Three simple tools are revolutionizing the delivery of city services. The phone, the camera and the GPS, now generally contained in the same device, are putting power into the hands of citizens -- literally. From Boston to San Jose, Calif., new combinations of technology and process are bringing big changes.
Last fall the city of Boston deployed a free iPhone app that allows citizens to use their phone's built-in camera and GPS system to take a photo of urban blights such as potholes, graffiti and trash, and report them directly to City Hall.
There are several features of this simple little application that make it powerful. First, the interface is quick and easy. No need to figure out what department to call; no need to wait on hold only to be grilled by an operator. The iPhone knows where you are, and while you can add comments, as the cliché says, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Boston's backend processes have been reengineered to make the most of this digital input. Instead of inching its way through City Hall, critical information heads straight to a public works crew. "My graffiti picture is going to the dude who's going to fix the graffiti," Bostonian Heather Sears told National Public Radio. "Directly to the dude! And that feels good."
The free app, called Citizens Connect, means Boston instantly has more eyes to spot and report problems. Just a few clicks, snap a picture and you'll instantly get a tracking number and "red dot" on your iPhone's map of the city. When the problem is fixed, your dot will turn green.
San Jose also harnesses the power of citizens to identify problems. The city has teamed up with a private provider, CitySourced, to allow residents to report a number of urban issues through their iPhone, and soon their Blackberry and Android devices, as well. While Boston connects the report directly to the work process system of the city by sending the photo straight to the responsible public works crew, both cities connect the reports to a dashboard system that helps them identify trouble spots and monitor repair times.
The number of these apps is increasing, as is the areas they cover. SeeClickFix.com, when combined with a city Twitter account, forms a similar two-way communication. In Washington, D.C., and in San Francisco, an iPhone app or a text message can tell users where the nearest bus is and what time it is likely to arrive at your stop. Routesy, which texts users, combines the raw data available from the city's bus and Metro system, and feeds it into an algorithm that estimates when the bus or train will arrive at your stop. The bottom line is less time spent standing in the rain waiting for a bus.
As is often the case, productivity revolutions start with a technology. But the real value doesn't arrive for quite some time, when people adapt their processes to take full advantage of the new technologies. That's why the current changes in service delivery are so exciting -- this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Baltimore's use of a 311 phone system was a breakthrough when it was introduced back in 1996, but it started out mainly as a better way to answer the phone. Baltimore's 311 data wasn't linked to CitiTrak, the city's workflow management tool, until 2002. As the job tracking and workflow features developed, and as the combined data was examined using CitiStat, analysts began to discover things they had never known about their city before. The city estimates that it has saved more than $350 million from CitiStat.
But the real value of 311 may be the way it blazed a trail for other technology deployments. With the explosion of newly available public information, and with programs like Boston's Citizens Connect and D.C.'s Apps for Democracy showing what is possible, expect the rate of change to be exponential.
The new two-way communication platforms alter not only how citizens interface with their government, but how government is structured to serve citizens. A phone, a camera and GPS, combined with heretofore unavailable data from the public side, may presage a revolution that will enhance services for citizens and streamline service delivery for taxpayers. The revolution is in your hands.