Tuesday, August 3, 2010 - By Ben Berkowitz - 8 comments

Governments are cash strapped - Are we helping or hurting?

I just finished reading Clay Johnson's Recent Post on infoVegan regarding the Municipal Crisis. Clay takes the position that crowd sourcing citizens to exclusively report municipal issues could create fiscal burden on cash strapped cities. He goes on to point out that some of the issues on SeeClickFix are from users that are requesting services that they might be able to fix themselves. He also offer some creative solutions for getting citizens more involved.

As we were welcomed into the conversation by our vanity alerts I thought I'd give my take on this.

At a business level citizen reporting is replacing paid positions in city hall by alleviating the need for city inspectors. In NYC Mayor Bloomberg has hired 19 city inspectors to augment 311 which, while at 14,000 calls/6 hrs, is still not enough to get a good bug report on the city. SeeClickFix uses principles of the social web to encourage reporting that would not otherwise happen. As well SeeClickFix takes some of burden off of the 311 lines which can cost tax payers anywhere from $3-$15/Call.

One of the unexpected facets of reporting issues publicly (or griping/bitching/whining) is that you not only hold your government officials accountable but you also hold yourself the reporter accountable as well. We find many times where users report issues that might be solved by they themselves and other users take it upon themselves to comment "why don't you do it yourself?" We love this at SeeClickFix and have taken this into account when building the tools. As an example those receiving alerts via watch areas are not just governments but ordinary citizens, neighborhood groups and others looking to improve the public space. Admittedly when we created the site we were creating a tool to bitch at government. However in the face of open communication and the creativity of our users we quickly saw that we were selling the platform and the open government movement short by limiting a citizens responsibility to simply complaining.

It struck me that Clay's impression of SeeClickFix is that of a place to simply shake the vending machine harder. While this certainly is a big part of the site I would argue that unless you get people to admit to the action that you want to modify by allowing them to commit it publicly you will never be able to correct it. Clay suggests that we add a "I want to help fix this too" button. I think this is a great idea and in fact we are experimenting with a similar tool now: community actions.

On this particular issue where someone reported the need for volunteers to plant trees (a little bit of a stretch on reporting an issue but hey its a flexible platform) you can see the community actions feature on the right.

As the first user of SeeClickFix and someone who used the tool initially to report graffiti to government this is where I'm at now as user: http://seeclickfix.com/issues/889 and http://seeclickfix.com/issues/39960. From clicker to fixer, graffiti reporter to tree planter, I think we can all head in this direction.

There is a natural progression from "do it for me" to "I'll do it myself" when resources are tight. I agree with Clay that this is the perfect time to encourage more of the Do It Ourself actions. At SeeClickFix we want suggestions as to how we can fuel this more and we want you to comment on others' issues suggesting that they do just that. Friendly suggestions to take the initiative yourself can go a long way and offering to help them fix their own problems can go a really long way.

Clay referenced this issue as one where a citizen might be able to get involved in the solution. Its located in Washington DC. If there are any DC users out there who would be willing to help maintain this park you should comment on the issue and encourage the initial user to help you fix it. I'm looking at you Clay Johnson... I know where you live :)

Who knows, the conversation might look like this: http://seeclickfix.com/issues/47634 Sure the city ended up fixing this particular issue and I was called a "dunce" but you get the point.

If you're interested in reading more on our take on distributing responsibility, encouraging participation and taking burden off a tax strapped system read this post from a few months back: http://seeclickfix.blogspot.com/2010/01/distributed-311-for-distributed.html otherwise take a moment to look at these beautiful trees planted by my neighbors:


  1. Andy Nash says:

    This is really a great idea. There are lots of ways that citizens could actually help improve their communities and take some of the burden off government. seeclickfix is a natural for helping organize the mobilization of citizens in this way. Glad to hear you are working on it!

  2. Thought: build a "tipping-point" style interface to allow people to rally around fixable stuff in their neighborhoods.

  3. Ben says:

    Thanks for the support guys. Interested for you to elaborate a little more Kiril.


  4. Amen, Amen, Amen!

    Folks, it is time to set aside some time to dig deep and get it done. Aside from paving roads, there is so much we can do. We can fix sidewalks, remove graffiti, plant trees, mow the parks, etc etc.

    I have my paint brush ready!

  5. Ben -

    I think it would be tremendously helpful if you could somehow create a facebook event out of an issue - b/c the community actions isn't getting the traction i thought it would. but if you combined with a calendar system people are already using (including gcal), then perhaps we could get more buy-in.

    scf keep on rockin

  6. Ben says:

    That's good feedback Doug,
    I agree that we need to tie into an existing event platform. I was thinking that meet-up everywhere might be good.

  7. Stephen says:

    We already have a community group that repaints walls when graffiti has been reported. I could see them using the Community Action feature as a tool to receive reports as well as to manage and distribute tasks.

    As for the "hey, you can do this" aspect, I've just responded to someone complaining about litter as user2473:


  8. Ben says:

    That's awesome Stephen. A huge part of getting this right on SeeClickFix comes down to the attitude of early adapters introducing the tool their community.

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