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Civic Apps Could Redefine The Way Citizens Interact With Cities

Though not necessarily heralded as a hotbed of technological innovation, the City of Boston is plunging headlong into what may be the future of civic engagement by debuting an iPhone app connecting residents to city hall. The app, known as Citizen Connect, is the brainchild of a handful of mayoral aides and will allow residents to file complaints with the city by snapping a photo of a problem—a pothole, a fallen tree limb, a neighbor’s overgrown lawn—and sending it to city hall, complete with a geo-tag so city officials can find and fix the problem.

iphone-appsWhile Citizen Connect claims to be the first app of its kind, Boston isn’t the only city seeking a new level of connectivity with residents through smartphone apps. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced a contest offering cash prizes to developers that create smartphone apps that tap into city data. Other programs, including a new augmented reality app that helps users find Tube stations in London, help city-dwellers function more efficiently within their urban environments.

But will smartphone connectivity become the new measure of civic engagement? Can the app replace the neighborhood association? While some might feel that engaging communities through handheld devices may erode civic bonds, apps that connect citizens to civil servants and elected officials could play an important role going forward. They have the potential to save communities bundles of money by making city services more efficient, as well as to boost community engagement by simply making it easier.

While Boston’s upcoming app is essentially next-gen complaint hotline, there are several ways cities could employ apps to increase efficiency. Apps could allow emergency services to better relay potentially lifesaving information to residents and open an avenue for feedback from the community, or even help rescue workers locate victims of a disaster via GPS. In cities with traffic cameras, apps could provide real-time traffic data and road construction updates, helping relieve congestion and clear the air. Or city apps could make it easier for residents to locate basic city services, like libraries, police stations, the closest mass transit stop, or the nearest polling place (and augmented apps will only make this better). At any rate, civic apps should make cities like Boston—where citizens often complain that no one responds to their complaints—more responsive to their citizens.

[via Boston Globe]

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