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We Need To Create Collaboration Between Citizens And Governments To Make Cities Best Serve Everyone

Open standards for the ways cities receive complaints and requests from the people living in them will make governments more responsive and efficient, and make everyone’s lives easier.

Just four years ago, if you wanted to report a pothole to your local government, these were your options: leaving voicemails on City Hall’s answering machines or praying to sky gods for resolution. Public matters were handled through closed channels of communication.

This piece is part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

SeeClickFix started with the mission to change the way citizens communicated with each other and their governments. The first release of SeeClickFix allowed anyone anywhere in the world to publicly document issues in their community that they wanted resolved or improved. Most importantly, and sometimes controversially, we sent alerts to publicly available government email addresses to let those accountable know about the issues.

Thousands of citizens signed up their governments to receive alerts and many more governments signed themselves up to find out what their constituents were complaining about. As a result of publicly documenting issues, we witnessed accountability, efficiency and, in more than 60% of the cases over the last three-and-a-half years, resolution.

Consequentially, today email—not apps or a website—is the primary interface for communicating with local government. Not so sexy, huh? Well, it’s government. Government may never be sexy, but at least it can be more efficient.

So, although it was a major step in efficiency to move governments toward email, we, along with many other players in the space like, Open Plans, Lagan and Cityworks still wanted to build an ideal API, an easily accessible and interoperable way for any aspiring civic tech developer to build on and improve the platform for citizen and government end-users. It would make the entire process of communication standardized, open and more practical than email for city governments. Nearly two years ago we set out as the open311 ‘consortium’ to solve this problem. Our goal was to create a standardized read/write API for government communication software.

In 2010, my co-founder Kam Lasater drafted a suggestion for the first spec of the open311 API, which would allow cities and citizens to collaborate on making the best products and solutions for community issues. Today SeeClickFix is the largest provider of the open311 API, serving Oakland, CA; Richmond, VA; and Raleigh, NC. In addition to SeeClickFix, Lagan and Motorola are providing their own open311 endpoints for cities such as Houston and Boston. Cities like Toronto have created their own open311 endpoints internally. All over the country, cities are opening up the lines of communication between the government and the citizens, allowing for far more effective and responsive government services.

But it’s not an easy process. While companies like ours, Connected Bits, and Lagan support open standards, there are many government software vendors that have chosen to keep their API’s proprietary for personal business gain. Though in rapid decline, there are still cities that contract with these vendors—using our tax dollars—to create solutions that aren’t open to tax payers. Houston and Chicago have joined the open311 movement, but the other three of the five largest American cities (we’re looking at you, New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia) have not.

Recently, Code For America fellows have developed a number of open-source mobile reporting applications using location data. And while the API is far from perfect and certainly not the most flexible for developers, it is part of an open compromise between states to take steps toward a better solution for civic communication. Cities that don’t choose to innovate will always have email. But with all of this collaboration and opportunity, is that really the best way forward?

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  • jcstearns

    It's telling that many news organizations around the country have seen the promise in SeeClickFix for engaging communities. Between citizens and governments there is a promising role for journalists. In a recent post on his blog Jonathan Stray of the AP argued that we need to imagine a new role for journalists as moderator, helping communities define and agree on the problems facing them and helping surface and study possible solutions. 

    He writes: "The solution journalist ought to be well informed, certainly, and perhaps they ought to report and write on possible solutions to social problems, but I dont think that’s their primary responsibility. Rather, I see the solution journalist as responsible for the process of public discussion by which problems are defined and turned into plans for the future." I think this kind of solutions journalism is largely missing right now, but as newsrooms look to deepen their community engagement and reassert their centrality to local communities, this is a critical new role for them to explore.

  • Robert Peters

     As a concerned citizen, I find it extremely presumptuous for a particular brand of busybody feels that it is their obligation to direct the actions of government, form a sidelines position  If a journalist feels that they have a valid contribution to make, the need to engage themselves in directly in the political process, rather that attempting to act as a Rasmussen, and be the silent power behind the throne.  If a person aspires to be a journalist, the should be totally skeptical  of all forms of government, left, right, and radical.  If that not withing their skill set, they need to honestly evaluate their prejudices, embrace them, and proudly state their bias in there evaluation of whatever information the choose to present, if neither of these options are to the taste, their honest piers are obligated to brand them as a Charlton. 

    The concept of forwarding citizens comments through a third party intermediate, has some merit, but casts a hint of the shadow of Joe Btfsplk.  The collection of data, even as a transport mechanism, has the potential of profiling, or even as a potential for personal retribution.  This potential is increases proportionally to the size of the data store.  So what has a minimal potential of abuse in a small, public communications portal, becomes a statistical database which, as it increase, will inevitably become the basis of social manipulation.