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Civic Tech and Engagement: How SeeClickFix is Changing the Fabric of Local Reality

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, July 24 2014

To see how people using the Internet can thicken civic engagement in deep and positive ways, there is no better example than SeeClickFix.com, a community platform that was founded in 2008 by Ben Berkowitz, a computer programmer living in New Haven, Connecticut, and his friends Miles and Kam Lasater and Jeff Blasius.

They started the site after Berkowitz, who was then 28 years old, tried to report some unsightly graffiti on a neighbor’s building. After calling the New Haven city government, nothing happened. “I got the idea that my neighbors were reporting similar things, but there was no accountability and no collaborative discussion," he recalled later. So he and Kam Lasater hit upon the idea of creating a website where anyone could post a problem needing fixing on a public map, and then the site would email the report to the addresses of top city officials. They reasoned that making the reports transparent would make it harder for city hall to ignore them, and easier for community members to rally around the most urgent issues.

At the time, Robert Smuts was New Haven’s chief administrator, in effect, second-in-command to the mayor. He told me that the city had launched a similar input channel on its own website, but it didn’t get much use. “Instead, we started getting flooded by these emails from SeeClickFix,” he recalled with a chuckle. “The service we had gone with was designed by government. SeeClickFix was more user-driven, more driven by the resident public.” He admits that there was “some grousing” inside city government about all those complaining emails, but as he put it, “SeeClickFix didn’t create the pothole, it just made it easier for people to report it.” In response, he started integrating SeeClickFix’s reports into the city’s internal management system.

Flash forward six years, and SeeClickFix has become, in Smuts’ words, “the universal front end for the city of New Haven, for non-emergency reporting.” Indeed, not only is a link to SeeClickFix featured prominently on the top right corner of the city’s official website, a widget from SeeClickFix showing the daily flow of fresh reports from residents is also posted on the online front pages of the city’s two main newspapers, the Register and the Independent. In New Haven, Smuts says, about ten thousand reports flow through the system each year, half from public SeeClickFix users, and half from city employees taking a report from a member of the public by phone and inputting it directly into the SeeClickFix site from their desk. The city pays SeeClickFix for access to an internal dashboard that helps it to manage the flow.

About 170 cities across America have similar relationships with SeeClickFix, including Albany (NY), Albuquerque, Atlantic City, Chicago, Houston, Minneapolis, Oakland, Raleigh, Washington, DC, and Winston-Salem. The states of Massachusetts and Utah are also customers. Berkowitz says about 350,000 registered users have signed up, and more than 670,000 issues have been reported and resolved across all of those sites. The one-millionth issue report came in this past March, highlighting a pothole on a street in Chicago. More than 1.2 million comments were added by users to service requests in just 2013 alone. The company, which is a privately-held for-profit that makes money by charging cities for its service, is growing steadily.

Designing for Engagement
In New Haven, as of the end of 2013, 17,000 people had SeeClickFix accounts, an impressive twelve percent of the city’s population. It has taken Berkowitz and his colleagues six years to reach that level of usage. Along the way, they have made a variety of important design decisions aimed at maximizing SeeClickFix’s potential to become a central community hub for problem solving. For example, when a problem report is marked resolved, which the responsible city agency representative usually does, any resident can re-open the issue.

“What’s most important is not that city hall thinks something is solved, but the citizen has to be happy,” Berkowitz told me. That’s a design decision that, politically, situates ultimate power in the hands of the users, not the clients, of SeeClickFix. They’ve also added a “Say Thanks” button that encourages users to acknowledge when a problem is resolved; each Friday the site then sends the person who was responsible for fixing that problem an email with the names of all the people who thanked them. More than 7,500 such thank-you messages were sent in 2013 across all the users of the platform. And if someone chooses to follow a specific problem or location, the software automatically will alert them to “points of interest” within a five-block radius of that issue.

Users can earn “civic points” for a variety of actions such as commenting on an issue (5 points) reporting an issue (10 points), getting an issue you reported closed and archived (30 points), getting at least one user to comment, vote, or follow your issue (50 points), creating a watch area (50 points), and logging in seven days in a row (100 points). The more points you get, the more impressive your title. Users with 250-500 are listed as “civic crusaders”; those with 1000-2000 are “digital superheros”; and those with more than 10,000 get the “Jane Jacobs” label in honor of the famous urbanist. And as people learn the ins-and-outs of getting things fixed in their town, they can contribute to a do-it-yourself “frequently asked questions” wiki that is designed to help everyone, include city staffers, know the right answer to those questions.

