SeeClickFix: Is “Little Brother” the Next Big Thing?

seeclickfixgrab.jpgSeeClickFix users report Union Street gridlock

The next generation of community-driven reporting of quality-of-life issues — like potholes, graffiti, garbage buildup, or broken street lights — is SeeClickFix, software that enables users to populate a map with cases that are then forwarded to the responsible city agency. Much like a 311 system, SeeClickFix is predicated on the assumption that an aware and engaged public that uses technology can get its city government to efficiently resolve problems.

Unlike most 311 systems, the visual mapping function enables users to see all existing complaints about a particular problem or to add their voice to an existing case, thus promoting it to a more urgent position in the queue. Users can create "watch areas" and receive notices when other users identify a problem within it. Each case generates an e-mail that is sent to the appropriate agency responsible for fixing it.

According to founder Ben Berkowitz, who is based in New Haven, Connecticut, SeeClickFix got its first trial run last year when New Haven’s mayor, John DeStefano, Jr., was looking for a way to better respond to public quality-of-life complaints and to reduce duplication of efforts within agencies. DeStefano required the city to respond to cases that had been generated by the public on SeeClickFix and report the status of the cases online.

The system was so successful that the city now uses SeeClickFix as a proxy 311, with agencies such as the DOT, DPW, and police department using it for non-emergency issues. DeStefano was so happy with the service that he sent a letter to more that 100 other mayors encouraging them to try it.

Berkowitz says the system has now expanded beyond the local government to utility companies and non-profits.  He said they have seen numerous cases of good Samaritans responding to complaints without prompting, such as one carpenter who fixed several park benches he located on the site.

"That’s the beauty of open source," says Berkowitz. "At first, we thought of calling it Little Brother, like ‘Little Brother is Watching,’ but then we realized we needed to be a bit more kind to government."

Berkowitz explains that SeeClickFix often coordinates with newspapers, such as those in Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, to promote the software to the public, then advocates for the city to try responding to cases and noting the progress online. When the Philadelphia Inquirer added the SeeClickFix widget to its site, Philadelphia 311 soon started responding online to newly-generated cases.

In San Francisco, Phil Bronstein, editor-at-large of Hearst Newspapers Division, is a big fan of SeeClickFix and is planning to use the mapping widget on SFGate.com. Kevin Skaggs, executive producer of SFGate, said a collaboration with SeeClickFix has been in the works since Bronstein blogged about them last year, and that SFGate will use the widget in a few months on its new hyper-local Chronicle sites.

The new Chron sites will resemble the New York Times’ recently launched local blogs, where SeeClickFix is already a presence. As of now, the Times has incorporated the map widget into the New Jersey edition of "The Local," which covers Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange. Berkowitz hopes the Times’ Brooklyn blog, targeted at readers in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, will follow suit. If that happens, he sees city residents using SeeClickFix as a tool for broad scale community improvement.

"We know that it can be much bigger than 311 in New York," says Berkowitz. "It’s a really great method for getting a dialogue started."

With reporting by Brad Aaron.

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