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A Neighborhood Favor Platform


Many people today don't know their neighbors. In contrast, my grandfather who grew up in Warsaw, Poland knew his neighbors intimately. While interviewing my grandfather about his life in Warsaw, I began to wonder whether the type of community he spoke of could form in American neighborhoods today and whether American neighbors would even want it to. My master's thesis detailed below aims to uncover insights around these questions and pose contextual design solutions. You can read an abridged project explanation here.



A poor Jewish widow would come up to our house selling tea and sugar. An elderly Chassidic man would supply us with toilet paper and kitchen soap. Raw milk was brought daily from the neighborhood cowshed, measured and directly poured into the pot for immediate boiling. Each visitor would be occasionally invited to sit down over a cup of tea and a piece of cake and be given the opportunity to tell his story and to pour out his heart. People had somehow a lot of time for each other.
— Joel Avigan

In this quotation, my late grandfather describes a scene typical of the neighborhood in which he grew up in Warsaw, Poland. He describes a neighborhood rich in interactions between fellow neighbors, vendors and travelers. Although these interactions are often driven by commerce, they are surprisingly intimate. The woman who sells sugar door-to-door is invited in for tea after a delivery. The lonely travelling vendor is invited to share a hot meal before departing for his next destination.

The vibrant Jewish Quarter in pre-WWII Warsaw courtesy of the Yad Vashem Photo Archive  -

The vibrant Jewish Quarter in pre-WWII Warsaw courtesy of the Yad Vashem Photo Archive  -



All these many activities involved intimate human interactions, much more than is being experienced in modern, urban society. It was much more in the often and not nearly as institutionalized, sanitized and impersonalized, as it seems to be the case in modern America.
— Joel Avigan

Yet, my grandfather sadly notes that we don’t see the same level of interaction in American neighborhoods today. American neighborhoods in contrast are shy of the interpersonal interactions that typified his Jewish, Polish childhood.

However, my grandfather and his family experienced many harsh realities in pre-WWII Warsaw. Racial, cultural and socioeconomic segregation divided neighborhoods creating feelings of resentment and alienation among Jews and other disenfranchised groups. This segregation in many ways paved the way for the atrocities of WWII which followed. 

When my grandfather emigrated to the United States after the war, the socioeconomic, racial and cultural segregation that divided American neighborhoods was therefore no surprise. What was unfamiliar though was that even within these subdivisions, neighbors tended to keep to themselves.

An equally dense, but less animated American neighborhood, photograph by Alisa Avigan.

An equally dense, but less animated American neighborhood, photograph by Alisa Avigan.

My grandfather’s feelings of isolation in modern America, not surprisingly, continue to be shared by many. According to surveys conducted by Nextdoor, a neighborhood network platform, 1/3 of U.S. residents express a desire to get better acquainted with their neighbors. In her book, the Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1960’s activist Jane Jacobs argues that modern tenants of urban planning and architecture stifle the forming of neighborhood communities. It’s clear that we’ve lost our ability to connect with those close by and that there is tremendous opportunity to rekindle those relationships.

Furthermore, there is a tremendous opportunity to have these neighborly interactions transcend both racial, socioeconomic and cultural divides in unprecedented ways.

Miraculously, the two communities were sharing physically the same space, but might have well lived in walls apart and on different continents.
— Joel Avigan

Sadly, my grandfather’s description of Poland in the 1930’s still applies to many American neighborhoods today.



So my questions are:  

  1. Do Americans today desire to form relationships with their neighbors as my grandfather’s generation did?

  2. If so, what kind of relationships do they wish to form?

  3. What is preventing them from engaging in these relationships?

  4. And finally, what are the qualities of a design that would help neighbors overcome these challenges?


Mutual Respect and Empathy

Although the neighborly relationships detailed by my grandfather were intimate in nature, many would not have been classified as friendships. For instance, the woman who delivered tea to my grandfather’s family would not have been considered a friend. Yet, she was more than just a service provider. She was known personally enough to be welcomed in to my grandfather’s home for tea and conversation. Although these neighbors might not have mingled in the same social circles, it is clear that they respected and empathized with one another.

A woman selling flatbread in Warsaw courtesy of the YIVO Encyclopedia, photograph by Menakhem Kipnis  -

A woman selling flatbread in Warsaw courtesy of the YIVO Encyclopedia, photograph by Menakhem Kipnis  -

Two neighbors interacting at the community farmer's market courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, photograph by Menakhem Kipnis  -

Two neighbors interacting at the community farmer's market courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, photograph by Menakhem Kipnis  -

This was one of the biggest takeaways from discussions with my grandfather. Building a strong sense of community doesn’t require that every neighbor be friends. Rather, building a strong sense of community requires that neighbors have a basic level of respect and empathy for one another.

My grandfather's childhood memories suggest that service transactions brought neighbors face-to-face, helping build mutual respect and empathy. Furthermore, service transactions brought people of vastly different backgrounds together, because common ground isn’t as essential to a service relationship as it is to say a friendship.

A modern day example of this is Airbnb, a service where a room in a personal abode is offered as lodging to guests in exchange for money. Guests prioritize selecting rooms based on the room’s attributes rather than the host’s qualities. In other words, guests and hosts need not have much in common as long as they can trust in one another. And although the relationship between guest and host is one of service provider and customer, many often experience interpersonal interactions during their stays. Are these relationships friendships? Not exactly. But they aren’t strictly business either. They fall somewhere in between.


Designing For Everyone

Airbnb is one of many online platforms connecting service providers and customers. Yet despite the abundance of these types of platforms, many of them consistently fail to engage certain demographics. According to researchers at the University of Minnesota, many online service platforms have yet to establish themselves in low-income areas (Hecht, Spieker and Terveen). This raises the question of how tight budgets might impede low-income users from participating.

