Citizens as public sensors

The co-founder of SeeClickFix on how crowdsourcing can help local government

scf_logo_fp.gifWhen people talk about the effects of Gov 2.0, the discussion tends to center around transparency and making data available to the general public. But information can flow in both directions.

SeeClickFix believes that the citizens may have as much to offer local government as the government may have to offer to the people. By letting the man (literally) on the street report issues to local city or town departments, and making them trackable, it shifts some of the management burden to the people most affected by them. Ben Berkowitz, one of the co-founders, talked to us about how the program is working.

How SeeClickFix came to be:

Ben Berkowitz: It started a little over two years ago when I was dealing with graffiti on my neighbor’s building. After deciding that it was hopeless dealing with my neighbor, I went to call city hall. I left something like five different messages with the department that I presumed was responsible. At some point, while waiting on hold and getting different answers about what I could do, I started thinking: “I bet a lot of my neighbors have complained about similar issues and have had a lot of trouble, and it would be nice to know what their experiences were when attempting to contact city hall.”

So we sat down on a Sunday night and said, “We’re going to give ourselves four hours to try to come up with something.” And at the end of four hours if we’re happy and we like the tool, we would keep working on it. If not, we’d can it. At the end of four hours, we had a little Google Map where you could post issues on the map and that was it. We showed it off to friends. They thought it was cool. And the rest is kind of history.

How cities respond to SeeClickFix:

BB: The first city was New Haven, Conn., and the mayor and the chief administrative officer were both very receptive. So receptive that the mayor wrote a letter to about 100 other mayors around the country. The majority of responses since have been really positive. You get a few where they’ll say, “Oh, but we already have a website where people can report issues.” And, of course, our response is, “Yes, you do. But that website does not display issues publicly when you post them.”

We have a ton of features that exceed standard city websites, and that helps move the ball forward in terms of acceptance of public, transparent, collective reporting. But in the beginning, really the only one-up we had on a city website was that we were a map-based transparent web reporting tool, and they were usually just a closed web form that was no better than leaving a phone call. You still had the same black box syndrome.

The threatening nature of transparency:

BB: I don’t think I’ve ever had a public works official say to me, “We don’t want this because it’s going to make the information public.” No one wants to be on record saying that. So what we do is, we don’t really give them a choice.

The information is going to be public whether city governments receive alerts or not. And then we sign them up to receive alerts, if they don’t sign themselves up. Many, many city governments have signed themselves up. But many others have been signed up by us or by a media partner or by one of their constituents.

When a problem is “fixed”:

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010BB: We say a problem is fixed when it’s actually fixed, not when someone says, “We’re going to fix it.” The way you know is because either the person who posted the issue closes the ticket and the status changes to closed, or the person who sees it fixed or actually fixes it closes the ticket.

Anyone can close it. The citizens all get emails. The initial reporters get emails when an issue is closed, and if they want to reopen it, they click the link. We did have someone in Winnipeg, Canada closing unfixed tickets. It’s the only time it’s happened. My impression is that it was the city employee that was doing it, and they were being pretty hostile about it. But citizens instantly said that the ticket’s not closed. We helped to reopen some, and the citizens reopened some themselves.

How SeeClickFix has made a difference:

BB: We have thousands of potholes fixed across the country, thousands of pieces of graffiti repaired, streetlights turned on, catch basins cleared, all of that basic, broken-windows kind of stuff. We’ve seen neighborhood groups form based around issues reported on the site. We’ve seen people get new streetlights for their neighborhood, pedestrian improvements in many different cities, and all-terrain vehicles taken off of city streets. We’ve seen university shuttle buses slow down their speeds by 15 miles per hour across the board. We’ve seen people report and be informed about water quality from their reservoirs.

There was also one case of an arrest. The New Haven Police Department attributed initial reports on SeeClickFix to a sting operation that led to an arrest of two drug dealers selling heroin in front of a grammar school.

The benefits of SeeClickFix for local government:

BB: One benefit is taking out middlemen in city hall and sending issues directly from a citizen to the person who fixes the pothole. It empowers citizens to be sensors in the public space, as opposed to having to pay public works inspectors or city engineers to do that kind of infrastructure review. Then, it actually allows city workers to use the mobile tools to track down the issues in the field. These are all things that have budget or cost-savings ramifications, as opposed to just political ramifications.

The SeeClickFix revenue model:

BB: A piece of our revenue model is in sponsorship and advertising. A piece of our revenue model is software as a service, whereby we’re selling the customization of our application as well as custom iPhone, Android and Blackberry applications. We call that SeeClickFix Plus. Cities as small as Maynard, Texas are using that for as little as $100 a month. Cities as big as Tucson, Ariz. are using that as well.