If, as software guru Mitch Kapor once wrote, architecture is politics, then Berkowitz and his colleagues have designed SeeClickFix to maximize visible connections and activity between neighbors. The result is “thick” civic engagement between ordinary residents, elected representatives, and city officials that merges the online and offline worlds and, in the best of cases, is helping cities like New Haven do something more important than just save money or respond more quickly to residents’ complaints: it is growing social capital.

Berkowitz jokingly calls potholes “the gateway drug to civic engagement” and says he looks forward to spring, because it’s the time of year when the warming weather reveals all the streets in need of repair after winter in the Northeast. “This is my favorite time of year,” he wrote on his blog in March of 2013. “It separates accountable from unaccountable governments in a tight time frame with simple anecdotal evidence that government is working or not.  More importantly late winter is a time where citizens are engaging passionately about block level concerns. This also presents a great opportunity for those looking to engage with citizens on a deeper level than potholes.”  He added:

At SeeClickFix we like to capture frustrated citizens, harness that frustration and point it towards engagement with feedback loops created by neighbors and governments. This Spring will bring lots of new users who come to the platform to vent. In the following months they will likely engage with other content that helps build a better more citizen driven neighborhood, help a neighbor find a lost pet or actually resolve an issue with their own hands. We've been optimizing this algorithm for neighborhood engagement for the past 5 years and every year it gets more interesting as the outliers on the platform become more common place and repeated across communities. Bring on the potholes, good governance and great citizenship.

"It's Always Interesting to See the Public Organize Itself Around Issues"
Here’s an in-depth look at SeeClickFix in action. On August 29th 2013, a dog was abandoned behind a building on Audobon Street in downtown New Haven, Connecticut. Part pit bull and part boxer, it was tied up and in distress. Someone going by the user-name MableX (then with 880 civic points, now it's 1370) took a picture with their mobile phone and posted a brief report on New Haven's SeeClickFix page. “Animal Control does not answer the phone and the police said to call animal Control,” MableX wrote. “Mailbox of Animal Control officer filled so I called my Alderman to see if he could help. Went looking for police officer on Whitney, none to be found.”

Within minutes, another SeeClickFix user, Robbin (with 195 civic points), responded, “I am available if someone needs to come stay with the dog until animal control responds...I live on Chapel St. and can be there quickly.”

Soon after that, the city alderman for that district, Doug Hausladen (with 26,925 civic points), chimed in on the thread: “Robbin - please do! He needs some water - I got the call from the constituent but i'm tied up at work. I also forwarded to animal control and left messages (as did the constituent). keep me posted if anything changes,” he added, posting his cell phone number.

Robbin replied, “On my way…with water & I’ll grab some dog biscuits.”

Then a police officer named Sgt. Means, using a guest account, posted: “Spoke to the supervisor at animal control. Complaint received.”

Meanwhile, MableX was still paying attention to the conversation, even though she couldn’t stay with the dog. “Thank you for looking into the safety of this dog. Someone from ACES got him/her a blanket and bowl of water. Found out dog belongs to a homeless man. Hope this is not a ‘Mr. Bojangles’ scenario.”

Robbin soon popped up again. “I am with dog...female...i brought food...she was hungry...very tame dog but definitely happy for attention, food & water...will wait for animal control...”

And then, about an hour from her first report, MableX marked the issue closed. “Animal Control Officer came and retrieved dog. Thanks to ACES and Robbin of Chapel Street for tending dog,” she wrote. Then follows some idle repartee amongst several users on whether this episode mirrored the dog in the song “Mr. Bojangles,” interspersed by about 15 other people chiming in to simply say, “Thanks for fixing this issue.”

That wasn’t the end of the story, however. A little more than a week later, a guest user of SeeClickFix named Christina reported seeing the same dog again tied up and abandoned. And three days after that, another guest user questioned whether getting the dog to Animal Control was such a good idea, writing “do you honestly think any time in that cold, blanketless, heartless, shelter will be anything but torturous?” Someone else agreed, and marked the case “reopened.”

That was followed by posts from several guest users, all speculating about conditions in the animal shelter. None of them were happy about the dog’s prospects. And then, amazingly, Officer Stephani Johnson, New Haven’s Municipal Animal Control Officer, chimed in with a lengthy guest post setting the record straight.