When services are monetized, designers striving to build inclusive communities must consider the following: Will anyone be excluded?  What kind of sentiment does this create between service provider and consumer? Does socioeconomic standing determine who provides and who receives services?

After reflecting on these questions, we might conclude that although paying for services helps fuel the local economy, it might not be the best strategy for building community. For instance, we might reason the following: Having to purchase services will exclude those who can’t afford them. People that pay for services feel less obligation to express gratitude and reciprocate those services. High-income users are more likely to purchase services than they are likely to provide them, because they don’t rely on supplementary income in the same way that low-income users might. In short, when services are paid for, it is likely that socioeconomic class is a major factor in defining roles and relationships.

So, what if money was removed from the equation and there was a system where services could be gifted rather than sold? What if there was a platform where people were not classified as either consumer or service provider, but encouraged to assume both roles as a condition of their participation? Would this create a more inclusive, egalitarian and reciprocal neighborhood community? In other words, is there a benefit to establishing a gift economy on the neighborhood level, complementing (not replacing) the traditional market economy?



In the same way that service relationships bonded my grandfather with his fellow neighbors, I believe they have the ability to strengthen the bonds between neighbors in modern-day America. I believe they have the ability to bond neighbors hailing from different backgrounds - who might not otherwise cross paths - because service relationships do not rely on common ground in the same way that friendships often do.  I also hypothesize that favors - services that are gifted rather than sold - have greater potential to strengthen communities and promote inclusivity, because favors likely encourage reciprocity and are accessible to all regardless of socioeconomic standing.



I therefore propose to do the following:

  1. Reify my hypothesis by designing preliminary concepts for a neighborhood favor platform

  2. Recruit a diverse set of research subjects to ensure an inclusive approach.

  3. Use the preliminary concepts to engage subjects in discussion regarding the following research questions:

    1. Do Americans today desire to form relationships with their neighbors as my grandfather’s generation did?

    2. If so, what kind of relationships do they wish to form?

    3. What is preventing them from engaging in these relationships?

    4. And finally, what are the qualities of a design that would help neighbors overcome these challenges?

  4. Based on findings from the interviews and from supporting secondary research, draft a list of insights and recommendations to guide a future design that better suits the needs of American neighbors today.

  5. Design a series of concepts and scenarios that embody these recommendations.

  6. Outline future steps for carrying these concepts forward.

  7. Reflect on the current state of similar initiatives.



Competitive Analysis

In order to design convincing concepts for a neighborhood favor platform, I conducted a competitive analysis of other digital communities where people can advertise and solicit services.

The basic idea of competitive analysis is to line up competitors side- by-side and highlight similarities and differences on selected points of comparisons. This will disclose expectations from users who are used to other sites, and best practices in everything from interface design to offered features.
— Arvola, Lundberg and Holmlid, 2010

Through analyzing four successful service platforms - Airbnb, TaskRabbit, SkilShare and Nextdoor - I was able to identify design conventions that characterize this digital space.



Leveraging the UI and functionality patterns that I uncovered during the Competitive Analysis phase as well as my own assumptions regarding what neighbors might or might not want, I designed a set of concepts for a neighborhood favor platform.


Interview with concepts

The next step was to organize sessions where my interview subjects could interact with and respond to the concepts that I designed.

I don’t like to call this ‘concept testing’ because that implies the key to the approach is to present a solution and have participants evaluate it. What you present need not represent an actual solution. For example, you often show concepts that are not viable or otherwise unlikely in order to explore the edges of factors that influence desirability, usefulness, and so on. What you’re learning is not an evaluation of the concept, but instead a deeper understanding of the design criteria for a future solution. Although concepts are the stimuli, you deliberately choose stimuli that contain some aspect of your hypotheses, ideas, or questions in a tangible form.
— Portigal, 2013

The concepts I created were NOT meant to act as a design solution to be evaluated by my subjects and then later refined. Rather, the purpose was to use the concepts to identify essential design criteria that would guide the making of future iterations that would most likely not resemble the initial concepts in any way. The wireframes that I designed posed tangible solutions to my research questions that my subjects could interact with. By evaluating my subjects’ reactions to these solutions, I was able to draw conclusions and insights not around the solutions themselves, but around the primary research questions that these solutions aimed to address.

Because a primary goal of this project is to connect neighbors irrespective of their demographic characteristics, it was important that the research phase engage a diverse set of participants. In order to derive insights that would yield an inclusive design, I interviewed 5 participants, ranging from 18 -50 years old, hailing from lower to upper socioeconomic classes and various geographic locations in the United States. The duration of each interview was 1 - 1.5 hours.

Displayed below are samples from the interview guide that I used to help focus discussion around my preliminary concepts and research questions.


Based on the discussions that emerged from the interview sessions, I uncovered the following initial insights with regards to my research questions:


  • Most people don’t know their neighbors, but wish they did.
I always wished that one of my neighbors in New York would stop and introduce themselves, but they never did.
— Interview Subject J.R.
  • When neighbors do interact, it’s usually when help is needed.
One time, one of my neighbors called me up, because she was baking and ran out of eggs. It was one of the happiest moments for me to give her that egg. This is what neighbors should be about.
— Interview Subject J.G.
  • Although people want to be able to help their neighbors more often, safety concerns prevent them.
It’s because I don’t know my neighbors that I don’t ask them for help, especially with all the crazy stuff happening in the world.
— Interview Subject J.B.
  • Although safety is important, neighbors don't want safety precautions to preclude inclusivity.
I you’re trying to build community, you don’t want to alienate people.
— Interview Subject T.B.
  • Volunteering help rather than selling it creates a more egalitarian and reciprocal community.
The whole idea is that the favor economy eliminates class.
— Interview Subject J.R.

