watching documentaries, noting his favorites are pieces about business leaders and athletes. He is also a third-degree black belt in Hapkido and now instructs young people in martial arts.  

We thank Arvin for creating the workspace we know and love today. His constant encouragement and advisory of our team has contributed to our success tremendously. 

Request, Respond, Report: How Chicago’s 311 Uses Salesforce Reporting

In December of 2018 our firm, in collaboration with Chicago’s 311 and Department of Innovation and Technology, launched the City’s modernized 311 system CHI311. We’ve talked a lot about how this modernization improved the system overall and brought a multitude of new functions to the residents of Chicago. But how has this new system benefited the city departments that rely on it day in and day out?

Since the launch of CHI311 the overall closure rate service requests has increased from 82% to 94% 1. Overall system improvement has a lot to do with that, but transitioning from a mostly manual, paper-based process to a fully digital system has had long-reaching benefits. We can talk specifics when we look at the Department of Streets and Sanitation. In the old system, scheduling the removal of graffiti took 45 minutes to an hour. With CHI311, it takes just 10 minutes.

It’s clear that moving to the cloud-based Salesforce has improved efficiency, but it’s also given departments more access and control over their data than before. As a user-friendly, accessible and intuitive platform, city users can use Salesforce to easily create, manage and view the reports they need to serve Chicago residents better.

Let’s take a look at how Salesforce reporting has benefitted departments city-wide.

CHI311 hosts a wealth of data that informs important metrics: total open requests, total requests closed yesterday, number of requests coming in from the portal vs. call, etc. The data points are endless. When a user logs into the Salesforce-based system, the first thing they see is their “dashboard” which provides an at-a-glance look at metrics. Users can also subscribe to their dashboard and have it sent to their email on a set frequency, so they can receive data straight to their inbox.

Reports are not a ‘one size fits all.’ Metrics that are important to the Department of Water Management, may not be as helpful to the Department of Transportation. Since Salesforce dashboards can be configured based on the needs of the department, division and even the individual user, we can ensure that each city user has access to the metrics they need to keep tabs on their work and make changes when needed.

Chicago’s 311 Uses Salesforce Reporting

Send Reports
Sending reports on a set frequency ensures department leads always have access to the metrics they need, when they need them. Many city users receive their reports first thing in the morning so they have all the metrics they need to manage and inform their crews for the day. Reports, usually sent daily or weekly, often include metrics such as ‘# of requests opened yesterday’, ‘# of requests completed yesterday’, and ‘# of requests with missed milestones’ to help departments track their closure rates.

This is an improvement from the legacy system, where users were required to log into a separate reporting system to set and view their reports. With all of the reports directly in Salesforce, users can remain in one system as opposed to logging in elsewhere to access what they need. Reports in Salesforce means users can click on a Request Number and navigate straight to that record for further information.

Report Builder
To create and manipulate reports in the legacy system, the user needed to, at the very least, know SQL. This hindered everyday users and required reliance on a small number of users to create reports and manipulate the data. One of the biggest draws to Salesforce is the fact that it’s user-friendly and can be easily adopted by those who are non-technical. With the proper permissions, users within CHI311 can leverage the drag and drop features in Salesforce’s Report Builder to create unique reports that satisfy their individual needs. With the ability to create unique reports, city end-users can view the metrics they need on a day-to-day, week-to-week, or month-to-month basis and adjust their operations as needed.

Chicago’s 311 Dashboard

With easier access to system data and an increased ability to create reports, more system users than before can make informed decisions that benefit city department and the city residents they serve. Have you used Salesforce Reporting before? If not, we invite you to join the Ohana, and check it out for yourself!


Mike Anderson

We return for another #MeetTheTeam Monday with one of Catalyst’s Software Engineers, Mike Anderson!

Though his “specialties” are .NET and Java solutions, Mike is an expert-level problem solver who is eager and quick to learn new technologies in order to get the job done. Mike’s interest in tech was spurred during his freshman year of high school, where he spent his days working on a Macintosh LC. Before long, Mike was building websites and helping his physics friends with C++…and the rest is history!

Outside of Catalyst, you can find Mike adventuring with his wife and son (pictured above), trying out a local brewery, or jamming on either acoustic or electric guitars. Rock on, Mike! 

Audrey Mathis

Let’s give a warm Women in Tech Tuesday welcome to Audrey Mathis, the Director of 311 City Services at Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC). 

Audrey oversees the City of Chicago’s 24/7 non-emergency 311 contact center, the agency responsible for addressing City service requests and offering information regarding city programs, initiatives, and events.

Audrey attended college at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and then accepted a position with the City of Chicago. Over time she worked in several departments with an emphasis on project management and eventually joined the 311 team before being appointed 311 Director nearly nine years ago. Citing the trailblazing astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison as inspiration, Audrey notes that we can create a more inclusive tech industry by advocating for and focusing on STEM programs for women in minority communities beginning in the early elementary school levels. 

Outside of work, you can find Audrey singing, spending time with family and friends, and discussing good reads with her book club.