We also have SeeClickFix Pro, which is a dashboard with user licenses for tracking and acknowledging the issues and backing them up in Excel format. We are also signing on a few cities for SeeClickFix Connect, which is probably the most exciting piece because it ties all of SeeClickFix’s reporting tools into a city government’s existing work order system.

All of those revenue models are playing out in some form. Small, but in some form. Now we just have to decide which levers we’re going to pull and how hard we’re going to pull and when we’re going to pull them.

How to get your town involved in SeeClickFix:

BB: We have grown really quickly because we empower local blogs and news sites to embed SeeClickFix in their websites so citizens can report issues to city government right from the sites they read everyday. We’d encourage people to get their newspapers to embed the tool, or to get their local blogger or neighborhood association to embed the tool.

After that, make sure someone is receiving an alert. If you go to your neighborhood or city, you can click the “Who’s Watching” tab and you can see if your mayor or your public works department is already receiving alerts. And if not, you can sign them up. The last step is just reporting issues.

Note: This interview was condensed and edited.

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  • Mark A.

    It all seems like a great idea, until you realize that there are substantial “data quality” issues related to people as sensors. The sensor readings are innately corruptable and thus require secondary validation. One can easily envision repair service providers manipulating this data to their economic advantage.

  • lewisshepherd

    Great summary and obviously proving to be a solid model – with the caveat that Mark A. in previous comment makes. I discussed several of these data-quality / citizen-sensor issues, and some government budget implications, in my panel discussion at Gov 2.0 LA a couple of months ago: http://bit.ly/aEaykC

  • John Atkeison

    The key to data quality is relying on the community rather than on the individual, isn’t it?

  • Frank Ch. Eigler

    John A, what does “relying on the community rather than on the individual” mean exactly?

  • Citizen Sensor

    We went from serfs to slaves to citizens to consumers and now you want us to be “sensors”?

    Is our only value, to this grand network centric system that you want to build, as a system node, to provide feedback and execute control based upon some social engineer’s idea of the “perfect” society?

    Is there no one thinking through the ramifications of these social systems that everyone is charging ahead with? Where have all the adults gone?

  • Eric LAITAT

    These are all great ideas and concepts! Allow me asking simple/simplistic questions. Do we have to consider that real problems are not identified by leaders?, Where are the leaders?, Are they leading? What are they leading?
    Come on! Did you ever try asking regular citizens on the ‘best’ place for a trafic light or a bus stop for your kids going to school? :-)

    Even the EU Commissionaire on Agriculture launched a public consultation for the future reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe (e.g. http://www.euractiv.fr/node/65671). WEB site launched today. Great and popular initiative. Agriculture matters for everyone. I like ideas, and prefer relevant ideas that matters, as these matters are so complex.

    Please keep simple basic concepts in mind: idea, opinion, expertise and decision!

    All the best to all of you

  • James Baugh

    I work for a US city and while I think the idea of SeeClickFix is good, the current implementation has actually caused a headache for me. The problem is that the way that SeeClickFix works is by emailing a contact person for the city. In my case this was the Mayor (who is not responsible for fixing these issues). This is the wrong approach. My city instead has a Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) tool that routes problems like graffiti, potholes, and other issues to the appropriate people/departments. What would be more helpful is for SeeClickFix to provide an API that we could tie to our existing CRM rather than trying to get issues fixed by sending hundreds of emails to the Mayor.

  • Justin Garofoli

    This only seems a bit related, but I’ve been working on a twitter data mining tool that looks for recently posted weather words near where I am. I guess it’s for up to the minute weather data. My biggest interest in in thunderstorms, a weather phenomenon that I really enjoy, so I want as much warning as I can get. It totally matches the article title, citizens as public sensors.

  • Brendan Piper

    James,

    My company CitySourced has similar offerings with a free API to plug into CRM’s or we can do a paid integration. CitySourced.com feel free to check it out.

  • Ben Berkowitz

    Hi James,

    SeeClickFix connect is the piece that you are looking for. Email us if there is interest: team@seeclickfix.com

    Obviously if you have a Constituent Services division you should destroy the Mayor’s watch area if he does not want it and sign-up that group to receive alerts. We do not claim that the free solution in its first communications with government is perfectly tailored to your needs but it can be adapted to your current set-up with ease.

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Ben

  • Tim

    Sounds like http://www.fixmystreet.com which has been running in the UK for a while now, and working quite well, all for free.

  • Patrick Asher

    Sounds like CitySourced which runs on mobile devices for free.

  • china_white

    We have transformed into a society of snitches and informants.