These initial insights verify certain aspects of my hypothesis, while bringing to light new concerns. It is clear that people are interested in getting to know their neighbors. More specifically, neighbors would like to engage in relationships where they are able to volunteer and request help from one another (rather than sell and purchase it). Yet, safety concerns impede these altruistic, help-based relationships from forming. And although safety is a primary concern, people recognize that safety precautions should not be at odds with fostering an inclusive community.

In short, a neighborhood favor platform was validated as a desirable tool for my subjects, only in the case that safety and inclusivity could be ensured.

So how do we ensure safety without threatening inclusivity?

In order to address these expressed concerns, I went back to my research materials - the interview transcripts, the competitive analysis as well as literature on the subjects of safety and inclusivity- in order to derive insights on the topics of safety and inclusivity in the digital and physical space.

An affinity diagramming exercise helped transform the collected data from the interview sessions, secondary research and Competitive Analysis  into insights.

An affinity diagramming exercise helped transform the collected data from the interview sessions, secondary research and Competitive Analysis  into insights.


Here is what I found out with regards to safety and inclusivity in these spaces:


  • Safe environments benefit from a basic level of oversight. Oversight reduces criminal activity, because people are less likely to engage in unethical behavior when there are others present to witness their actions.
If you and Bob are going out, other people know that you and Bob are going out, Bob knows that other people know that you guys are going to this location at this time... People behave better when they know other people are watching.
— Interview Subject T.B.
  • Most digital service platforms will provide oversight during online interactions, but not offline ones.
Source: Competitive Analysis
  • When neighbors know each other, they look out for one another, creating a reciprocal system of oversight.
What if we had a barbecue to bond with everyone... I think block parties are great and you do get to know people, so when you see someone you don’t know, then you are like, ‘who is that strange person at so and so’s house?’ when they are away.
— Interview Subject T.B.
  • Being looked out for is a more inclusive and comforting feeling than being watched.
An artificially constructed “neighborhood watch” will have trouble providing the same level of safety and ease as a street where people are constantly interacting - and truly seeing one another.
— CityLab
  • The more risky the service, the more trust that is required between the service provider and receiver.
I would be more likely to do the meals, the borrowing and the skill-building before the child care thing. I have to know you a while before I can trust you with something like that.
— Interview Subject T.B.
  • When services are sold, a hierarchical relationship forms where paying customers feel entitled to the services being provided. Therefore, paying customers neither reciprocate the rendered services, nor do they feel indebted to their service providers.
For an Airbnb request, I’m like, ‘why aren’t these people answering me?’ I feel entitled.
— Interview Subject J.R.
  • When services are gifted, an egalitarian relationship forms where the service receivers express their gratitude to those that volunteered their help and reciprocate by providing services to those that helped them in the future.
Often, when I give a favor, I don’t feel I’m owed a favor, but when I receive, I feel I owe one.
— Interview Subject J.R.

  • Many people don't have access to smartphone technology, barring them from using digital service platforms.
I don’t think an app like Uber would take off in my community. Most people I know don’t own smartphones.
— Interview Subject A.R.


Based on these insights, I drafted the following design recommendations to guide the future making of a neighborhood favor platform. 


  • A neighborhood favor platform should have a system of oversight in place for both online and offline interactions. In addition to platform administrators who provide oversight online, proximal neighbors should be empowered to provide oversight offline.
  • In this system of oversight, the emphasis should be on looking out for fellow neighbors rather than watching them. All neighbors should be equally looked out for during interactions.
  • The level of oversight exercised should correlate with the risk level of the service being rendered.
  • Services of consecutively higher risk should be leveraged to build trust in a relationship. Low-risk favors should be rendered first, helping build a certain quantity of trust that lays the foundation for the rendering of higher-risk services.
  • Neighbors should gift rather than sell services in order to encourage those that receive help to graciously reciprocate help. 
  • To ensure the inclusivity of all neighbors, the digital platform should adapt to the interface requirements of various telecommunication channels.


Implementing these design recommendations, the following scenarios depict how a neighborhood favor platform might operate. The scenarios showcase different concepts for inclusive oversight systems that can be used in tandem for riskier interactions or individually - if at all - for less risky interactions. Neighbors should be able to opt in or out of these systems of oversight based on their needs and comfort level. In order to simulate a real organization, the neighborhood network has been branded under the name “Spot” in the following scenarios.


Scenario I

The previous scenario showcased the following six concepts for oversight, which can be used in tandem or individually to ensure the safety of neighbors and the inclusivity of the network.

Group Bylaws - This system allows like-minded individuals to form groups and declare their own rules. Rules can be as lax or as strict as the group deems suitable, as long as rules don’t discriminate based on race, gender and/or socioeconomic class. Rules can dictate items ranging from candidate eligibility, application procedure, security measures, governance approach, to the handling of disputes and misconduct. 

Group Calendar - This system allows group members to share a calendar, which displays the weekly favors requested by neighbors. This allows neighbors to offer their help instead of being asked for it. It also allows neighbors to be aware of the offline interactions occurring between neighbors in their community. 

Proctor - This system prescribes that a more experienced member mentor and evaluate a new member.

Joint Activity - This concept is twofold. First, it prescribes that Proctors collaborate with the neighbors they are mentoring. This will aid in making neighbors feel looked out for rather than watched during an interaction. Second, by having multiple neighbors participate in an interaction, the interaction become less isolated and therefore safer.

