Local governments are often impenetrable and difficult to deal with (like the DMV pictured above), largely because they are so technologically behind the times. San Francisco is a glaring exception to the rule, with teams of hackers even invited to participate in a recent mayoral debate. But the City by the Bay's government, while more technology-savvy than most, is just one of many local governments in California that are toying with the idea of jumping deep into the 21st century. Here, we look at how other cities and towns are using technology to improve services and engage citizens, courtesy of a New America Foundation report. Local governments around the country could take a hint.
The San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District is saving lives with an iPhone app that gives anyone with CPR certification the option to be notified if someone nearby is having a cardiac issue and need immediate help. So far, 40,000 users in the district have downloaded the app—no word on how many lives have been saved. Now Sam Ramon's fire district is helping 125 other public agencies worldwide implement the service, which in the future may be used for Amber alerts, finding personnel for emergency shelters in a crisis, and more.
The Santa Cruz City Government Challenge
Two years ago, Santa Cruz found itself in the midst of a budget crisis, with a $9 million General Fund budget deficit. Instead of relying solely on government officials for solutions, the city launched a website featuring nearly all of the information relevant to the budget problem—financial documents, issue primers, continuous updates of state budget activity—so that community members could offer solutions. And they did: finding plenty of ways to slash costs and raise revenues—in total, there were over 200 solutions offered and thousands of votes. The top 10 solutions (chosen via votes) were successfully used as guidance for the budget strategy.
Smartphone Graffiti and Pothole Reporting
It's easy to ignore a pothole on the road, a missing street sign, or a graffiti-filled wall—after all, who wants to take the time to call the city and complain? Long Beach's Go Long Beach cell phone app allows users to send messages or location-tagged photos to the city, where the notifications are routed to the correct departments. Instead of leaving users wondering if their complaint is ever addressed, the app sends a notification when a problem has been taken care of. Since launching in October, 2010, city residents have sent over 4,500 requests.
This is just a small sampling of the many digital government projects underway in California; the New America report contains over 40 other examples, including a real-time online crime map, real-time video of emergency incidents, and open agricultural data. But these services are just the beginning of what local governments can do. We use the Internet to access everything from satellite data to bank accounts—eventually, city governments across the country will have to catch up.
[Images: Flickr user chadmagiera; New America Foundation]