Not long ago if you wanted something fixed in the neighborhood, your options were narrow. You probably needed to call city hall, and often city hall wasn’t responsive. There was no public record of the issue and no accountability either. Also, nobody else in the neighborhood knew you’d made the complaint.
That changed with sites like SeeClickFix, which let you report a bent street sign and fallen tree and engage authorities in getting it sorted out. Now the Internet is almost the default way of interacting with officialdom, as SeeClickFix’s latest numbers indicate. Last year it closed 519,666 neighborhood issues, and logged 847,240 “votes” (that is, people agreeing with an initial complaint). More than 170 governments now use the platform for public communication, and to manage work internally.
Ben Berkowitz founded the site back in 2008. We thought we’d ask him for a few favorite reports, just to get a sense of the stuff people are concerned about and how governments are responding. Here are a few he came up with.
Reports of graffiti are common on the site. But not all graffiti reports complain about illegality, just the quality of the art. One Oakland poster wrote of one effort:
Sophomoric, tired, and uninspired graffiti. If the Internet didn’t exist and this were some podunk town this sort of stuff would be acceptable. But this is Oakland, in 2014. Either bring it or stay home. The gods of pigment frown upon this sorry waste of their gifts to the people of urth.
“Everyone always says we’re trying to get rid of graffiti,” Berkowitz says. “But really we’re just a platform for having that conversation.”
Similarly, a Toronto resident complained that a subway sign had been put up incorrectly at the Dufferin station (the N in Dufferin was too far away from the I). He worried that the example of “bad kerning” might send the wrong message to the city’s “creative class”:
..such a visible typographical error in Toronto’s trendy west end indicates, intentionally or not, that municipal government has deprioritized the most forward-thinking sort of economic development. We may conclude that our kind is not wanted here, and migrate to a city with a more aesthetically pleasing public transit system, such as London or Montreal.
Berkowitz thinks the comment was sarcastic–at least that’s how a city official took it. “With respect to tearing down this wall we can’t move ahead on that option without a heaping dose of glastnost propping up the rest of the station,” he said.
Berkowitz says the site is increasingly “a peer-to-peer platform where the lines between citizen and government in terms of who is responsible are blurred.” That is, it’s often other citizens who respond to issues. A recent case: A disabled couple in rural New Jersey posted that they couldn’t get out of the house because of heavy snow. Seven neighbors soon appeared to shovel them out. Berkowitz says government officials also communicate with each other through the site.
A woman in New Haven lost a prized mitten, and posted about it. Four hours later someone found it and put up a picture. “I like that story, because it shows if you have the right algorithm, you can really break through the noise of the Internet and get value at a local level,” Berkowitz says.
Berkowitz likes that officials and residents get to understand each other better. Thirty drivers in New Haven were outraged to get tickets for parking on a street that hadn’t been advertised as “no parking.” One went on SeeClickFix to complain, encouraging a parking official to respond. He admitted there the signs were inadequate, apologized, and nixed the fines. “I genuinely appreciate some of the light-hearted conversation that happens,” Berkowitz says. “It doesn’t all have to be about ‘you screwed up,’ ‘let’s vote you out of office,’ ‘you’re a lazy public employee.'”