Acknowledgment - This system enables neighbors in a group to acknowledge the rendering of a favor through the ability to thank the responsible parties. If an interaction is acknowledged by other neighbors, it may inhibit neighbors with bad intentions from acting.

Endorsements - Both the renderers and receivers of favors are invited to endorse and leave feedback. Having all parties go through an evaluation process brings equality to the community.


Scenario II


The previous scenario showcased the following five concepts for oversight, which can be used in tandem or individually to ensure the safety of neighbors and the inclusivity of the network.

Walking Buddies - In this system, neighbors walking similar routes can meet up and walk together. The more neighbors that are walking together, the safer. This technique of "safety in numbers" has been successfully adopted by running  groups in the city of Caracas, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

Street Watchers - In this system, neighbors with street-facing windows can keep a lookout for neighbors that are passing by. The more eyes available to look out, the safer it is for vulnerable parties. In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs illustrates how “eyes on the street” are essential in creating safer neighborhoods.

Gaining Access - In this system, neighbors must first receive endorsements for completing lower-risk favors before assuming the responsibility of higher-risk favors. In other words, in order to be eligible to be a Walking Buddy or a Street Watcher, favors which involve neighbors in vulnerable situations, one must first have a good track record with completing lower-risk favors.

Connection to Law Enforcement - In this system, neighbors in vulnerable situations are empowered by being presented with a swifter and more discreet way to get in contact with law enforcement during emergencies. Through the press of a button or a one letter response to a text, neighbors at risk can share their location with local law enforcement.

Inclusivity - For this system to work and be safe, it relies on its wide-spread adoption by neighbors. Therefore the system needs to be adaptable to different technological platforms, including cellular phones and smartphones. 


Scenario III

The previous scenario showcased the following five concepts for oversight, which can be used in tandem or individually to ensure the safety of neighbors and the inclusivity of the network.

Gaining Access -  In this system, neighbors must first receive endorsements for successfully completing lower-risk favors before gaining access to higher-risk ones. 

Proctor - A Proctor is a neighbor who reviews the Agreement Terms with all involved parties and bears witness to transactions that may occur. To be a Proctor, one must be well-established in the network as well as highly endorsed.

Agreement Terms - The Agreement Terms are the specific conditions of an agreement, which must be reviewed and signed by all involved parties. Upon meeting with the neighbors involved in the interaction, the Proctor has the ability to modify the Agreement Terms to accommodate last-minute requests and send an updated version to be signed by all parties.

Milestones - The Agreement Terms may include Milestones. Milestones are specific events or tasks that must be completed to fulfill the agreement. Milestones most likely have set deadlines and are arranged by the Proctor during the first meeting. 

Reminders - Reminders are automated messages that remind users of upcoming Milestone deadlines.


Future Steps

Because many of the concepts proposed in the previous section occur offline, they should be prototyped and tested in the real world rather than presented as scenarios to subjects in a lab setting. This will allow researchers and designers facilitating the testing to understand how people realistically experience these concepts and draw meaningful conclusions that will dictate the development of future iterations. 

In order to test these concepts in a real-world context, the future steps of this project entail either building or simulating an interactive system that people can engage with in their daily lives.  Recommended steps for building and launching this interactive system are as follows:

  1. Focus on one favor type and build out an interactive, low-fi system that offers only that favor type. Select a favor type that is perceived to be low-risk. It is important to first verify that the proposed design will work for lower-risk favors, before offering higher-risk favors, which have a higher barrier to entry for most users. 
  2. Select 15 subjects who live in the same neighborhood to participate in a study. Subjects should be over the age of 18, but should range in age, class and cultural background as much as possible. Participant diversity helps ensure that the design remains as inclusive as possible.
  3. Launch the interactive system among the 15 subjects for a period of two months.
  4. Throughout the two-month period, regularly elicit your subjects’ experiences with the system by means of diary studies, benchmark interviews and focus groups.
  5. Identify the successes and flaws of the current iteration.
  6. Evaluate the bylaws created by the formed groups in order to deduce what the default level of oversight should be for the favor type under consideration.
  7. Based on insights from the two-month study, design a new iteration.
  8. Repeat this study with the updated iteration among a new group of 15 subjects. The new set of subjects will verify that the insights derived from the previous study hold true for a larger sample size.
  9. Repeat this process until there is a enough confidence to launch the system neighborood-wide. 
  10. As the system gains popularity, launch the platform city-wide and add favor offerings in the order of low-risk to high-risk.


In an article, titled, “The Future of Loneliness,” Olivia Laing posits that the surveilling environment and digital permanency characterizing the internet today inhibits users from unadulterated self-expression due to fear of judgment. This inability to self-express online, forces users to portray an idealized version of themselves, inhibiting true intimacy and therefore causing loneliness. 

More concisely, the argument asserts that social surveillance coupled with digital permanency leads to loneliness. Although a cogent argument, it should not discount the value of surveillance altogether. Although social surveillance can inhibit self-expression, according to 1960’s journalist and activist, Jane Jacobs, it also has the power to inhibit violent criminal activity from occurring in urban space. In order to create a safe environment for people to continue online interactions offline, a level of oversight needs to occur to ensure that those with criminal intentions are inhibited. That being said, any design that accommodates surveillance, should take Laing’s argument into account. It’s about striking a balance between enabling enough oversight to ensure a safe environment, but not too much that well-intentioned people are inhibited from self-expression. 

Surveillance is already starting to play a role in interactions that start online, but continue offline. “Wag” - a digital platform that connects dog-walkers with dog-owners - allows dog owners to survey the route taken by their hired dog-walkers on a digital map in real-time. Oversight is an essential quality of this design, but whether this level of oversight is appropriate for this kind of service will only be determined once the sentiments of its users and employees surface. 

