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Lifting Californians’ voices in toxic substance cleanup project decisions

A woman moderating a community meeting. Community members are raising their hands to share their thoughts.

We found new ways to help people be aware of and take part in decisions that affect their communities.

Project scope

  • Timeline: 8 months
  • Team: 2 UX designers, 1 user researcher, 1 engineer, 1 content designer, 1 data analyst
  • Reach: 29,000 Californians living near toxic substance cleanup sites



  • User experience research
  • Data analytics
  • Usability testing
  • Journey mapping
  • User experience design
  • Content design
  • Digital performance
  • Mobile optimization
  • Social media outreach
  • Desk research


The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) oversees toxic substance cleanup projects throughout California. They asked the Office of Data and Innovation (ODI) to help increase public participation in making decisions. They were especially interested in better engaging communities who have historically not been part of decision-making.

633% increase in public comments
Most public comments were made on a mobile device (81%) and in Spanish (68%)
28,847 Californians reached through social media


ODI collaborated with DTSC on 3 pilots.

Redesigned Community Update

Our visual redesign made it easier to find information about cleanup sites. Plain language and content design reduced the reading level. This made it easier to understand the cleanup details.

Mobile-first design and engineering

Mobile phone ownership is high in environmental justice communities. We prioritized the mobile experience throughout our work. We created a prototype project webpage that loads fast on mobile devices. We put a QR code on the Community Update to connect readers to the webpage. This made it easier to comment.

Social media awareness

We promoted the cleanup projects through Facebook sponsored posts to reach more people. We tested different types of ads and campaigns to see what worked best.


We created prototypes of the Community Update and project webpages to explore ways we could make it easier for people to leave comments. We validated these prototypes through usability testing and pilots.

Spotlight: prototype project webpage

Our prototype webpage met Californians where they are: mobile devices. We designed it to run fast, even on older devices. It loads twice as fast as other DTSC webpages. Our web-based form gave people a new, easier way to make a public comment.


The mobile version of the San Benito High School public comment prototype page. It has a zoomable map of the project site, a description of the proposed cleanup, and a button to submit a comment.     


The desktop version of the San Benito High School public comment prototype page. It has a zoomable map of the project site, a description of the proposed cleanup, details about how to comment on the plan, links to more information about the cleanup, and a comment form.

I appreciate this. I do find this form of communication clear and valuable.

—Californian after seeing the prototype webpage


Our research found Californians faced 3 major barriers to commenting on projects.

Limited public comment opportunities

DTSC sends residents and businesses near cleanup sites a mailer called a Community Update. They must fill out a paper form to comment. Sometimes DTSC holds public meetings where people can comment. People have to put time and work into making a comment.

Hard-to-understand information

User research found Community Updates were hard for Californians to understand. They were often written at an 11th or 12th grade reading level. A busy visual design made it hard for people to find how they could be part of decision-making.

Narrowly-defined communities of interest

Community Updates are usually mailed to addresses ¼-mile around a cleanup site. This excludes people who work or attend school near a site.


We more than quadrupled the average rate of public comment with this pilot. 81% were made on a mobile device. 68% were in Spanish, even though past projects rarely got non-English comments. This proved we engaged new Californians in public comment. We reached 28,847 Californians through social media who may not have otherwise known about cleanup projects near them.

Data and Innovation Fund

This project was part of the Data and Innovation Fund (DIF), one way the Office of Data and Innovation (ODI) helps improve state services for all Californians. ODI works in partnership with the California Department of Technology (CDT), which improves state technology infrastructure through its Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) and Technology Stabilization Service (TSF). Together, these three funds ensure California state departments innovate by applying human-centered design, data, and IT investments to yield quick and meaningful results.

Email to learn more about this project.