How many people have seen a broken traffic light, a pothole, or a drug dealer in their neighborhood and wished they knew which local agency to contact to fix it or to resolve the situation? The website SeeClickFix (SCF; www.seeclickfix.com) has created an online system for handling local issues and has established relationships with several newspapers and select municipalities to collaborate on improving communities. SeeClickFix is using the internet to empower users, get people involved, and emphasize solutions rather than complaints (which is what a bevy of internet sites do).
Indeed, SeeClickFix has relationships with The Miami Herald, New Haven Independent, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Dallas Morning News, the Gannett chain, and cities New Haven, Conn.; Philadelphia; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and smaller towns such as Mason, Texas, which has 2,500 people. SCF handles nonemergency issues and operates online like the 311-hotline system in many cities and towns. Using their mobile phones, users can even post photos of the problems online.
Predominantly, the site addresses issues such as potholes, broken street lights, graffiti, tree trimming, speeding school buses, and urban blight. The site not only links to governmental departments but also to business improvement districts, the city council, major local utilities, or large, powerful institutions such as Yale University in New Haven.
The genesis for SCF stemmed from an incident that happened to 30-year-old Ben Berkowitz, one of its founders and its CEO. Three years ago, Berkowitz saw graffiti on a neighbor's building and contacted New Haven city government to get it removed. After six calls and considerable frustration, he gave up because no one knew who to reach. Berkowitz had an epiphany: What if we could design a website to take citizen complaints, transmit them to the right department, and get results? SCF was born.
SCF's goals are "participation, accountability, and transparency," Berkowitz said. Transparency, the website explains, means that governments and most organizations work best when they conduct their business in plain view. The SCF site encourages citizens to get involved and for government to become more responsive and accountable. Since all issues are documented on the site, it enables transparency.
Berkowitz and three partners raised money, developed a business model to launch SCF, and launched in March 2008. One revenue stream involved charging municipalities modest amounts to use its proprietary software to help solve local community problems. In fact, New Haven, which has the most elaborate SCF system, pays $15,000 annually; Manor, Texas, pays $100 monthly because of its smaller size; and Philadelphia pays just $38 monthly because it only connects to one city employee. SCR receives 40% of all revenue from the newspapers' banner ads of its partners. That revenue supports the three full-time and two part-time staff members of SCF.
Anyone can use SCF. Users don't have to enroll as members, nor do users municipalities have to sign an agreement. Users go to the website, identify their town, report the address and location using Google maps on the site, and explain the issue. If the user types in "tree," the site will automatically send an email to the local Department of Parks.
The activity map on the New Haven SCF website reveals the local issues on the mind of citizens. Complaints raised include cleaning up neglected West Park, sidewalks blocked by trees, a bicycle path to Yale needs to be opened, damaged street lights, and a desperate call for Apple to open a local store.
If a user's town is not connected to SCF, then the user must include the email address of the mayor, the Department of Energy, or the appropriate department to address the issue. "If your town isn't set up, you can create a watch area so others can get involved," Berkowitz said. Watch areas help involve neighbors, like a neighborhood watch club, to address common issues that affect the area.
How long does it take for a problem to get solved? The time varies greatly depending on the volume of requests and a city's resources. A pothole could be fixed in 2 hours or in several days or longer. SCF says 40% of problems get fixed relatively quickly and the other 60% take longer.
New Haven, where SCF is headquartered, has the most elaborate SCF system of any locale. Previously, New Haven tried an online system to elicit citizen feedback to fix problems, but it was cumbersome and generated little response, noted Rob Smuts, chief administrative officer of New Haven. But when New Haven introduced SeeClickFix in May 2008, usage proliferated.
In fact, New Haven has received 9,271 reports of potholes alone since SCF was installed. "We likely would have received 25 pothole reports without it," Smuts said. Moreover, New Haven saves money since it takes much less time and personnel to respond to an email than a telephone call.
Satisfied with how SCF was involving the community, New Haven ramped up its use. SCF has now arranged special sections on the city's website to deal with local utility companies, state department of traffic, and large private property owners such as Yale University.
In Chattanooga, Liz Henley, the call center coordinator, said though SCF went live only 3 months ago, it has spurred numerous reports of open manhole covers, drainage issues, and housing issues. "For the citizen, the key benefit is the ability to send complaints or comments directly to city government and track the response and results," she said.
In the next few years, Berkowitz envisions SCF expanding to many more locales. At its root, SCF demonstrates that the internet gives people the power to change communities.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.