Similarly, Uber has launched the “Share my ETA” feature which gives users the ability to share one’s route with friends and family for three reasons. The first, according to the Uber website, being that “your coworker will know that you’ll be at the meeting in a few.” The second being that “your friends will know how much longer they should beg the restaurant to keep your table.” The third being that “your mom won’t panic, because she’ll know that you’ve made it home alive.” 

Although all three reasons seem perfectly compelling, the last, which comes across as a comical, but morbid afterthought, was most likely Uber’s main impetus for this new feature. The recent incidents brought to light by the media, detailing the assaults committed by Uber drivers on passengers, has undoubtedly shaken Uber users worldwide. These incidents are the biggest threat to Uber’s success, because a passenger must fully trust in the Uber brand and in Uber’s drivers before even considering entering a stranger’s vehicle. Aware of these sentiments, Uber has created a way for passengers to enable trusted friends and loved ones to provide oversight during vulnerable situations, hoping to appease any lingering fears spawned by these horrific incidents.

It is important to take note that although safety was most likely the primary reason behind the “Share my ETA” feature,  it was positioned by Uber as a tertiary reason. Why would this be the case? It goes back to the idea of striking a balance between too much and too little oversight. Systems exercising too much oversight not only bring up notions of a 1984 dystopia, but also illuminate the dangerous incidents which led to the system of oversight in the first place.  By positioning safety as a primary reason for the “Share my ETA” feature, Uber would be highlighting the very real and horrific assaults that triggered its creation. Instead of confirming its users’ fears surrounding these incidents, Uber would rather continue painting a rose-colored vision of the world, where these incidents only take place in the minds of our worried parents. How nice it is to have a feature, which is mainly there to make meeting up with friends easier, but can also be used to help comfort Mom and Dad. 

Is it wrong for Uber to do this? To paint an optimistic picture of the world where bad things do indeed happen? To a certain degree, the answer comes down to subjective values and philosophy. Some people choose to live their lives more cautiously. They feel that not doing so poses risks that are not worth taking. While others feel that the disadvantages of not living one’s life freely outweigh the risks, so it’s best to be optimistic about the surrounding world. Aligned with the latter philosophy, Uber has taken a more hopeful approach to life and the sharing economy in particular. After all, Uber’s financial success relies on this optimism!

But there is a fine line between being optimistic and being deceptive. It might be ethical for a company to be optimistic, as long as it makes any potential risks known to users and creates a support system to accommodate those risks as they might occur. This is important, because although it is ultimately up to users to subscribe to a service like Uber, in order to make an informed choice that reflects their personal values and philosophy (which may either air on the side of optimism or pessimism), they must have all the information on the table. So just as cigarette companies are obligated to show the effects that smoking can have on your health with each pack, Uber should be obligated to be more upfront regarding the real-world harm that passengers may encounter using their service. They should never sell users on a false sense of safety.

Unfortunately, companies like Uber often instill in their user-base an unwarranted sense of safety.  According to a New York Times article written by Ellen Barry and Suhasini Raj in 2014 on the Delhi Uber rape case, 

Uber attracted business swiftly, in part because its marketing material focused so squarely on safety. Much of the reaction to the reported rape has had a tinge of betrayal.
— The New York Times, Barry, Raj 2014

Although Uber did implement the standard level of safety precautions that typical cab services in India implement, they did not exceed those standards in any way. Therefore, it was misleading for “safety” to be the main point of advertisement, if their safety precautions were nothing more (and possibly less) than the status quo. It was this false sense that Uber was a safer option that led many Indian women to trust in the Uber brand. Uber deceitfully gained the trust of new users by advertising their service as safer than the status quo, without offering any of the design solutions that would substantiate that claim.

The important question for companies like Uber then becomes: how can we design solutions that empower users without downplaying or sugarcoating the associated risks? 

My Capstone project is idealistic in nature. It paints a picture where neighbors of different backgrounds rely on one another for help and in doing so, bridge communities. But, as I continue designing this neighborhood network, it is important that I not air too far on the side of optimism. The core of my design relies on strangers interacting with one another, so it’s my responsibility as a designer to note the potential risks, make those risks known to my users as well as offer solutions for combating those risks. Based on my research and ideation, social oversight was the solution I crafted and proposed to combat the risks posed by offline interactions between strangers in North American communities. The next step is to find the “optimal point” on the spectrum between too little and too much oversight. In other words, the next step is to discover the level of oversight that the average user would consider adequate in addressing the associated risks.

And where does this “optimal point” lie? Of course, the answer is: “it depends.” The “optimal point” will surely vary from situation to situation and from person to person. One important criterion that will affect the positioning of the “optimal point” will be the type of services/favors under consideration.

From my research, I found that people consider high-risk favors to be ones that take place in private or isolated spaces. They often involve children, pets and personal property. For favors of this kind, my subjects often expressed the desire to have extra security measures exercised, such as rigorous background checks and personal interviews.

For high-risk favors, I hypothesize that the “optimal point” will air on the side of “substantial oversight” for most users.

In contrast, from my research, I found that people consider low-risk favors to be ones that take place in public, heavily-populated spaces. These favors do not involve vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly or pets. They also do not involve expensive personal property. These favors may include borrowing inexpensive items, exchanging skills, offering recommendations and providing information. For these favors, my subjects did not express wanting rigorous security measures.

For low-risk favors, I hypothesize that the “optimal point” will air on the side of “little oversight” for most users.

Therefore, the default oversight and security settings should depend on the risk level of the service/favor under consideration.

