Civic apps connect neighborhoods, city governments

6045997984_e8835bb3ba_b

Shoulder surgery had left Marilyn Bravo, a 65-year-old Jamaica Plain resident, unable to lift more than a gallon of milk this winter. So when the record-breaking snowstorms hit, she planned to look for help shoveling out her car.

Bravo posted a request for help on a website called “SnowCrew,” which connects people who need shoveling help with able-bodied volunteers called “Yetis.” About an hour later, a strapping stranger named James was at her door, shovel in hand.

“I was never so happy to see anyone in my life,” Bravo remembers. “And later I said to him, ‘You just have no idea what this means to me, you know. This is my freedom. I can get out of the house.’” James returned to help Bravo with two bouts of shoveling this season.

SnowCrew is an app built by New Haven company SeeClickFix, and it’s one of a growing number of websites, databases, and phone apps being developed to encourage civic engagement and connectivity between neighbors. They’re now serving as the digital equivalent of a neighborhood meeting or virtual Town Hall.

Launched in 2008, SeeClickFix has developed a suite of apps for city governments that work as tools to collect and track city maintenance requests; if a resident spots a problem, they can report it easily by uploading a photograph of the issue. This month, as the East Coast has begun to thaw, the company has seen a spike in usage, and last week it reported its most active week ever, with more than 10,000 issues logged — requests ranging from pothole repairs to streetlamps where bulbs have blown out.

A screenshot of the Nextdoor app. (Image via Nextdoor)

A screenshot of the Nextdoor app. (Image via Nextdoor)

Another civic app connecting the public online is Nextdoor, which is essentially a private social network where neighbors can post notices about a lost pet, or ask for suggestions for contractors. Since launching in 2011, the San Francisco-based site has expanded to more than 53,000 neighborhoods, and this month Nextdoor announced that it had raised $110 million in funding from investors including Greylock Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Comcast Ventures.

“They’ve proven themselves to be quite popular and quite useful,” Mitch Weiss said of the apps. Weiss, who was Mayor Thomas Menino’s chief of staff and played a key role in the 2009 launch of the city of Boston’s own fix-it app, called Citizens Connect, developed by the Office of the New Urban Mechanics.

“They also have a grander possibility,” he added. Weiss, who now teaches cases on civic entrepreneurship and technology as a lecturer at the Harvard Business School, said these apps can be the first step towards building a trust between residents and their elected officials. Today, the discussion may be about potholes, but they could fuel a future dialogue about urban education or public safety, he said.

IMG_0302After seeing the success of Citizens Connect in the city of Boston, SeeClickFix was contracted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 2012 to build a statewide app called Commonwealth Connect. It’s now active in more than 40 neighborhoods around the state.

“I started this as a citizen advocating for change in my neighborhood,” said SeeClickFix founder Ben Berkowitz. “I was thinking about this as a way to document problems, I wasn’t even sure it was going to solve problems.”

Mark Slater, a Bay Village resident who launched the Nextdoor website for his neighborhood, describes the service as “the electronic version of the village square.” “If somebody noticed their car was unlocked or graffiti somewhere, they’d go to the president,” Slater said. “This was all stuff that could have gone directly neighbor to neighbor.”

While apps like SeeClickFix and Nextdoor are peaking in usage, law enforcement and city governments are also trying to figure out how to best use them.

The Billerica police department has been using Nextdoor since August 2013, and Lieutenant Greg Katz, who works on public safety technology at the department, said he believes it has played a role in bringing crime to the lowest ever rate in 2014. One in five Billerica families use the site.

Nextdoor_demo_map

What made the difference? “I think it’s awareness and the ability to communicate with the neighbors and share information, it really kind of pulls on that tendency to get into a complacency mindset,” he said. “Social media in general has a really big impact on crime prevention.”

To join a Nextdoor site, new residents must register with a verifiable local address. Nextdoor’s policies also limit the amount of lurking law enforcement can do on the site, meaning Katz can’t read posts between neighbors. But the department can use it to broadcast updates and information.

“We know the audience we speak to,” he said. That’s what sets it apart from services like Twitter, where the Billerica PD has more than 13,900 followers. On Nextdoor, said Katz, “We know when we send something out to the neighborhood, it’s the residents within the area that are reading it,” and no one else, he said.

The Braintree police department, which joined the service is January, is among the latest to get on board.

Images via Flickr user La Citta Vita

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at [email protected]
Follow Nidhi on Twitter - Facebook