Man checks smart phone

Web app tracks prison probationers

The New York City Department of Probation is pioneering a new goal-tracking Web app aimed at reducing recidivism and encouraging positive behavior among those on probation within their communities.

The app - called MyNeON - was launched in January as part of DOP’s 2½-year-old Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON) program. With the customizable and reward-based MyNeON app, probationers track and earn points for certain positive activities that community leaders have designated. The goal-tracking app is being piloted in three sites so far with plans to expand to other locations.

“I’m not aware of another criminal justice agency that is doing something like this,” said Catrina Prioleau, citywide director of the NeON program.

She said the app presents a new way for the probation department to work with their clients, who typically commit technical violations, such as missing appointments with their parole officers or failing drug tests.

Besides encouraging client participation in community activities, the app also generates useful data that can help policy makers better understand how services are performing.  MyNeON not only captures information about events taking place in each neighborhood but also records how many individuals earned points for attending.

Lara Mossler, a strategist with the digital branding and design agency Bureau Blank that helped create the app, said clients can log-in to their accounts by typing in a URL through a browser on their smartphones or computers available at NeON offices.

The app displays a personalized listing of community events or goals, including job training classes, mentoring programs, education and literacy courses or volunteer opportunities. When probation clients click on a particular event the app provides details including location, contact person, phone number and point value.

Previously, community organizations typically advertised such events through paper fliers, Mossler said. The app streamlines the workflow and allows clients to immediately see neighborhood opportunities relevant to their needs. When they go to an event, the event organizer can also sign off on a client’s participation.

While probation officers and others can review and track a probation client’s NeON activities, attendance and progress, Prioleau said the app is meant to be an empowering experience for the client because they self-report.

“We definitely want to create an environment where the client becomes independent and self-motivated,” Prioleau said. So when a client is released from probation, he or she knows where to go to get the services and resources that they need in their communities, she added.

Prioleau also said the app is building buy-in from the community. It enables stakeholders to provide information about new events as well as give feedback about the NeON program. Additionally, she said the DOP could send direct messages to clients about possible job openings and other information.

Bureau Blank’s Mossler said the app is built on Laravel 4, an open-source PHP web development framework, but isn’t tied into the DOP’s backend systems. The main challenge in developing the app was to make sure it worked for both mobile devices and desktop computers, she added.

Although Bureau Blank is no longer involved in the program, Mossler said the app can be broadened and developed in several ways.

For example, adding a dashboard feature could help clients view their progress, while a leaderboard feature would show where they rank anonymously among other clients in the program, she said. With a GPS feature, clients could see meaningful activities within a particular location. The app could also provide DOP with data about attendance at events within different programs, such as literacy or healthy food access, or the number of offerings in one area versus another. This could allow the agency or community organizations to make adjustments, she suggested.

Down the road, Mossler said the MyNeON app could serve as a “currency of accountability” for clients when they look for employment, for instance. “It shows you’re a standup person who has … built this track record of positive behavior,” she said.

Since the NeON program opened its first office in December 2011, there’s been a 45-percent reduction in the probation violation rate in the city, according to DOP statistics. Overall, DOP’s violation rate is 3 percent annually compared with 11 percent in the rest of the state. And the early discharge rate from being on probation has risen from 3 percent to 17 percent. In January, the program was given a national award for excellence by the non-profit American Probation and Parole Association.

About the Author

Dibya Sarkar is a freelance technology writer based in Orlando, Fla.

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