Another important criterion that will affect the positioning of the “optimal point” will be the culture that the neighborhood network is situated in. Social oversight can only promote safety, if the culture that it is situated in promotes safety. For instance, it can be inferred that in cultures where violence against women is prevalent, there is less social and legal pressure to protect a woman’s well-being. If the majority of users in these cultures tolerate violence against women, then enabling users to look out for one another will most likely disadvantage female users. In this case, because it is probable that users providing oversight will not intervene if they witness a female user in trouble, those intending to perpetrate attacks will therefore not be deterred.  

Unfortunately, social oversight is ineffective in safeguarding the well-being of women in regions where sexual violence is met with apathy by locals. In India, especially in the northern and eastern states, there have been many cases of sexual assault and harassment that have taken place in public, heavily-populated areas, where onlookers have been reported to stand by without intervening. These public assaults are so pervasive and accepted that there is even a euphemism for it - “Eve Teasing.” According to a National Public Radio segment which aired in 2012, “Eve Teasing” refers to a range of sexual aggressions committed in public, from lewd remarks to sexual violence. Due to the fact that female victims can’t rely on surrounding bystanders to act in their defense during or after these incidents, more and more women are applying for gun licenses so that they can defend themselves. 

So is it ethical for platforms like Uber and my Capstone project to put users at the will of strangers in areas where violence is tolerated? The quick and wide adoption of Uber by women in India illustrates a great desire for safer transport options than the ones that are currently available to them. Undoubtedly, fulfilling this need would be a noble act, because it would empower women to be independent without fearing for their safety. But companies like Uber can only deliver safe transport options, if they can adapt their current models to be sensitive to the new regional cultures in which they are situated. Only then will it be ethical for sharing economy platforms to operate in cultures dissimilar to the ones for which they were originally intended. 

Perhaps Uber is at fault for expanding too quickly. Or perhaps, the lessons that Uber learned were ones that could only be learned through trial and error. Whatever the case, Uber is currently making efforts to provide more security options to women who need them. Since the Delhi rape case, Uber has revised its design to accommodate a couple of new safety features. 

As discussed prior, one of the new features is the “Share my ETA” option, which similar to the concepts that I propose in my Capstone Project, makes use of social oversight as a safety mechanism. Yes, Uber’s new feature allows other users to provide oversight during a passenger’s journey, but those users must be hand-picked by the passenger him/herself. In other words, the users providing oversight for the passenger, are most likely a handful of people that the passenger knows well and trusts. In contrast, in the neighborhood network which I propose, social oversight is the responsibility of numerous neighbors that most likely are strangers, but have developed good reputations through receiving endorsements by members in the network. The idea here being that collaborating in large numbers on oversight will exert enough social pressure on individuals to do the right thing. In other words, my design relies on the good of the majority and the compliance of any outliers who fear being discovered. As discussed prior, this tactic might not work in places where there is less social pressure to abstain from violence. 

And why can we rely on the assertion that this type of social pressure exists in at least some regions of the United States ? In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs argues that safe neighborhoods, such as the North End of Boston circa 1960, are neighborhoods that possess bustling streets of diverse passersby. In contrast, unsafe neighborhoods, such as the Elm Hill Avenue section of Roxbury in Boston circa 1960, are neighborhoods whose streets are deserted. Jacobs concludes that crime is less likely to occur in areas where there are a substantial set of eyes available to witness it. This implies that when enough people are present, they exert an unspoken pressure on one another to abstain from violent activity. And therefore those with malevolent intentions abstain for fear of being discovered. In other words, in these neighborhoods, criminals know that there is much less of a chance that they will be able to get away with whatever they were intending. 

As a designer, it is important to understand that although the type of social oversight I am proposing may work well in some neighborhood cultures, it may backfire in others. For instance, in neighborhoods that are dominated by gang culture, the social pressure might be to engage in criminal activity, rather than to safeguard against it. Social oversight can only be a successful tactic in communities whose social mores pressure neighbors to abstain from crime and where law enforcement punishes those that transgress these social mores. 

If I were to propose my Capstone Project to take root in a community where violence is tolerated, I might have to refine the scope of social oversight, as Uber has done, to only involve users that have been designated by the user requesting the oversight. I might even consider discarding the approach of social oversight altogether in favor of more self-reliant security measures.  

Therefore in communities, where social pressure encourages rather than discourages crime, I hypothesize that users will require a higher level of oversight. That being said, the oversight should be less social in nature.

So what does it mean for oversight to be less social in nature? Instead of having members of the community looking out for other members of the community, the oversight might be limited to designated people that the user knows and trusts. In tandem with this more limited scope of social oversight, the platform might task official authorities with providing oversight. For instance, users might be provided with a more direct channel to access law enforcement in emergency situations. In locations where law enforcement is compromised, the company might consider providing its own security service to provide oversight and safeguard users. These are just some initial proposals, but more research is required on high-crime areas in order to come up with optimal solutions for residents of these neighborhoods. 

Last, but not least, a user’s personal preference for security measures and oversight is another important criterion that will dictate the positioning of the “optimal point.” Every person is different and has different levels of comfort with oversight and security measures. Ultimately it should be up to the user to adjust the default oversight and security settings to suit his or her needs. As stated in the Future Strategies section, the default oversight and security settings should take their cue from what the majority of Groups in a community are prescribing. Through analyzing a large sample size of Group Bylaws, neighborhood network administrators can draw conclusions regarding the level of oversight that the typical community member expects and desires for each favor type. 

In conclusion, there is no doubt that social oversight can be a powerful tool for ensuring that offline interactions between users remain safe and secure. But it is important that designers always consider this spectrum and continue striving to find the “optimal point.”



You can view this project's online booklet here.



