New Haven
2:59 pm
Wed December 21, 2011

Click To Fix Government

From the Occupy Wall Street movement to uproar over the prolonged power outages during the October snowstorm, people’s engagement in public space is alive and growing. A New Haven-based start-up is harnessing technology to make city governments and other public entities more accountable and efficient. WNPR’s Sujata Srinivasan reports.

Four years ago, Ben Berkowitz, a New Haven resident, called city hall to complain about what he felt was bad public art. After many voice messages and being put on hold, Berkowitz thought there must be a better way to make governments respond faster. So he and some friends built a prototype for a website that would enable residents to report anything in the public space that’s broken.

Today, his company, SeeClickFix has users in five continents that post problems online or via a smart phone app, which geo-locates the user. Municipalities that sign up for the service get real-time information with pictures, resulting in a work order for the appropriate department. Issues range from potholes, graffiti and streetlights that are out to blighted properties, poor pedestrian infrastructure, abandoned lots and even lost cats. CEO Berkowitz says the multiplier effect since the site was launched is enormous.

“The total number of issues reported is about 140,000, and of course there is multiple votes and comments on those issues, sometimes in the magnitude of 300. So getting upwards of a million pieces of content created on SeeClickFix by hundreds of thousands of people.”

The service is free to the public but governments pay between $5,000 and $10,000 per year. Around 80 municipalities have signed up to date, and nearly 20,000 receive free e-mail alerts about issues raised on the site in their area. Berkowitz says the resolution rate is more than 60 percent. He believes governments are fixing problems faster because people are watching.

“The percentage of resolution is going up because of this disruptive force that SeeClickFix has played in the government space but also because of Twitter and Facebook and a changing of the guard around social media policy within governments and the ability for governments to speak openly.” 

Robert Smuts is chief administrative officer at the City of New Haven. He says the city began to receive so many e-mail notifications though SeeClickFix that they had to improve their efficiency to deal with the increased volume.

“In the last two years, we’ve rolled out a work order system called City Works in Public Works Department where we get a huge number of issues through SeeClickFix around potholes and street issues. And so what we’ve done is we’ve gotten both of the companies to integrate so that issues can go from SeeClickFix into our work order system directly. And that allows us to better prioritize these  issues and manage our workflow a little better.” 

By bringing social media tools to the government space, SeeClickFix is enabling greater transparency. Andrew Jaffee is the director of Emergency Services and Telecommunications for the City of Hartford, which became a client this spring. Jaffee says officials are keen to fix problems quickly because of a healthy dose of competition. People are comparing his city’s response with those of other city governments, such as New Haven.

“It’s in our best interest to turn that case around as quickly as possible because SeeClickFix is in the public arena. So everyone is aware of when the case gets created and how long it takes for the city to close that case. So it’s to our advantage that we close the case as efficiently and as expeditiously as we can.”

The platform also puts the spotlight on non-government services, such as public utility companies. Matthew Nemerson, CEO of the Connecticut Technology Council, foresees this is how public entities will obtain information in the future, enabling them to respond faster.

“The idea of an army of citizens in a sense mapping the infrastructure of their community and providing that back to a large institution like a utility or a city, I think is very appealing. That’s really the way communication is going to go. Instead of having one person sent out in a truck to map twenty miles, have ten thousand citizens give us an exact reading with pictures and updates of that infrastructure in a real time basis.”    

Last year, SeeClickFix raised $1.5 million from angel investors and also via venture funding from two big names. O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Network. Both VCs invest in entities that enable government oversight and social entrepreneurship. Founder Ben Berkowitz says his company is not yet making a profit, but is quickly getting there. He says the goal of SeeClickFix is not to be a shaming tool, but to get more people engaged and feel that there is responsiveness from their government and their community. 

For WNPR, I’m Sujata Srinivasan.