There’s an App For That–How Technology Is Reshaping City Services

12.2.11 | From freeing urban wildlife trapped in trash cans to plowing snow off city streets, the city of Boston is coming up with some innovative uses for new technology. In a partnership with the public they call  “participatory urbanism,” the city’s new Office of New Urban Mechanics is managing more than 20 projects that use technology to address everything from infrastructure to education.

The office’s Citizen Connect mobile app has been downloaded 12,000 times since it was launched in 2009. The app allows citizens to report problems that need attention and then to check on fixes — in an effort to better use data to improve the delivery of services to residents.

“The real goal of the app is to be where people are as they are moving through the city, and to partner with the city at the point of viewing whatever the issue is,” Nigel Jacob who leads the office along with Chris Osgood said in a recent article. “It was really important to us to shrink the distance between the citizen and the city worker. So as soon as you took the photograph of the pothole it would end up in the queue of the right city work team. That required not only development of an app but integration with an existing work order management system.”

Citizens receive a text message from the city when work has been completed, and users can also tweet from the app and share their reports with others.  In a recent talk, Bill Oates, Boston’s chief information officer, explains how the app encourages citizens to collaborate.  One resident recently saw an opossum crawl into a trash can and posted about it on Citizen Connect. Another neighbor who saw the post came out to let the animal free and then posted that the problem had been resolved. These two neighbors never met.

Jacob and Osgood stress the importance of keeping projects in their office small so they have space to take risks – a model that leaves room for failure and also innovation.

“In order to get these products up and running as quickly as possible and start showing value as quickly as possible, we try to make them as bite-sized as possible,” Jacob says in a blog post at Governing.

These projects that mine data from mobile phones to provide better public services are getting attention from urban planners, urbanists, and city officials around the country. An article in the New York Times this summer highlighted efforts by companies like Densebrain, whose NextTrain mobile app provides real-time arrivals of New York City subway trains, by analyzing data from resident’s smartphones – loss of phone service when they head underground, for example. NextBus is providing similar services to transit systems around the country using GPS technology to provide real-time updates on bus and train schedules.

Boston’s new Street Bump app measures the magnitude of bumps when a driver hits a pothole or rough patch of road using the accelerometer on driver’s smartphone. The phone’s GPS system can identify the location of those bumps and together send that information to officials and map road conditions in the city.  This allows the public works department to  dispatch road repair crews or plan for longer-term capital improvements.

In addition, the city’s new SnowCOP app helps city managers respond to requests for services during a snow storm. (Mayor Bloomberg must be drooling.) And in a city that got 7 feet of snow last year, that is no small matter. By mapping what geographic areas have the highest number of calls and when that street was last plowed, mangers can help direct plows on the street to the trouble spots more quickly.

Advocates believe this kind of technology has the potential to change citizens’ relationship with their government and enable future innovations by creating apps and data platforms that citizens can build on and add to.

Next steps for Boston include a mayor’s dashboard to allow staff to see key quality-of-life indicators by area and explore data trends. Keep your eye out. Chances are apps like these are coming to a city near you very soon.

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