From SeeClickFix to Citizinvestor, Five Years of Internet-Enabled Urbanism
BY Cody Lyon | Wednesday, October 17 2012
The bus stop just outside SeeClickFix's offices in downtown New Haven, Conn., is great for members of the 15-person civic startup who use public transit — but it can also be a real pain.
Little more than a street sign, the crowded stop draws standing crowds every morning and afternoon. Employees trying to get to work at SeeClickFix had to navigate the rush-hour gaggle before getting to the company's single front door in a low-rise brick building.
This kind of problem is SeeClickFix's bread and butter. Founded almost exactly five years ago, the company's signature web tool is a platform for citizens to point out civic problems — whether that's a bus stop that needs a shelter or a pothole that needs patching. In the intervening years, SeeClickFix has come to be recognized as an early entrant in what is now a growing field: Providing new tools for governments and citizens to communicate with each other about what's happening in their city and how to fix it. Years ago, SeeClickFix co-founder Ben Berkowitz started his company around the idea that it should be easier for people to get answers and action from their city governments.
One might expect some sort of snarky advocacy campaign from a company founded on the principle of flagging the minor annoyances of urban life for government to fix. But things have changed since Berkowitz and his co-founders started the company. As SeeClickFix and a host of other, similar tools began to evolve, and cities began to pay attention to the ways they might be helpful, developers and people in government began talking about how these platforms might help citizens and city bureaucrats work together rather than separately. These have been theories and ideas for years, the bedrock of a "government as a platform" ideology that's been getting a growing amount of credence — and venture capital, and foundation funding — especially since Tim O'Reilly, who later invested in SeeClickFix, began popularizing the phrase in 2009. SeeClickFix, launched in 2007, is among the earliest examples in the U.S. — but as it has matured, the larger civic software sector has grown to include new ideas and approach new problems.
In New Haven, that translated into a cardboard bench set out in the hopes that it would thin the crowd that SeeClickFix employees had to walk through, rather than just alerting the city to the need for some seating. Across the country it means a new topic in the nationwide conversation about the future of municipal government. From the idea of creating an open and transparent place for citizens to report and track issues, developers and people in government moved to ways to use those platforms to give even more information back to the public. Now some cities are testing out the idea that citizens could even use the Internet to find like-minded peers and do more themselves, given the barest leadership and support from government or nonprofits — in short, the past five years have seen an evolution of civic software from mapping problems to mapping possible solutions.
The impetus for SeeClickFix came when co-founder Ben Berkowitz complained about graffiti on a neighbor's building and grew frustrated by the city's lack of response. He says he started to feel as if his neighbors were having the same types of complaints over similar issues.
"I was trying to understand through phone calls what could be done," said Berkowitz.
The result was an education in civic bureaucracy, but only for him. There was nothing public about his complaint, or the conversation with the city, or for that matter, his neighbor's complaints.
With municipal transparency in mind, Berkowitz sat down one weekend with his co-founders, Kam and Miles Lasater, and started programming an application that allowed citizens to report issues on a simple Google map for all to see. The company built out ways to submit reports via text message, created a widget for use by partner sites, and began developing media partnerships.
The idea of making an easier complaint process was nothing new. Beginning in Baltimore in 1996, cities across the country have adopted "311" systems — call centers for fielding non-emergency requests for service, like for graffiti or potholes, as well as answering questions. But SeeClickFix took the act of complaining and made it public, shareable, and easier to track, not just by people inside city government but by anyone. Importantly, SeeClickFix does that using a standard called Open311 that puts enough of the application's own guts out in the open that other developers can build their own software to work with it. That idea, too, has spread to the point where SeeClickFix is a single, nearly stable company among several, and mapping 311 requests online, as well as taking them over the Internet or via text message, has been widely adopted by local governments.
Berkowitz says the company now has around a thousand media partners, tens of thousands of government entities who respond to their issues, and 80 government partners. But five years later, Berkowitz admits, the company still hasn't reached profitability. Even so, SeeClickFix has money in the bank from a modest Series A investment round and Berkowitz says revenues are increasing faster than expenses.
About half of the company's revenue comes from media partnerships, but the other half comes from a growing number of clients paying for software licenses to use the SeeClickFix dashboard to track and manage issues in a given geographic area. The software allows the same city employee to create analytics reports on the data that's coming in as well as provide canned messages that can be sent out to city customers on certain service requests. There's also customization of mobile apps through branding. In many cases, city officials can connect an incoming issue report to an existing work order. In Washington, D.C., users can report problems through SeeClickFix that are posted on the Washington Post's daily gripe section and that are also instantly emailed to the part of the city responsible for fixing them.
A longstanding knock on SeeClickFix is that those emails can pile up in places where they're not supposed to be if the system is set up without the cooperation of the right city agency. But the software, and systems like it, use Open311 to solve that problem. Software like SeeClickFix built to the Open311 standard can be re-used by anyone else also using the standard — and it so happens that a number of city 311 switchboards are Open311 compliant, meaning they can accept input from these alternative systems directly into the city's official issue queue.
In a recent blog post, Andrew Nicklin, who works on
311 systems at New York City's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, explained that eight cities are using their own systems built around Open311 and many more use SeeClickFix.
"Typically, these new 311 applications are seen as an enhancement of 311 services, providing a new way to reach citizens, some of which might not take the time to report a pothole or graffiti they walk past by calling 311," said Mitchel Herckis, principal associate for federal relations at the National League of Cities. In Riverside, Calif., which has a proprietary 311 solution, from the start of 2011 to September 2012, about ten percent of the system's 400,000 contacts came through mobile apps. Steve Reneker, Riverside's chief information officer, thinks that number is only going to go up.
Reneker, in Riverside, says this can help save money — for example, the city has taken in $200,000 in graffiti restitution thanks to reports made through its 311 system.