The following annotated bibliography is a complete list of sources used in my thesis project. The list is ordered alphabetically.


Arvola, M., Lundberg, J., & Holmlid, S. (2010). Analysis of Precedent Designs: Competitive Analysis Meets Genre Analysis. Proceedings of the 6th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction: Extending Boundaries, 23-31. Retrieved March 1, 2015, from

In this article, Arvola, Lundberg and Holmlid discuss the importance of both Competitive Analysis as well as Genre Analysis in the design process. The authors supply a definition of Competitive Analysis that was referenced in this Capstone project and explain its importance for understanding best practices within a specific realm of design.


Associate Press in New York. (2015, February 9). Uber Introduces ‘Panic Button’ in India. The Guardian. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from

In this article, The Guardian reports on new safety features that Uber has released in India in response to the 2014 Delhi rape case. Among the new features are the “Share my ETA” feature as well as a “Panic Button.” The “Share my ETA” feature shares a passenger’s route in real-time with people that the passenger has designated. The “Panic Button” is a button within the Uber interface that a passenger can press in times of emergency that will share the passenger’s location with a local Uber security team. 


Barry, E., & Raj, S. (2014, December 8). Uber Banned in India’s Capital After Rape Accusation. The New York Times. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from

In this article, Ellen Barry and Suhasini Raj report on a range of reactions to the 2014 Uber sexual assault that occurred in New Delhi, India. In response to the case, Uber was banned in the region of Delhi. In addition, both Uber’s screening process and marketing campaign came under scrutiny following the attack. Controversy arose over whether Uber’s advertising campaign was misleading with regards to its claims about safety. 


Bates, A. (Photograph). (2011, April 12). “Conversation” [digital image]. Retrieved from

This photograph of two individuals sitting in front of a cafewas used in Concept I and Concept II in the Interview Probe.


Captures, J. (Photograph). (2010, September 29). “Ava the Vizsla Puppy” [digital image]. Retrieved from

This photograph of a puppy by a woman’s feet was used in Concept X in the Interview Probe.


Caselli, I. (2014, October 6). Running to Safety in Caracas. Citylab. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from

In this article, Irene Caselli reports on a running group in one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Caracas. The group ensures the safety of its members by encouraging as many runners to join as possible. At the time that the article was written, the group consisted of 300 members. The idea being that the more people that run together, the safer it is for each individual. This successful, real-world example is a testament to the theory of Safety in Numbers.


Casey, R. (Photograph). (2008, August 27). “Dinner Party” [digital image]. Retrieved from

This photograph of a dinner party was used in Concept I and Concept II in the Interview Probe.


Euloth, G. (Photograph). (2013, April 13). “Rainy Day Driving” [digital image]. Retrieved from

This photograph of a red car driving in the rain was used in Concept I and Concept II in the Interview Probe.


Fernandez, S. (Photograph). (2012, March 26). “Stacking Up and Defying Time” [digital image]. Retrieved from

This photograph of a stack of books was used in Concept I and Concept II in the Interview Probe.


Frishberg, L. (2006, January 1). Presumptive Design, or Cutting the Looking-Glass Cake. Interactions, 18-20.

In this article, Leo Frishberg explains the merits of Presumptive Design. In contrast to a traditional design process, where research proceeds design, Presumptive Design advocates for design to proceed design. In other words, design is another avenue for doing research. Through designing artifacts that embody our assumptions, we highlight those assumptions and in most cases quickly discover how and why those assumptions are causing our designs to fail. The idea is to fail as quickly as possible in order to arrive at a successful solution as soon as possible. This article inspired me to use a probe early on in my design process in order to externalize my assumptions and observe my subjects’ reactions to them. 


Gonzalez, M. (Photograph). (2011, February 9). “Nurse with a Patient” [digital image]. Retrieved from

This photograph of a nurse holding hands with a patient was used in Concept I and Concept II in the Interview Probe.


Goodyear, S. (2013, July 22). A New Way of Understanding ‘Eyes on the Street’ Citylab. Retrieved December 1, 2014, from

In this article, Sarah Goodyear reports on an event called Night Out for Safety and Democracy. The event, which is facilitated by an organization called Justice for Families, aims to reframe the conversation around neighborhood safety. The organization questions the goals of the Neighborhood Watch, which ask that residents be the eyes and ears of the police. Instead, Justice for Families asks that neighbors “see” each other rather than “watch” each other. Justice for Families believes that understanding and empathizing with neighbors will foster rather than divide communities, consequently creating safer neighborhoods.


IT’S ABOUT TIME! (2013, September 15). Retrieved April 1, 2015, from

In this blog post, Uber presents a new feature called, “Share my ETA.” Similar to the surveillance feature in Wag, “Share my ETA” allows users to share their route with friends and family. Uber explains that the primary purpose of this feature is to make meeting up with colleagues easier. The secondary reason is to make meeting up with friends easier. The tertiary reason is to allow tracking for safety purposes.


Jacobs, J. (1992). The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Vintage Books ed.). New York: Random House.

In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs investigates the ingredients that make for a safe neighborhood. Although lower-class neighborhoods tend to be plagued with high crime rates, Jacobs asserts that class has less to do with this phenomenon than we think. It’s the actual organization and planning of city streets that have a high impact on whether a neighborhood will be notorious for crime or not. Neighborhoods with homes set back from the street and possessing little commercial activity create isolated spaces that are less inviting to pedestrians. These kinds of spaces encourage crime, because there are less people around to bear witness. In contrast, in neighborhoods where homes abut the street and sidewalks are bustling with passers-by, less crimes are committed, because there are many more eyes on the street to witness what is transpiring.


