Somerville Will Measure Residents’ Happiness With a Mobile App

Using GPS-technology, and a questionnaire on a smartphone app, they will figure out how to help improve lives.


Smartphone photo via

Two years ago, Somerville made national headlines for sending out a survey asking residents to divulge to city officials just how happy they were about living in the area, and what would make it better.

Called the “Report on Wellbeing,” Somerville became the first in the nation to try and enhance the happiness of the general public through a questionnaire specifically examining their attitude toward their living environment.

Now, in keeping with the technological times, Somerville is rolling out a mobile app to try and tap into the minds of residents, and truly find out how they can keep smiles on their faces.

Through Mayor Joe Curtatone’s SomerStat office, and a partnership with the H(app)athon Project, whose primary goal is to measures what brings people “meaning in their life,” Somerville will again attempt to bring cheer to residents by asking a series of questions on the app, and then analyze that data to provide access to self-improvement resources. “It’s an ambitious idea, but I know that the data will help us run the city as much as it will help residents find resources that they might not know about otherwise,” Curtatone said in a statement on the SomerStat website.

According to city officials:

The H(app)athon Project aims to develop mobile technology that combines answers to survey questions with results from physiological sensors. These combined results will then yield a happiness score, which can help users understand what brings them wellbeing and find critical resources.

John Havens, founder of the H(app)athon Project, said those physiological sensors include utilizing GPS technology, or “passive data,” to help find the connection between how people answer the survey questions and where they are when answering them. “It will say things like ‘where are you now, and how do you feel?’ The logic is to get a quick snapshot of the things that bring you meaning, and also your actions,” he said. “So you could say, over the course of two weeks, someone might answer questions while at the office, and maybe certain questions about happiness were lower.”

Using active and passive data, that would indicate needs for improvement in that area of a person’s life, according to Havens. “We are trying to encourage people to feel better about the skills they have, and literally increase happiness, and do it by connecting them to actions [that bring them that happiness],” Havens said.

The pilot project is set to launch in the fall. Havens said it will likely save Somerville some money because they won’t need to mail out a paper survey this time around. The app is currently still in development, but the goal is to have the Somerville City Hall staff test the app in the next few months, he said.

When Somerville conducted its first happiness survey in 2011, they received nearly 7,000 responses and found that residents were generally satisfied with  local government. The survey also compiled a list of suggestions from residents on what the city could do to improve. “We consider this survey a success in that the data have already pointed us toward new policies and important policy considerations for the future,” officials wrote after releasing the results of the survey.

As for the new project, SomerStat Director Daniel Hadley said these methods help officials uncover important links between residents’ happiness and how they shape policy. He said by teaming up with H(app)athon, the city can push that analysis further, adding geographic and environmental data to the mix. “I am imagining we will get the data, and as people are responding—for example if they are in Davis Square—we can say ‘that’s where they are happiest.’ You can imagine this nuanced surveying where you can actually see that one neighborhood is happier than another neighborhood and we can really dig down to find out why that is,” he said, calling it big data at its best.

Hadley believes Somerville is the first city to use smartphone technology like this to gauge how constituents are feeling.