Internet tools help citizens find solutions to local problems
One morning, web designer Ben Berkowitz exited his condo building to find a 10-foot-tall graffiti tag scrawled on the painted brick wall adjacent to his complex.
After leaving several phone messages with city hall and not receiving a response, the New Haven, Connecticut, resident realized that his neighbours had probably been doing the same thing: logging complaints with no idea who was responsible for the cleanup and no documentation of their correspondence to help drum up community support.
Although a neighbouring condo owner eventually cleaned the wall himself, the experience left a mark on Berkowitz and inspired him in 2008 to cofound SeeClickFix, an online tool that now enables citizens from Canada to Saudi Arabia to report non-emergency issues in their neighbourhoods.
“It wasn’t the graffiti per se, it was the breakdown of the system that was supposed to help my neighbourhood get rid of it,” Berkowitz told the Georgia Straight in a South Granville coffee shop while vacationing in Vancouver.
Over the past decade, many cities throughout North America have implemented 311 phone systems that allow people to report minor local issues such as potholes, graffiti, oand burnt-out streetlights via telephone. But SeeClickFix—modelled after a similar tool called FixMyStreet, which launched in 2006 in the U.K.—not only enables citizens to report these issues through web and mobile applications, but it also allows users to track the progress of reported issues and see when a problem has been resolved.
While SeeClickFix and FixMyStreet are by far the largest websites of their kind, other takes on online civic-engagement platforms are popping up more and more.
Open311, an initiative started by the New York–based nonprofit technology organization OpenPlans, enables cities with phone-based 311 systems to expand operations to the web and open the information exchange to the public. The nonprofit Code for America is working on a web tool called City Hero that will enable city activists to connect with other citizens to develop solutions to issues that they can implement themselves.
A site called FixMyStreet Canada performs a function similar to that of SeeClickFix in eastern Canadian cities such as Montreal, Ottawa, and Hamilton.
It’s an online movement that Berkowitz is hopeful will prompt both increased civic engagement among citizens and greater responsiveness from government.
“If you’re involved in public conversation about improving public space, even if it’s just down to a pothole, people start to understand the public process more and more people feel like they can be involved,” Berkowitz said. “Suddenly, people who are not part of government agencies are engaged in resolving issues, and they’re showing other people that you don’t have to be to resolve issues.”
A SeeClickFix page has been enabled for Vancouver. However, it’s sparsely used and issues reported several months ago remain open. Though the City of Vancouver has been tentative about jumping into new technologies (even the city’s $13-million, telephone-based 311 system was only launched in 2009), it has begun to dabble in web-based civic-engagement platforms.
In May, the city launched a partnership with PlaceSpeak, an online community-consultation platform that allows users to register input about issues happening in their neighbourhoods. On PlaceSpeak, Vancouver residents register and confirm their address through an authentication process that will eventually have five steps once the program moves out of its test phase.
PlaceSpeak founder and CEO Colleen Hardwick wanted to find a way to move the community-consultation process, which is often characterized by poorly attended public meetings, into the online world. Proponents of issues—whom Hardwick imagines eventually ranging from city departments to community activist groups and real-estate developers—identify the catchment area in which they would like to consult, and then users weigh in and connect with one another about neighbourhood concerns.
She said that community outrage surrounding the Hornby and Dunsmuir bikes lanes and high-rise developments in the West End made it clear that large swaths of the city often feel underconsulted, and she hopes PlaceSpeak will help act as a modern remedy.
“What we’re trying to do is create accessibility. People are more apt to go online than to go out, especially at 7 o’clock on a weeknight,” Hardwick told the Straight in her Kits Point home office.
During Vancouver’s recent Talk Green to Us campaign, the city used Spigit technology to prompt over 10,000 people to pitch and vote on ideas to help make the Vancouver the greenest city by 2020. City staff are investigating how to link their phone-based 311 services to the Internet as well.
Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer emphasized that the city’s use of online platforms doesn’t represent a movement toward web-only engagement, but an expansion of public consultation.
“We don’t want to remove traditional forms of citizen engagement. It’s more about being able to expand using technology, the web, applications, other tools that are available to us, so that we can reach people who don’t feel comfortable with the existing forms of civic engagement,” Reimer told the Straight over the phone.
Reimer noted that while the use of new technology may skew slightly toward a younger crowd, she thinks that these changes are a sign of a larger shift toward more active citizen engagement across the board.
“It’s not just about technology change, it’s about culture change,” Reimer said. “It’s about people not coming to city hall to complain—although they’re welcome to continue to do that—but coming to city hall to be enabled to find solutions.”