Bump and mend: The apps helping fix city streets

A broken traffic light Broken traffic light on your road? There is, of course, an app for that

Smartphones are well-established social hubs, loaded with software used to send and receive photographs, appointments, news and invites.

Corporations and large organisations have been there from the start, thrilled at finding new ways to push and promote products and services.

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Now governments around the world now want to join the party.

In the US, cities and states have realised that a combination of neighbourhood goodwill, a well-thought-out app and an army of smartphones can revolutionise the way they do the peoples' business.

It is called urban crowd sourcing: allowing the public to report problems on the spot from a mobile device and then get real time feedback as they get resolved.

Millions of people own phones with excellent GPS capabilities, accelerometers and high resolution camera lenses.

Filing reports from an app is almost a pleasure, compared with writing or phoning in.

Potholes, abandoned vehicles and graffiti are all favourites.

And it is claimed that people who download government apps generally use them more than just once, perhaps seeing themselves as protectors of their community, rather than serial complainers.

This kind of thinking has been deliberately cultivated by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, whose New Urban Mechanics department identifies ways for the public to report problems electronically and automatically.

The scheme is being copied across the US.

A crack in a road's curb Minor issues like this can be reported without making people feel like "serial complainers"

"We've developed a model that focuses on the quality of life, the liveability of Boston's neighbourhoods, using a range of new techniques and approaches where government services meet the public," says Nigel Jacob, from the mayor's office.

The goal is to fix the little things quickly and let communities know that standards exist.

For example, children are more likely to tag on a wall in an area full of graffiti, while a burnt out car seems to attract those who dump their fridges and computers.

The idea is decades old.

But instead of relying on environmental inspectors, cities aim to reach people with self-empowering messages that are faster and cheaper.

Start Quote

What we've done is developed a model that focuses on the quality of life”

End Quote Nigel Jacob Mayor's Office, Boston

Take Boston's pot-hole finding app, Street Bump, designed to be used in a car.

When a mobile with a built in accelerometer is running the app, every judder and jolt is recorded, along with its GPS co-ordinates, which are sent to a central server.

If a bump triggers three separate reports within four days it is officially declared an issue and somebody will fix it.

The hardest part was developing an algorithm that could distinguish between potholes and manhole covers or rain drains, says Mr Jacob.

It is also possible for citizens to submit photographs of holes as they appear, allowing them to be repaired early.

The more data collected electronically, the easier to pinpoint and predict where potholes form every year.

Screenshot of Street Bump app Street Bump uses a smartphone's accelerometer to register bumps in the road
Collaboration and transparency

Boston has been empowering the public and its own workforce with urban crowd sourcing technology for several years. Its original mobile app in 2009, "Citizen Connect", allowed the public to report various problems.

Officials found that people who complain electronically take more interest in following up the issue than those who phone in, so this year they introduced City Worker, an app that allows government employees in the field to publicly close a case from the worksite. The person who originally submitted the issue receives an email.

In 2009, President Barack Obama's Open Government Initiative called for public collaboration and transparency at every level of government.

Since then many cities, including Salt Lake City and San Francisco, have introduced apps with two way communication to promote day-to-day efficiency and effectiveness.

For instance, duplicate submissions can quickly be identified, location information for each complaint is more accurate than ever before, and the person who submitted the request can also see how many other people complained, what has been done about it and how long it will take to get a final resolution.

Trawling Twitter

Building an app to run a city can be costly. So some governments scour established social networks with the help of companies such as Kana.

Its "Lagan Experience Analytics" software tool trawls though sites such as Twitter and Facebook to find messages that may be of interest to local administrations. Product Marketing Director Alan Brooks says that social media conversations are often more revealing than reports filed via an app.

Image of woman using street reporting app Other cities across the US are beginning to emulate Boston's approach to maintenance

"What this allows is an aggregation of not only topics, but also positive and negative sentiment," he says.

"It is a very useful technology and source of knowledge that can be combined with other crowd sourcing platforms."

City officials across America realise urban crowd sourcing is in its infancy and its full potential is untapped.

For example, police departments know that gangs and drug dealers increasingly use social media. Boston hopes city-funded apps will help improve educational establishments and healthcare facilities.

Of course, many concerns are raised about the entire concept, including confidentiality and privacy, but government officials say that submissions can be anonymous and much information is only kept temporarily until each issue is dealt with.

The reduced costs, improved efficiency and faster response time means the idea will develop further.

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