I was intrigued by the post “Letting Off Some Steam,” and would like to take a shot at answering the question, “What other infrastructures do you think are ripe for public involvement?”
My observations are based on real use of smart phone, mobile web and web reporting on SeeClickFix – a free web tool that I co-founded – that allows anyone to report non-emergency issues to those responsible for public space, including government agencies, public utilities, property owners. SeeClickFix provides a platform for communities to report and have constructive conversations around the issues that they feel will improve their community.
The basic municipal infrastructure that benefits from increased citizen-reporting includes potholes, littering, streetlight repair, clogged catch basins and dead trees. Deputizing citizens as city inspectors cuts the costs of paid city inspectors as well as the liability for municipalities: more thorough reporting by more eyes on the street. That’s the basics of 311 call centers and one of the ways SeeClickFix is connecting citizens to governments via its free reporting tools.
In addition to identifying infrastructure and public space issues, SeeClickFix enables public reporting related to crimes-in-progress and specific property complaints as well as broader urban planning priorities. Below are some of the other ways SeeClickFix is being used.
Police Departments can benefit from increased reporting. On SeeClickFix, prostitution, drug dealing and speeding hotspots are all crime-in-progress types of issues that get reported. The benefit of allowing crowds to report anonymously on things they might not be comfortable putting their face behind has led to increased drug and prostitution arrests. In regards to speeding, the police have picked hotspots based on SeeClickFix reports and have been able to untangle the non-emergency phone line where there is little they can do at the time of incident. Neighbors can also document crimes like muggings and car break-ins after they are reported to police through traditional means to show how the neighborhood needs greater enforcement. This might lead to neighbors forming a block watch and greater awareness around public safety.
In regards to private property, neighbors weigh-in on what type of business they might want in the neighborhood such as grocery store or, in the case of New Haven, an Apple Store. Neighbors might also use the tool to demonstrate a blighted property to officials or to their other neighbors in an attempt to shame them publicly into improving the property. Halted developments that have lost financing during construction show up on the site frequently as well. Making private developers know that the neighborhood is watching while simultaneously alerting officials can be a powerful double punch.
Infrastructure and Transit
In regards to cycling and pedestrian improvements, faded crosswalks, dangerous intersections with no pedestrian lights and poor bike infrastructure all make the map. Citizens have used the tool to lobby for bike lanes and pedestrian in-road signs as well as new crosswalks. In some cases, citizens have offered to help pay for these services.
Utility Companies can use the tool to monitor their sub-contractors road work when replacing in road lines or their equipment such as the infamous AT&T V-Rad boxes which not so gracefully adorn telephone poles all over the country. AT&T monitors their boxes via SeeClickFix in New Haven.
In regards to transportation, we have seen public busing, trains, subways, school busing and private busing companies benefit from reports that range from unsafe operation to necessary infrastructure repairs. Neighbors have slowed University shuttle speeds as well as school bus speeds using video cameras to document speeding at Speed Signs.
Environment and Public Space
In Philadelphia and Prince George, British Columbia, the Clean Air councils have used SeeClickFix to encourage reporting of idling vehicles and have used those reports to force the ceasing of the practice by the companies who operators are violating city ordinance.
Urban and community planners can not only report the need for public and private space improvements but also use public reporting tools to collaborate on design solutions for the public space. On SeeClickFix, we have seen conversations about beautifying highway underpasses as well as design solutions for public land and new and improved streets.
Parks are great places for geo-located smart phone reporting when street addresses are not available for locating an issue. Parks Departments, Parks Groups and caring residents have responded to broken playgrounds, un-mowed grass, broken benches, abandoned garbage and lack of lighting to name a few.
University and other large-scale employers can use crowd reporting to keep tabs on their infrastructure and the physical needs of students and employees.
Elected officials at the State level may benefit the most from a municipal-level reporting system: they can receive alerts on issues for which they may have previously had trouble getting a pulse.
We kept the tool open to reporting of any type of non-emergency issues as we could never predict all the things that would need fixing in your community. These are some of things that have been reported so far. If New Yorkers started reporting, I’
m sure new uses would be found for the tool.
Tools meant to improve governance should embrace participation in solving problems as well as reporting. SeeClickFix is about empowering community and de-institutionalizing governance of the public space. With that in mind, we made sure that anyone could assume responsibility and receive alerts.
So whom do you think should sign-up to start watching New York?
Here are my thoughts: City Council, 311, neighborhood groups, Con Edison, the water and gas companies, parks groups, block watches, CUNY, NYU, Columbia and other universities, police lieutenants and the concerned citizen. Http://www.seeclickfix.com/government is the URL, but anybody can sign up to help maintain.
SeeClickFix is business conscious as well socially conscious. Here’s our pitch to Con Edison: steam is definitely an emergency problem and any reporting to Con Edison should be endorsed by Con Edison with a promise to monitor the reports. If Con Edison wants mobile web reporting and iPhone and other Smart Phone reporting we can enable customized SeeClickFix reporting within a month and for very little cost to the utility. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if interested.
As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.
Ben Berkowitz is Co-Founder and CEO of SeeClickFix.com, a free web tool that allows communities to report non-emergency issues to those responsible for the public space. In his volunteer life, he currently serves as President of the Upper State Street Association, a neighborhood and business group which he founded in 2007, in New Haven, CT. He has been a leader in the drive towards local government transparency as well a pusher of greater citizen participation in hyper-local news.