Our team doesn’t have answers.

What we have is a process, a methodology.

It might seem strange to admit what we don’t have. It’s our methodology that gives us that confidence.

We believe that knowledgeable and engaged community members have many answers. We use the first phase of our methodology to facilitate discussions that turn those answers into actionable design questions and technology innovations.

We recently had an opportunity to work with experts and interested people at the Indianapolis Public Library to consider how their ideas might fuel a technological tool that connects people to emergency food assistance. As often happens, we were all surprised by what happened next.

The problem: Indy is a food desert

Our team is never expert in the issue area we might be considering. In this case, the issue was food insecurity. While we conduct our own research, talk to people, and read about the issue, when we walk in the door — in this case, through the doors of the awesome Indianapolis Public Library — we leave our assumptions right there. You see, we’re confident the insiders we gather will help us become smarter outsiders who can help form their ideas into real technology you can use.

Indianapolis, as seen from the top of the Indianapolis Public Library

But first, the problem: according to Gleaners.org, in a city of 852,866 residents, 180,000 in Indianapolis are food insecure. As with most big problems, there are many reasons bolstering this dire situation, chief among them a large local supermarket chain closing its remaining stores and a dearth of transportation options. According to WalkScore.com, Indianapolis is ranked last “among major U.S. cities for access to healthy foods, with only five percent of residents living within a five-minute walk of a grocery store.”

Assembling is an art

The first step in our methodology is bringing people together. In this instance, we gathered experts from food pantries, resource centers, universities, libraries, nonprofits, and city government departments: all committed to addressing food insecurity in Indianapolis. We don’t take the invitation step lightly; we follow a practice that results in a group of individuals with diverse exposure and a range of perspectives on the issue at hand. Often those assembled have not yet met, and the end of the first day is a marvelous exercise in lingering and business card exchanging.

The event could be illustrated like a funnel — attendees started broad and over time began to focus singularly on a particular problem that they addressed through a mobile app solution. The kicker? Not one of them expected they’d have the know-how to dream up a technological solution by the end of day two, but they did: beautifully.

Here’s where we started

The following list of statements represent a curated view of the entire group’s aspirations, represented as design questions. The responses to these questions become the focus for the remaining day of the event:

  • How might we lower barriers to nutritious eating habits?
  • How might we deploy pantries as a system to improve access?
  • How might we streamline the process and help people navigate the system?
  • How might we provide food nutrition education and connection to ongoing assistance?
  • How might we get complete and current information to people who need food assistance?
  • How might we help people who don’t qualify for federal benefits get access to other resources?
  • How might we incentivize better eating habits?
  • How might we have broad community awareness of the extent of the hunger problem?
  • How might we help existing providers work together?

And here’s where we ended

We invited people to vote with their feet. The design questions were posted around the room and participants walked to the questions that were most meaningful to them. This process formed teams by shared affinity and commitment. It also produced a marvelous learning opportunity: out of all the possible questions, which moved people the most?

Once the teams were formed, we opened up our special design box filled with craft materials to the oohs and ahhs of the truly craft inspired — “protractors!” — and left them to figure out how they might represent their ideas in construction paper and Elmer’s Glue. Here’s what they designed:

Reasonable, Ready Recipes

Reasonable, Ready Recipes: learn to cook healthy food on a budget.

Reasonable, Ready Recipes is just that: five-ingredient recipes for families on a budget. Also use a handy calculator to balance food assistance dollars within a monthly food budget, recipes uploaded by community members — some with accompanying videos — and the ability to rate each recipe. This app is for anyone motivated to cook healthy food.

Food Compass

Food Compass: food assistance made easy

Food Compass will help you find your next meal. Answer questions to find directed food assistance that meets your particular situation in Indianapolis. Use a map to see where resources are located and learn what you need to bring with you when you apply for different types of assistance. This app will help residents navigate the system.

Pantry Power

Pantry Power: find a pantry and volunteer your time.

Pantry Power will provide information for people interested in volunteering at a pantry in the Indianapolis metro area. You can filter pantries by characteristics important to you — community served, type of food offered, hours —to find the right one for you. You can also donate, which not only supports all of the pantries, but serves to motivate pantries to keep their information updated, because any donations received are distributed equally only if the pantry is a member of and in good standing of this regional collective.

The community selects

Crucial to our community-centered process is including the insight, attitudes, expertise, and imagination of those who work in the issue area and those who may benefit from the technology we’re designing together. In order to understand how people may respond to these tools, the designs now continue on their low-fidelity journey — no tech to show yet — to local places where the greater public can weigh in and share which designs and which features they appreciate and what else we can be doing to meet their needs.

Here’s your invitation: If you live in the Indianapolis region, be on the lookout for posters representing these smart ideas and please be sure to share your thoughts on them by hand and by #CaravanSelect. If you’re focused on the issue of food insecurity, please get in touch with us at info@caravanstudios.org. We’d love to hear from you.

Thank you to Microsoft Philanthropies for supporting this event, and to the Indianapolis Public Library for providing the space.

This post is by Sarah Washburn, a member of the Caravan Studios team. Caravan Studios is a division of TechSoup Global, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, CA.