“If you would like to visit OUR shelter you will see that 95 percent of our adoptable animals are Pitbulls or Pit part mixes awaiting new homes, not being euthanized as they walk in the door just because of their breed,” she told the doubters. Further defending her agency’s work, she wrote:

Are we understaffed, YES, but we work hard caring for our animals,feeding, cleaning, triage and daily care of sick animals as well as assisting the public with complaints, introducing animals to potential adopters, school tours, food assistance and referrals for rehoming pets, just to name a few. We do not have a receptionist so we must answer the phone and return all calls when time allows. We do not close for lunch as similar agencies do and our breaks are when we can get them. We make every attempt to address everyone's complaint, issue or concern.

Then she asked for help placing animals for adoption and donations of food and supplies. You can walk in my shoes for a day, she told the shelter’s uninformed critics, listing specific opportunities for volunteering.

And then she closed out her post with the facts about the dog that started the whole thread:

Now here's the update.......Five-Year-Old "Lady", who is in great shape, was reclaimed by her owner the following day. He gave a physical address but we believe he is homeless. "Lady" was picked up again a week later when she was found tied behind another location. He sent a friend in to confirm she was at the shelter and asked that we find her a home. She is a happy dog and it is quite evident that her owner loved her as she shows it in her temperament. She will soon be placed for adoption and maybe DC [the original critic who questioned the shelter’s work] can recommend a new family for her. Thank you all for being patient, caring and assisting.

After that, two more guest users left comments. One said, “We all appreciate the work that people like you do for the four footed citizens of this country. I suggest that those who are most critical of shelters get involved in one locally and offer their time to help alleviate the burden of the workers or contribute in other ways. Just complaining is not helping.” And the second one railed against the divisive tone that the skeptics brought to the conversation, saying, “Let’s try to work together on an issue we clearly all care about rather than against one another.”

To end things, MableX—the original passerby who started the thread by reporting the abandoned dog—closes the report again, and begs everyone to have more of a “wee bit of humor” about life in New Haven. And then, some icing on the cake: another guest user also thanks Johnson for her comments, adding, “I am about to take my first step toward volunteering at a shelter. Baby steps for me, a little at a time…Thank you for sharing, Stephanie. It paints a much better picture in my mind of what to expect.”

Stop and consider what took place on this single thread (which has been viewed more than 2,000 times, by the way). First, a concerned passerby spotted and reported a public problem. A neighbor heard about it and decided to take action. The elected representative for that local district also responded, nudging the responsible agencies in city government while also supporting the citizen taking action. A local cop reported that help is on the way. The representative and the Good Samaritan both kept everyone informed on the situation, and then the original passerby, still monitoring the news from afar, declared the problem solved. All of this happened in real-time on a website that anyone could use.

Then, a concerned but skeptical resident asked for accountability, fearing that the service provided by the city was sub-par. Other residents, citing rumors, fueled that worry. And then, the responsible city official responded with chapter and verse on what she says actually happened, using her real name and giving plenty of checkable facts. Two residents offered her support, and the issue got closed again, transparently. And then the open discussion had the effect of inspiring at least one new person to volunteer her time to civic improvement.

Before SeeClickFix existed, this scenario would likely have unfolded this way: Someone would have called 911 or Animal Control to get the dog. The dog would probably have waited alone until their arrival. The alderman would probably have called the police for help, but then he would likely have moved on to other business. And would anyone have felt any sense of urgency? Maybe yes, maybe no. The shelter would have taken the dog in, but would its staff have felt scrutinized for how they cared for it? Maybe yes, maybe no. Would any of the local residents have seen each other getting involved, or known of the responsiveness of their city agencies and representatives? Most likely not. And finally, would there have been an easily accessible record of the entire encounter, including contact information for various involved parties or the number of times they had been civically active? Absolutely not.

“There's a lot of dialogue between city staff and members of the public,” says New Haven chief administrator Robert Smuts. “A lot of it starts off snippy and exasperated,” he notes. “There are always trolls out there, but it pretty quickly evolves into an appreciation of the work being done and the effort being made.” He adds, “It's also interesting to see the public organize itself around issues--either to get the city to address something, or to address it themselves.”

Paul Wessel, a former city director of traffic and parking, another longtime community organizer, says, “It’s an integrator, a connector. It functions, in some ways, like a faster, better, letters-to-the-editor page, but one that has the ability to connect to a work order system.”

“We all have heard the stories of entire neighborhoods that sat idly by while a person screamed for help,” Ben Berkowitz reflected later on his blog, ruminating on this one abandoned dog incident. “It is awesome to know that the community that I get to work with every day is not that community.”

