The problem with municipal bureaucracies is that complaints, inefficiencies and communication are always hidden from the public eye. Technology game changer, SeeClickFix, takes the hidden out of the closet with its civic-minded digital tool that demands government transparency and accountability. By MANDY DE WAAL.
It also creates a partnership with communities who act as watchdogs over service delivery, and alert the media to escalating local issues.
You’ve driven over the same pothole three times this week, but the only thing more irritating than the sound of your wheel dropping into that pit again is the thought of having to battle slack civil servants to get the problem fixed. That kind of frustration is what motivated Ben Berkowitz to create SeeClickFix, an innovative web tool that enables communities to report problems, track the progress of those complaints and lobby to get issues sorted.
“I had a huge amount of frustration with my local government on a relatively small issue,” said Berkowitz speaking to The Daily Maverick from his home in New Haven, Connecticut. “Some graffiti had been sprayed on my neighbour’s wall, he wasn’t interested in sorting it out and I battled to get anyone to pay attention to my issue. I had personal frustrations and felt that I couldn’t communicate with government effectively. It made me think that there were probably loads of people who were feeling as helpless as I was about what happens in the public space, or when trying to get local government to repair what gets broken in communities.”
Everyone has a problem that needs to be reported to the local municipality at some stage or another, whether it is a faulty street lamp, broken traffic lights or an unsafe intersection. “SeeClickFix allows anyone to report non-emergency issues such as potholes, missing traffic signs or similar problems to local government to be fixed. Traditionally people don’t know where to go or who to speak to to get problems in public spaces fixed, but our site enables people to easily report issues by clicking on a map and filling out a report.”
The front-end of the site is for complaint reporting and allows community comment so civic-minded people can tell others where to go to get things fixed, or how to lobby for quicker resolution. The back end of the system triggers emails to the complainant, but also to local governments, utility companies and other civic organisations that have signed up with the system. Consumers get to use the site for free and basic acknowledgement that an issue is resolved is free for government. SeeClickFix makes revenue from city management and utility companies that sign on for basic functionality that costs about $100 a month. More sophisticated digital tools for better city management are sold for profit and include a dashboard for acknowledging and tracking issues, a reporting function and easy e-mail communication between communities and local governments.
Basically it is cloud computing-meets-crowd sourcing for better city management. “The thinking is that two heads are better than one, but that hundreds of eyes and ears are the best. SeeClickFix is about empowering people who live in communities to take charge of making their neighbourhoods better,” says Berkowitz. “Local municipalities can’t be everywhere or see everything, that’s why they need to partner with the crowd who can keep watch and help local government manage cities.”
Citizens then take responsibility for reporting non-emergency issues and this helps promote civic-mindedness and engagement. “Our experience is that people get more involved in their communities and this becomes a self-reinforcing loop as they see they can get issues sorted.”
One of the first local governments to embrace the system is Berkowitz’s home city, New Haven. “We have had tremendous buy-in from the city of New Haven and the mayor went as far as writing to other mayors across the country together with local officials and utility companies to tell them about how well SeeClickFix was working.”
The system works so well for local city management that politicians are using it to try to win votes. Recently a candidate standing for governor of Rhode Island made “open government” his rallying manifesto, saying he would implement SeeClickFix as a more citizen-centric form of governance.
Founded just two years ago, the site already covers some 25,000 towns, 8,000 neighbourhoods and more than 50,000 issue reports have been registered with the site. More remarkable is the site’s success rate. Close on half of all the issues reported through the site get resolved. SeeClickFix is well established in New Haven and Philadelphia, but is quickly spreading to include new sites both within and beyond the US borders. Berkowitz has ambitions to take the system global and the site has already been translated into 72 languages with the help of volunteer translators.
One of the smarter aspects of the site’s business plan is the way it partners with the media for the mutual benefit of both SeeClickFix and media companies. “The most basic function of any local news organisation is to hold their governments accountable for service delivery. SeeClickFix has hundreds of media partners that drive traffic to the site, while the site creates a source for hyper-local news. A lot of our media partners use SeeClickFix to source local news stories as well as create stronger community participation with news brands,” says Berkowitz.
A good example of this is The Washington Post’s “The Daily Gripe”, which is subtitled “You vent. We get some answers”. The Washington Post positions this partnered offering with SeeClickFix as “service journalism on a grassroots level” which sets up Washington DC’s oldest and biggest newspaper as a hero brand committed to community involvement. At a time when newspapers are struggling for readership, resources and relevance, SeeClickFix answers these three press problems pretty smartly.
People gravitate to the service because it delivers results, the complaint reporting provides citizen-generated content for the newspaper, and journalists can quickly identify emerging issues, leads and sources for stories. By helping citizens to resolve city bugbears the newspaper becomes more relevant to its readers.
“We have more than 400 media partners to date and these include major newspapers and television stations through to local sites that have embedded the SeeClickFix widget on their site to connect citizens to local government and drive better accountability,” says Berkowitz. “The New Haven Independent has done a magnificent job with this by finding interesting stories like speeding school buses with children on them, to drug dealers in neighbourhoods that have been there forever. The data provided by SeeClickFix leads to interesting stories that include honest and brutal truths about what is going on in local government. Most municipalities are reluctant to reveal poor public leadership or overtaxed infrastructures, but SeeClickFix makes it easy for people and for the press to see where things are going wrong, what’s not being fixed, and where local government is not delivering.”
Berkowitz says what’s been heartening is the local government willingness to embrace the system, to progress and become more efficient. “We’ve seen huge shifts in local government, and as we grow to become a de facto platform for citizen communicating we will be able to compare and contrast city data to see which cities perform better than others.”
Elected as one of the top five technology game changers by The Huffington Post, it’s high time that SeeClickFix was used in South Africa, and not just for our pothole problems. DM