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How a simple app can actually empower street-level democracy

In an increasingly partisan era, SeeClickFix believes technology can get neighbors on the same page

SeeClickFix has helped log more than 3 million issues since it debuted.

After an election season shaped by social media bubbles, fake news, and email hacking, technology hasn’t exactly shown itself to be the best tool for improving the civic good. But today’s hangover from technological trouble masks the ways that civic tech, done right, can have a positive impact on government, especially on the local level.

If someone introduced a tool that helps unite neighbors and solve millions of small, local issues across the country, from potholes to scrubbing graffiti, it would be celebrated as a community godsend. That’s the track record that SeeClickFix, an app and mobile 311 system which allows users to report problems anonymously, has racked up since it launched almost a decade ago in New Haven, Connecticut.

According to co-founder Ben Berkowitz, the technology is used by over 300 municipalities and government groups across the country and has solved 85 percent of all reported issues (3,145,179 total as of mid-January). But SeeClickFix has also shown a practical approach to digital democracy that may be an object lesson in an era where many expect to focus on making changes at the local level.

“People who speak up about changing things in their neighborhoods, and the people in the government who fix things, aren’t as far apart as everyone wants to assume,” says Berkowitz. “There are bad apples, but there are a lot more good apples. People who report and use our system quickly realize that, hey, we’re on the same page.”

The magic of SeeClickFix is in making connections around small issues that may seem insignificant. This is actually the impulse which led Berkowitz to create the app, a response which, at the time, seemed like a “totally selfish act of desperation and frustration” against a piece of graffiti in a nearby courtyard in New Haven. The computer programmer had called city hall to complain, as had his neighbors—something he equated to “shouting into a black hole”—and figured a digital tool to document issues in public spaces might register better with the local government.

In a weekend, he and his friends had built a Google map where they could geotag potholes. In three months, they had the basics of the app, and soon after, they sold it to the city of New Haven. Municipalities can now license SeeClickFix, often branding it with a local, city-specific title. The reporting system is constantly refined to meet the needs of citizens and local governments—it can be set to register complains anonymously, and provides instant updates to all parties when an issue is logged—and is designed to create a sense of empowerment. A New Haven administrator says the system has “become the universal front end” for the city.

“I’m not sure about the term digital citizen,” says Berkowitz. “I think it’s more about being digitally empowered and engaged. My perception with this platform is one of greater trust. I see the problems, I get feedback from local officials, and I have empathy with the challenges. That makes the tone of the conversation different, since I’ve become personally empowered.”

Berkowitz believes SeeClickFix’s transparency is key. As a growing number of civic tech apps seek to engage the public in planning and other government functions, perhaps the best thing SeeClickFix can offer isn’t technological wizardry, but renewed trust.

The app isn’t a place just for complaining; it lets those who report see the problems in their neighborhood and even seek out ways to get engaged. Everything is tethered to location: users can vote up issues around them that need more immediate attention and share issue pages over multiple platforms to make it easier to rally support with neighbors. Government workers can see what issues are popping up in their specific jurisdictions. Sharing the same stats and information creates trust and understanding, lets people see what their neighbors are dealing with, and, in many cases, builds relationships. One of Berkowitz’s favorite stories when he was invited to speak to a community group in New Haven shortly after it launched. He began addressing a crowd of 40 or so locals, telling them about the app, when someone politely interrupted him and said, “Hey, we know all about the app. That’s how we met. We want to figure out how to work together.”

This technology has also been game-changing for many of its government partners, such as Detroit. Due to previous decades of shrinking population, Detroit and its public works department is responsible for miles and miles of land that’s now relatively sparsely populated. Now Improve Detroit, the locally branded version of SeeClickFix, can be used to report nearly 20 issues, from clogged drains and manhole cover issues to damaged streetlights and signage. Adopting SeeClickFix helps citizens request help and maximizes the efficiency of city workers in lieu of a city-funded 311 system, which currently doesn’t exist (the service was cut in 2012, with calls routed to individual departments).

“It has greatly streamlined the system,” says Ron Brundidge, Director of Detroit’s Department of Public Works (DPW). “It gives us a real mechanism to improve how we’re responding to complaints. I get a weekly report with the average times it takes to address all of these different complaints.”

The app has proved popular since being introduced in late 2014. Of the more than 68,000 issues reported, roughly 62,760 have been fixed.

Streetlamp in Detroit
The SeeClickFix platform lets users in Detroit report issues such as broken streetlights and potholes.
Jess: Flickr/Creative Commons

Brundidge says the best aspects of SeeClickFix are transparency, and knowing your city is listening. Users are instantly alerted that their complaint has been received and will be addressed. In a spread-out city, where city services can be lacking, it’s great for citizens to “know the DPW is out there.”

Since founding the app, Berkowitz has seen many competitors crop up, but due to SeeClickFix’s attention to user experience and close partnerships (the company regularly holds summits with users), it’s managed to create a system that speaks to everyone. Other apps are either feel-good advocacy programs for citizens that don’t gel with city service, or opaque reporting services more like the outdated tools of bureaucracy. He says it’s all about looking at what’s actionable, and helping citizens; street-level infrastructure, unlike, say, public education, is a problem that can be grasped and addressed relatively quickly.

“Right now in cities, we’re dealing with pluralistic groups in areas that are strapped for resources,” he says. “These disparate groups need to have conversations. You can’t have that talk in a black box. That needs to happen on a platform that respects transparency and engagement. We’re very much in the right environment for SeeClickFix.”