Robbin, the woman who went to help the dog, whose full name is Robbin Siepold, told me by email that she had heard about its situation from a SeeClickFix email alert. The site lets users subscribe to alerts for specific areas, and she used to work for a company in that part of downtown. She explained what happened next:

Having been laid off from that company, I was home that day -- I live downtown on Chapel Street across from The Green, and hence my ability to jump into action quickly. I have a passion to help animals in need, so there was no hesitation on my part to help out. I applaud those that first discovered the dog and took action — and I have to give a plug to our Alderperson Doug Hausladen, who stepped in to help as well! While waiting for the dog warden to arrive, tenants of the adjacent condos and staff of the adjacent music school came out and that became a nice neighborly conversation as well – discussing the dog's plights — the plight of stray animals in new haven in general, etc. – which is another plus to See Click Fix — bringing people together as a neighborhood and community. I am a HUGE fan of See Click Fix — I think they make a big difference in getting needs addressed as well as improving dialogue on issues.

"Creating Citizens Out of Residents"
For Alderman Doug Hausladen, SeeClickFix is more than just a bulletin board where anyone can report a non-emergency issue of public concern. “What SeeClickFix actually does is it’s creating citizens out of residents,” he told me at a coffee shop not far from where the dog was reported abandoned.

Not only that, the site also makes it easy for community groups to form around bigger local issues than potholes and abandoned dogs and channel public discussion in productive directions. The New Haven Safe Streets Coalition, for example, has used SeeClickFix to post more than 3,000 issue reports. “I remember posting red-light runners all over town, back in the day,” Hausladen says, recalling his years as a community activist working on that issue. “We’d have little SeeClickFix stakeouts. It’s a very open transparent way of documenting an issue. We’d create watch areas, and then follow search terms like ‘red-light runner’ as well.”

In 2010, Hausladen was part of a coalition of local community groups and activists who used SeeClickFix to try to address another serious local problem: food deserts. The Shaw’s supermarket had closed, leaving a hole in downtown services. Hausladen posted a call to arms on SeeClickFix, urging people to help “Bring back a full-service supermarket to New Haven” and asking them to take an online survey cataloging their concerns, the better to lobby public officials and potential entrepreneurs on the demonstrated need. The post was a major hub of conversation in town about the problem, with nearly 200 comments and more than 12,000 views. And it took close to a year, but ultimately the city and community convinced a Stop-and-Shop to move in to the vacant property.

The existence of SeeClickFix hasn’t solved all of New Haven’s problems, of course. Like many cities in America, it is economically and racially divided. When Mark Abraham of Data Haven mapped the data from seven years of crime incident reports alongside all the SeeClickFix service requests, he found that the densest areas of SeeClickFix usage were in the safer, more upper-middle-class parts of the city.

That said, as Abraham's chart shows, SeeClickFix reports come from every part of the city. Crime reports, unsurprisingly, are concentrated in the poorer neighborhoods. To Abraham, this indicated that in less well-off areas, not only were residents less likely to use digital media, they also might have greater reason not to trust government to come to their aid. But SeeClickFix's own data shows that, over time, the volume of reports it gets from the different neighborhoods of New Haven has balanced out.

Having roughly one in eight New Haven residents as registered users of SeeClickFix means that local life works differently. Berkowitz told me of a recent case where he had watched someone on the street where he works break into a parked car and make off with someone’s bags. He called the police, but he also posted a SeeClickFix report, in the hope that somehow, someone would read it that knew the car’s owner. The thief had left the car window open, and it was starting to rain.

“In a previous reality, the only way to find that person is to go into nearby businesses and ask if someone knows whose car that was, which I did do,” Berkowitz reflected.

In a previous reality.

He notes that he could have tried calling out to people via a Facebook post or tweet, but neither of those services really have the “geo-specificity” needed. His post showed up on the local newspapers’ homepages, and probably even more importantly, it sent emails to anyone who had had issues near that location on SeeClickFix. And it turns out that the car’s owner was the guest of someone living on the street who indeed was a SeeClickFix user.

“This is something that could have only been created by the Internet,” Berkowitz mused. “In essence, we’ve created a community APB [all-points-bulletin] for non-emergencies, that works on everything from lost animals to car break-ins. You can drop a needle in a haystack, and now it’s easier to find it, because the haystack is better organized. This is a fundamental shift in the way we think about neighborhoods.”

This article is adapted from my new book, The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn't Transformed Politics (Yet), which is available from OR Books.