Another hope is that software is built around a shared standard, applications built for one city can be picked up and re- applied in another. It's a central premise for Code for America, a nonprofit whose flagship fellowship program sent teams of technologists this year to design and build tech solutions for city halls in eight cities.
"The promise of Open311 is that instead of reinventing the wheel, you can just have it built once, and take it anywhere you need to go," said Abhi Nemani, CfA's director of strategy and communications.
San Francisco and Washington, D.C. were among the first two cities to deploy it for themselves, building their applications in collaboration with a broader technology community.
"Now, cities are asking for Open311 themselves," Nemani said. "City leaders agree with Open311. They recognize it's a good thing, and they are making it happen."
Nemani notes that there's been an interesting progression of late from cities building tools to report problems to ones that help analyze, visualize, and track those problems. For instance, Code for America's Chicago team just launched 311 Service Tracker, which provides a Fedex-like tracking system on submitted issues. There, citizens enter a report ID and get real-time status updates on how the city is responding. Another tool is the Daily Brief, which puts reports in perspective for city officials.
As flu season began, the city launched another tool for citizens to quickly look up the nearest place to get a flu shot. So attention has turned away from the problem of getting information into government and towards getting it efficiently back out again. Finding ways to make use of the data coming in is especially important for cities now, which are still hurting from the recession.
“As our 'City Fiscal Conditions' report notes, this is the sixth straight year-over-year decline in city revenues going back to 2007," said Mitchel Herkis, of the League of American Cities. "Cities, like states, need to end every year with a balanced budget. For cities with declining revenue, this means raising taxes and fees or cutting services to make ends meet. Two in five, or 43 percent, of city finance officers report that their city has raised fee levels, and one in four, or 23 percent, of cities also increased the number of fees that are applied to city services."
Christine Falvey, the communications director for Mayor Edwin Lee in San Francisco, says reusing 311 data provides a strong value add for cities, regardless of how constrained budgets are. She said the system helps municipalities prioritize how to spend precious resources, such as focusing education about graffiti prevention and cleanup where graffiti is most rampant. But there's another group that cities are turning to for help when it comes to delivering services to citizens — the citizens themselves.
The tough fiscal circumstances facing many municipalities mean that citizens sometimes can't get the perquisites of local government that they want or need, like special bus service, new green spaces, or even strategically placed seating at bus stops.
Building on the same basic concept as Open311, an initiative launched in New York last year turns the idea on its head. Rather than mapping problems for government to solve, government poses problems and then maps proposals for solutions.
Change by Us NYC was created by Local Projects and is run by the City of New York, with a sister project in Philadelphia. The website says it's a place for New Yorkers to put their ideas into action by creating projects and building teams to make the city a better place to live.
The site recently received a $590,000 grant from the James S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and has grown to almost 10,000 users across both cities where it's in use.
"The site becomes a space where a city can watch and be inspired, and actually be inspired to actualize several different projects collectively, neighborhood by neighborhood, community group by community group," Barton said.
After all, what good is it to know about a problem if there's no money to solve it?
"Cities are just plain broke," Barton said. "They don't have the resources to get all these new reported problems fixed. They already have too many of them that they can't solve," he said.
And therein lies the impetus for Change By Us.
"Citizens have responded with everything from composting groups, food justice groups, urban gardens, the rooftop gardens, to planting trees," Barton says.
In Brownsville, Brooklyn, for example, a neighborhood resident wanted to rehabilitate a community garden. Local volunteers signed on to help, and ChangeByUs, which is also backed by the Rockefeller and Case foundations, freed up a small amount of grant money and connected the project leader with additional support. Rather than centrally plan improvement projects, the ChangeByUs model gives citizens a place to show up and announce which projects they'd be willing to help finish, or, in some cases, do completely without government intervention.
That's the route SeeClickFix took when faced with those crowds at the bus stop outside of their offices on Chapel Street. Company staffers crowd-funded the cardboard bench they set out for the New Haven commuters waiting there each day. Fifteen SeeClickFix users donated $15 to $20 apiece. After kickstarting the solution to their own problem, Berkowitz and company wrote a single question on the bench and left a Sharpie there to answer it.
"What," they asked, "are you waiting for?"
As with any experiment, SeeClickFix's collaborative action had unintended consequences. Within four hours of leaving that prompt on the Chapel Street bus stop bench, it had been covered with everything ranging from memorials to dead friends to the occasional "I love you dad."
That was just the first project. Citizens raised $12,000 for a mural, Berkowitz says. The city is opening a crowdfunded dog park up on the other side of the train tracks from the SeeClickFix office.
"We're putting ideas out there about how to pay for the city to light up a prominent statue in a neighborhood park, [and] we're fundraising for a local block party," Berkowitz said.
This is the next largely unexplored frontier of Internet-enabled urbanism. Another new crop of companies, like Florida-based Citizinvestor, has emerged to take the Kickstarter crowdfunding model and apply it to civic projects. In September, Citizinvestor announced that a citizen of St. Petersburg, Florida, became the first person to gain enough support for his project to take the next step. The company announced it would help the petitioner set up a meeting with the city for the idea, city-backed bicycle pumps and repair stations, and then possibly serve as a platform to crowd-fund the money necessary to make it a reality. There's no telling if these sites will be successful. It's also unclear how sustainable Internet-enabled citizen interest can be, if it has merit to ask people online not just to report issues or help decide which ones to fix but also to stay involved in building and maintaining new features of their cities. Even after something is funded, after all — no matter how small the project — who continues to care for the project is still an open question.
Berkowitz found this out already with the cardboard benches his employees put out at their bus stop in New Haven. Each evening, while locking up the office, someone at the SeeClickFix office brings the benches in to keep them out of the rain.