  • Citizen Sensor

    Does anyone here know where the thinking came from for cybernetic social systems? Does anyone here understand Control Theory, and how feedback-control systems operate, and how sensors can not only provide system input but can also become controlled by said system and subservient to it?

    It seems quite odd that so many are so quick to jump on the bandwagon of a theory of social structure without asking basic questions about its foundations and its intended beneficiaries.

    Start asking yourself some basic questions about what you are doing and where you are headed with these major shifts in institutional and social structures.

  • Ben Berkowitz

    Hi Patrick,
    SeeClickFix is available as a free Blackberry, Android and iPhone app as well as a mobile website.

    http://www.seeclickfix.com/apps

  • Steve Ardire

    You should check out Citizen DAN Community Indicators System http://citizen-dan.org/details.html

    The general idea…

    Step 1) publish data in open, machine-readable forms

    Step 2) aggregate & map various forms of open datasets (web, streams,enterprise) into useful open semantic frameworks

    Step 3) bring more citizen engagement into the process, to invite the public into a dialog about and contribute to the data to in order to shape policy.

    Cheers…Steve

  • Ryan Hayle

    It’s a trap! Don’t trust this, it is a FOR-PROFIT company, and should have *nothing* to do with government. If we can get local governments to devote some funds to develop an open source version of this application and fund a public server, I think it would be wonderful. But there’s no way in hell we can condone these people trying to make money off of government services like this! I do hope more government organizations will see this as an effective method for future development.

  • Citizen Sensor

    “Control theory stresses how weak bonds between the individuals and society free people to deviate or go against the norms”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Control_theory_%28sociology%29

    So, who is going to define the “norms” of these control-feedback systems that SeeClickFix and others are developing and deploying? And how strong will these bonds be to these norms?

    In short, how is a tightly bonded network society commensurate with a society founded upon the principles of individual liberty? Has anyone asked and answered this critically important question? Or, is this question just to be mocked in the face of a technocracy that is too busy developing “cool” applications?

    Tim O’Reilly is the face of this push toward a global operating system in Silicon Valley, where humanity is a plug-in providing input the the feedback control system and executing on its command via psychologically designed gaming encentives. Where is Tim on the ethics of this future?

  • John Hawbaker

    I’m an editor of a community news site, and we use SeeClickFix on our hyperlocal neighborhood blogs. It’s a great tool for getting citizens more engaged in their neighborhoods.

    Today, one of our neighborhood bloggers wrote a story on his experiences with city services through SeeClickFix: http://chattarati.com/neighborhoods/highland-park/2010/4/12/see-click-fixed-or-311-20/

  • Ed Rink

    @Citizen Sensor

    SeeClickFix is about fixing potholes, not enforcing social norms. It’s not any more sinister than a neighborhood watch.

  • Bryce

    @Ed Rink

    That’s what THEY want you to think!

    Er, you know. THEM?

  • Citizen Sensor

    @Ed Rink: Networked based (feedback control) systems, of the type that is being implemented here, come from Networked based warfare fighting strategies developed by Pentagon think tanks and implemented by Rumsfeld via Force Transformation. One of the major goal of networked systems of this type is greater command and control (C2). These are not systems that are commensurate with the spirit and values of a society that honors individual freedom and liberty. These are inherently dictatorial systems, and the controller of the algorithms that govern network behavior is the one who controls the system and those operating within it. While harmless on its surface, this network centric approach is designed to ultimately centralize control and decision making. Should we not think this one all the way through before starting down this road, even though it seems beneficial at first sight?

  • Citizen Sensor

    @Ed Rink: Networked based (feedback control) systems, of the type that is being implemented here, come from Networked based warfare fighting strategies developed by Pentagon think tanks and implemented by Rumsfeld via Force Transformation. One of the major goal of networked systems of this type is greater command and control (C2). These are not systems that are commensurate with the spirit and values of a society that honors individual freedom and liberty. These are inherently dictatorial systems, and the controller of the algorithms that govern network behavior is the one who controls the system and those operating within it. While harmless on its surface, this network centric approach is designed to ultimately centralize control and decision making. Should we not think this one all the way through before starting down this road, even though it seems beneficial at first sight?

  • Global BeeHive

    Citizen Sensors who are the first to report road pot holes (within Approved Daily Travel Routes) to Governmental Delegates, via the SeeClickFix.com service, receive 750 credits during the month of May. These credits are for travel to Zone-A vacations areas, and expire by July 30. Citizen Sensors failing to report road abuse will be asked to report for reprogramming at the cost of 100 credits per visit.

    More…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FSsztwbRW0