Laing, O. (2015, April 1). The Future of Loneliness. The Guardian. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from

In her article, The Future of Loneliness, Olivia Laing discusses loneliness in the internet age. Although the internet allows people to connect with a greater quantity of people than possible in the physical world, most internet users still feel alone. This is due to the fact that people feel that they must present an idealized version of themselves online, because any sort of online expression is permanent and subject to the scrutiny of others around the world. Because people feel that they can not truly be themselves online, their relationships feel less genuine and therefore feelings of loneliness ensue. This article points out the disadvantages of online surveillance and how too much of it can lead to feelings of isolation and stratification within a community.  


Lazarevski, M. (Photograph). (2012, October 20). “Cooking in the Kitchen” [digital image]. Retrieved from

This photograph of a woman cooking a meal was used in Concept I, Concept II and Concept III in the Interview Probe.


Lee, B. (Photograph). (2012, April 16). “A Dog is the Only Thing on This Earth That Loves You More Than He Loves Himself” [digital image]. Retrieved from

This photograph of a girl petting her dog was used in Concept I, Concept II and Concept III in the Interview Probe.


McCormack, S. (2015, January 14). Another Uber Driver Accused Of Sexually Assaulting a Passenger. The Huffington Post. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from

In this article, Simon McCormack sheds light on a series of Uber-related sexual assault incidents that occurred within the United States in 2015.


McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. (2001). Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks.” Annual Review of Sociology, (27), 415-44.

In this article, sociologists McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Cook discuss the phenomenon of homophily, which is the tendency for humans to form social groups based on similarity. Race, age, religion, education, occupation and gender are the primary categories by which humans tend to group themselves. This tendency to socialize with similar people, i.e. a subset of individuals, limits the range of information and perspectives that reach individuals within a homogeneous community.


Meece, M. (2012, August 7). National Night Out: How Well Do You Know Your Neighbors? Forbes. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from

In this article, Mickey Meece reports on National Night Out, an event that encourages neighbors to get to know one another. Meece cites surveys conducted by to show that a significant number of home-owners desire to get to know their neighbors and feel safer when they do. The Association of Town Watch annually organizes National Night Out with the end-goal of creating safer, more connected neighborhoods. 


Nguyen, L. (Photograph). (2012, March 1). “Everyone Needs a Midnight Walk, Sometimes” [digital image]. Retrieved from

This photograph of two individuals walking together at night was used in Concept I and Concept II in the Interview Probe.


Ofanaye, B. (Photograph). (2014, May 3). “Curiosity” [digital image]. Retrieved from

This photograph of a mother and her toddler was used in Concept I and Concept II in the Interview Probe.


Portigal, S. (2013). More Than Just Asking Questions. In Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights (p. 56). Brooklyn, New York: Rosenfeld Media.

In this chapter of Interviewing Users, Steve Portigal discusses how to enhance the interview process through the use of additional items, such as artifacts and probes. Portigal explains that concepts presented via artifacts during interview sessions can aid in testing hypotheses relating to a research area. Therefore, even concepts thought to be undesirable can be presented, as long as they help test the hypotheses in question.


Roy, S. (2012, August 23). For Indian Women, Teasing Is No Laughing Matter. Morning Edition. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from

In this segment of Morning Edition on NPR Radio, Sandip Roy discusses the Indian custom of Eve Teasing. According to Roy, Eve Teasing is a euphemism for sexual harassment that takes place in public space. Eve Teasing can range from lewd comments to gropes to sexual attacks. These incidents occur in the public eye and often go unpunished. 


Shontell, A. (2011, December 7). My Nightmare Experience As A TaskRabbit Drone. Business Insider. Retrieved March 1, 2015, from

In this article, Alyson Shontell reveals the unpleasant situations in which TaskRabbit workers who are affectionately called “Taskers” find themselves. Although Taskers must undergo a fairly thorough vetting process to ensure the protection of users, users themselves aren’t required to go through any sort of rigorous vetting process, leaving Taskers unprotected.


Trentacoste, M. (Photograph). (2008, August 25). “My Apartment” [digital image]. Retrieved from

This photograph of an empty bedroom was used in Concept I and Concept II in the Interview Probe.


Vanhemert, K. (2013, August 26). The Best Map Ever Made of America’s Racial Segregation. Wired. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from

In this article, Kyle Vanhemert showcases the racial maps created by Dustin Cable of the University of Virginia. Using data from the 2010 U.S. Census, Cable assigns colors to U.S. residents based on race and displays each resident as a dot on the U.S. map. The result is a map composed of abutting color blocks. These visualizations are significant, because they substantiate claims regarding the existence of modern-day segregation. 


Wilhelm, A. (2015, April 5). Wag Launches Its On-Demand Dog Walking App In San Francisco. TechCrunch. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from

In this article, Alex Wilhelm describes the capabilities of “Wag,” a dog walking app that has recently expanded into San Francisco. “Wag” connects dog walkers with local dog owners, who need help with their pets. The app vets dog walkers through background checks and also allows dog owners to verify that their dogs are indeed being walked through surveying their route in real-time on a digital map. This type of online surveillance is starting to be featured in other apps that offer offline services.


Wilson, T., & Dunn, E. (2004). Self-Knowledge: Its Limits, Value, and Potential for Improvement. Annual Review of Psychology, 55.

In this article, Wilson and Dunn assert and substantiate through various studies that it is difficult for people to know their internal motivations and true feelings. This is due to the fact that we as humans are not conscious of the majority of our mental processes. This article inspired the use of a probe in my Capstone project, because a probe might elicit observable reactions that could be accurately interpreted, whereas a traditional interview might rely solely on a subject’s tenuous ability to introspect. 


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