Little Brother is Watching

Picture_5.pngA sample case from SeeClickFix's San Francisco database
The next generation of community-driven reporting of quality-of-life issues--like potholes, graffiti, garbage buildup, or broken street lights--is SeeClickFix, a mapping software that enables users to populate a map with cases that are then forwarded to the responsible city agency. Much like a 311 system, SeeClickFix's software is predicated on the assumption that an aware and engaged public that uses technology can get the city that represents it to efficiently resolve its problems.

Unlike most 311 systems, the visual mapping function enables users to see all existing complaints about a particular problem or to add their voice to an existing case, thus promoting it to a more urgent position in the queue.  Users can create "watch areas" and receive notices when other users identify a problem within it.  Each case generates an email that is sent to the appropriate agency responsible for fixing it.

According to SeeClickFix founder Ben Berkowitz, who is based in New Haven, Connecticut, SeeClickFix got its first trial run last year when New Haven's mayor, John DeStefano Jr., was looking for a way to better respond to public quality-of-life complaints and to reduce duplication of efforts within agencies.  DeStefano Jr. required the city to respond to cases that had been generated by the public on SeeClickFix and report the status of the cases online. 

The system was so successful that the city now uses SeeClickFix as a proxy 311, with agencies such as the DOT, DPW, and police department using it for non-emergency issues.   Mayor DeStefano Jr. was so happy with the service, he sent a letter to more that 100 other mayors, encouraging them to give to try it.

Berkowitz said the system has now expanded beyond the local government to utility companies and non-profits.  He said they have seen numerous cases of good samaritans responding to complaints without prompting, such as one carpenter who fixed several park benches he located on the site. 

"That's the beauty of open source," said Berkowitz.  "At first, we thought of calling it Little Brother, like 'Little Brother is Watching,' but then we realized we needed to be a bit more kind to government."

Berkowitz explained they often coordinate with newspapers, such as those in Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, to promote the software to the public, then advocate with the city to try responding to cases and noting the progress online.  When the Philadelphia Inquirer added the SeeClickFix widget to their site, Philadelphia 311 soon started responding online to cases that were generated.

In San Francisco,  Phil Bronstein, the Editor-at-Large of Hearst Newspapers Division, is a big fan of SeeClickFix and is planning to use the mapping widget on SFGate.com.  Kevin Skaggs, Executive Producer of SFGate.com, said that they have been preparing a collaboration with SeeClickFix since Bronstein blogged about them last year and will use the widget in a few months when they roll out their hyper local Chronicle sites, much like the New York Times' local blogs.

"SeeClickFix gives the Chronicle a way to bring ChronWatch online," said Skaggs.  "SeeClickFix adds another way for the community to get involved in local media outlets."

Whether or not the increase in use that will likely be generated by the Chronicle will lead to improvements in the city's responsiveness to community complaints is uncertain.

San Francisco 311 Deputy Director Andrew Maimoni said a mapping tool is a goal for the next release of 311, but that the software wasn't ready when they debuted their system.

"We do have a desire to let constituents report what’s going on and what might be wrong," he said.  "With 311, people can do what any of those widgets do; we’re not limiting the public on any of the issues.  Though one of the benefits of SeeClickFix is that users can see the problem and can add their energy to it."

Both SeeClickFix and 311 told Streetsblog San Francisco they communicated about the software last year, but didn't come to an agreement on how it could be integrated into San Francisco 311.  Maimoni said right now increased use of SeeClickFix wouldn't translate into action because SeeClickFix won't be coordinated with their internal work flow and won't improve efficiency.

A spokesperson for the Department of Public Works, the agency that would get a huge chunk of the complaints, said the agency has spent time and energy synchronizing with 311 and that 3rd party software at this point wouldn't improve their ability to respond to the public.

Asked when 311 might incorporate SeeClickFix or their own proprietary system, Maimoni said it all depends on the budget, and argued that with huge cuts to health care and education, a budget request for mapping software would not land high on the priority list.