Designing for Social Justice: Tenants in Action

In response to our CFR on the digital divide, a group from USC proposed a cluster on how to design for social justice. We have been happy to include this special project into our survey as a response to the meta issues raised by our initial survey.

Tenants in Action (TIA) is a practice-based design research project that aims to generate new design knowledge through the creation of exemplary media objects. The first TIA object, a smartphone application, was designed to improve communication between residents and city agencies in South Los Angeles. Preliminary research revealed several serious problems with the current web-based communication framework:

  1. unreliable technology and poorly maintained code;
  2. dense technical language written only in English;
  3. inaccessible without a personal computer and web browser.

In response, a research agenda was developed to further investigate these problems through community-driven design methods. These methods sought to facilitate the development of shareable, testable knowledge about improving civic communication frameworks, through the creation of the TIA Mobile App.

The Tenants in Action web-based mobile app ( is designed to facilitate communication between tenants and regulatory agencies in South Los Angeles. Residents can access the TIA App in English or Spanish through their smartphones or desktop computers. Users of the app are first presented with a checklist of broad, potentially overlapping categories. This allows residents to quickly outline problems without immediately committing to concrete technical descriptions. The app then generates a list of more specific complaints, based on the user’s chosen categories, which are written to reflect options found on the websites of government agencies, such as the Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD). Here, TIA assists users in narrowing the focus of their complaints into the specific language used by city submission forms. Users can review and supplement this language prior to submission, and agencies like the LAHD can receive app-generated submissions in the same format and language they would from their own websites. In this way, the TIA App can potentially function as a bridge between broad community problems and specific government actions.

The process of developing the TIA App has suggested that user experience can be improved without the expensive and tedious process of changing a city website or altering bureaucratic processes. Essentially nothing changes for the city government workers responding to complaints lodged through the app; private data isn’t exposed, and civil servants still receive the same information from citizens, in the same format. Benefits for the user, on the other hand, are considerable. The app privileges the language of citizens in a user-centered process, and increases flexibility to reflect broad variations in usage patterns among different citizen groups. In these and other ways, TIA has tried to respond to residents' need for an accessible, reliable, and mobile alternative to supplement their existing communication options.

Development of the Tenants in Action Mobile App has been driven by practice-based research, so it can perhaps also serve as a model for further research and development. Future projects might attempt to answer the following questions: Can a media object developed by and with residents be adopted by a governmental agency? How do we assess how such an object is used by residents, and how well does it suit their needs? And finally, how can this inform the development of other media projects, both by residents and by agencies? Designers and citizens in other cities can do much to forward design knowledge, by continuing to develop and build upon practice-based research agendas to facilitate civic communication.


A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz, USC Media Arts & Practice PhD Student (TIA Project Manager)

Jyotswaroop Bawa, SAJE Associate Director (TIA Co-director)

Craig Dietrich, USC Asst. Professor of Cinema Practice (TIA Co-director & Programmer)

Chris Rowe, USC Cinematic Arts BA (TIA Video Coordinator Emeritus 2011-2012)

Maya Abood, SAJE Grassroots Media Coordinator (TIA Co-director Emeritus 2011-2012)


(Portions and previous versions of this text have appeared in the International Journal of Learning and Media, and have been presented at the Participation/Exploitation Conference at UCLA, the GSG Research Symposium at USC, and at ARTivism: Art for a Cause. Images courtesy of Craig Dietrich.)

Image on front page by Mike_s_etc and avaliable on flickr


I applaud the significant amount of effort that you and your team have put in to ensure that the app works with the language that the government already uses to address these concerns while also considering the end users' experiences. I wonder if you could talk more about the development cycle of this app and what the biggest challenges in its development were?

Thanks Matthew! In short, the development process began in Fall 2011, as Prof. Craig Dietrich and I talked with community members and the great people at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy about how we might all collaborate. The need for the TIA app became clear in these conversations, and design and development began in Spring 2012. The app is currently undergoing community-driven usability testing. Designing and developing the TIA app has been an incredible experience, and it's been an honor to work with the SAJE community. 

In my opinion, the biggest challenges in the development process have stemmed from the practical difficulties involved in opening new lines of communication between people and agencies. These kinds of things take time, and require lots of work from folks who are already overworked as it is. Hopefully, the app can serve as a useful model for future community-driven design projects, and help other people face similar kinds of challenges.

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