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Pot Hole Spotting in the Bronx

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, March 17 2010

Credit: CouncilmanCabrera.com

In the west Bronx, city councilmember Fernando Cabrera has recently rolled out a new way for constituents to let his office know when a pot hole needs to be filled, a car towed, or heat turned on in a apartment building. Residents can click on a map to report a complaint, and the councilmember's office is instantly alerted where there are problem spots in District 14.

"We were just trying to figure out ways to bring the community into the process," Cabrera's legislative director-slash-press secretary Zellnor Myrie told me this morning. The program, running a platform called SeeClickFix developed by a group of advocates living and working in New Haven, has its advantages for their small office. (Cabrera was elected in 2009, in the wake of New York City's term limit fight.) As a pre-packaged platform based on Google Maps, there's little technical that Cabrera's shop has to do. And then there's the cost: nothing, for those in government who want to use it to connect with their constituents. "That's important, because we have no money," Myrie said with a laugh.

The feature rolled out on CouncilmanCabrera.com last week, and Myrie reports that their office has responded to three complaints so far. He and the office's staff director have been handling the reports coming in through the site, but Myrie says that eventually they hope to have a staffer tasked specifically with engaging the district through the tool. "We're hoping that one day it will be kind of its own entity," he says.

What, I ask, about those folks in the Bronx that don't have Internet access, or aren't about to plot complaint reports on a Google Map? "This is not the only solution," he says. "We still want people to come into the office, but we're trying to reach the people who spend more time on the Internet than they do walking around outside. We don't feel like we're necessarily alienating that don't have access to a computer. Those are the people that are going to walk into the office or are going to call on the telephone." Besides, says Myrie, the app is easy enough to use. "It's pretty simple and straightforward, and I think the visual helps as well. You can see the border of the district."

Unlike, say, the way that Newark's mayor Cory Booker has been been using Twitter as an ad hoc means for collecting requests from help from the people he represents, Cabrera's approach adds a structure that invites participation from the full community.

A feature of the SeeClickFix app is that you can second, third, fourth, etc. complaints that others have submitted. Several residents had voted up a complaint about a lack of heat and hot water in an apartment building on 181st Street. Others had backed a call for speed bumps on Father Zeiser Place."One or two speed bumps positioned throughout this strip would slow down drivers creating a much safer environment and possibly eliminating a future tragedy," writes a resident. That suggestion had been marked as Acknowledged. Another report, about an uprooted tree in a park that was impinging the use of playground equipment was marked Fixed. Myrie said that whether a complaint or 1o, Councilmember Cabrera's office was going to treat it seriously. "To us, if it's one or many, we're going expend the same amount of energy," he said. "But say it's a few complaints about a landlord," he said. "We're going to be take that to the housing authorities."