Sunday, August 10, 2008 - By Ben Berkowitz - No comments

Words of support for SeeClickFix

This is from Jason Stockman, a SeeClickFix user, in an email dated 8.07.08:
As of yesterday, I had reported three problems, and two of them had already been fixed. I even got an email from Rob Smuts saying that he was on top of it (regarding the potholes on York St just south of Chapel). This is the kind of thing that validates one's efforts as a citizen, and that's very cool. It's also a great way to multiply the eyes of a few city inspectors into the eyes of potentially every city resident.

The second reason has to do with some stuff I've been reading, including a book called "Emergence" by Stephen Johnson, who gave a talk at Yale a few years back. Johnson argues that there are three types of systems, simple deterministic systems (brick falling from window ledge), systems of disorganized complexity (gas particles in a room), and systems of organized complexity (cities, ant colonies, brains, markets). (Incidentally, I'm now reading Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter, which also touches on organized complexity). Johnson talks about bottom-up organization and feedback in cities, ant-hills, brains, and in Internet communities like Slashdot, where posts are reviewed by community members and the most popular ones trickle up to the top. He stresses the importance of distributed processing over centralized authority in shaping the character of a system. There is clearly a role for some concentrated power, for a City Hall. But what most defines a neighborhood, a city, and even a whole nation are the myriad interactions between individuals within it. In an ant hill, each individual abides by very simple rules (follow pheremone trails left by other ants), but very complex behavior emerges from the ensemble of all the ants interacting with each other (the Queen has very little impact on the actual dynamics of the colony). Humans follow somewhat more complicated "rules" at the individual level, but exceedingly complex emergent behavior pops out just as it does for an anthill. Johnson says that free markets breed vibrancy and diversity because they allow individuals to freely interact, as contrasted with the stagnation and bleakness of so-called "command" or "planned" economies from the Communist world (this is debatable, but it's an interesting point nonetheless).

I think seeclickfix is a way to help bring about emergent behavior in a city. It addresses the built environment using the distributed intelligence of many individuals. The individual "signal" left by a person who sees a storm drain overflowing is "amplified" by feedback from others who see the same problem and agree that it is urgent. In this way, information bubbles up and commands attention at a higher level, eventually prompting action by City Hall, or other actors.

I don't know. Maybe this analogy is a bit of a stretch. But I appreciate Seeclickfix and I hope it spreads to other cities like a rabid meme.


Post a Comment