Complaining on Twitter About Public Transit Delays? City Planners May be Listening

10.5.12 | In Chicago last month, officials released “Open 311”— a service request system that allows citizens to track service calls to the city online and use mobile technology and text to submit photos with their own service requests to the city, to fix potholes or downed power lines, for example.

The city created the system in partnership with Code for America, a California-based nonprofit that recruits talent from the tech industry to give a year of service to build web applications for local city governments. We’ve written before about how metros are using publically available data and crowdsourcing techniques to improve city services and change citizen’s relationship with their governments. (Read about work going on in New York City or Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics).

And now, this week, David Lepeska, blogging at Next American City says Twitter might be next. Cities like Chicago, Lepeska reports, are considering using technologies that geo-tag tweets and use data from this local social media commentary to gauge public opinion and identify common complaints. 

“Officials could use it to learn how residents are responding to a new trash pickup schedule or how new community policing efforts are being received on the West Side,” he writes.

And unsurprisingly, researchers from Purdue University examined the geo-tagged tweet data and found that people rarely make positive comments, instead using Twitter to complain about delays and unexpected difficulties. Lepeska points out this is ideal for city officials looking to identify and fix problem areas.

One reason this is exciting is that the use of technology to improve public services so far has been very good at making previously hidden data accessible (ChicagoShovels.org for example allows residents to track the city’s 300 snow plows in real-time). But planners have had less success actually soliciting feedback directly from residents. Twitter could help change that.

And the more useful feedback local governments are able to collect from citizens, the more truly participatory government becomes.  As he writes in a longer piece at Next America City’s Forefront titled “When We’re All Urban Planners,” Lepeska reports on the slew of sites popping up these days to use the internet to “crowdfund” and give input into smaller civic infrastructure projects from community gardens to streetcar lines.

A few examples:

  • ioby, a crowd-funding site for green neighborhood improvement projects.
  • Neighbor.ly, a civic crowdfunding platform, offers major planning projects proposed by cities and civic organizations.
  • Citizinvestor.com, allows users to find and invest in city-approved projects they care most about.
  • Mindmixer.com, where citizens can submit ideas, give feedback, and help prioritize issues.

Cash-strapped governments, desperate for ideas about how to generate new revenue may begin to see these ideas as appealing. These techniques are, of course, still very experimental, and they will, obviously, have more success in higher income neighborhoods where people have money to give, which as Lepeska points out, is problematic.

Lepeska talks with Nigel Jacob of Boston’s office of New Urban Mechanics who says that while it’s important to start small, planners and technologists need to keep in mind the core functions of government:

“If all we’re doing with these technologies is finding a quicker way to fix potholes and ignoring the hard issues, we’re not really affecting anything,” he said. “Cities are about those core issues — education, healthcare and safer, better streets. All these point-and-click mechanisms should be aiming to build trust, build networks and really take on the tough problems.”

Eventually, these city planners see potential in starting small but connecting ideas across cities so that “a resident of Tuscaloosa could learn about a successful trolley project in Toronto, and reach out to its leaders. The end result would be an international network of the finest tools, practices and solutions for rallying communities to build everything from a stop sign to a High Line.”

Read more at Next American City. Subscription is required, but the article is well worth a read.

Screenshot/ ioby.org

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