A couple of New Haven coders — one from Austin, another homegrown — have put their heads together to make it easier for citizens to report problems and communicate with each other about them from their phones.
The coders, James Smith and Josh Wyrtzen, work at SeeClickFix, the New Haven-based international civic problem-solving web service. Tasked with updating the SeeClickFix app for Android phones, the duo did more than just give the app a facelift: they pushed it towards streamlining the process by which users talk to each other and with their local governments.
“Easier, more accurate reporting, tighter feedback loops with your local government and an educational, collaborative platform to engage with your community,” Wyrtzen said. “That’s what we’re aiming for.”
The duo’s success represents a problem-solving quest of its own: New Haven’s quest to foster and funnel people into the jobs of the future. SMith and Wyrtzen followed two different paths to there.
“Trial By Fire”
With the help of a contractor in Uruguay, the team began developing the update in July.
Smith, who’s been at SeeClickFix for about a year and a half, had just finished school with a computer science degree from Southern Connecticut State University when he came across A100, a local 12-week boot camp for recent grads to hone their software development job skills.
Smith and a friend — Ronnie Simonelli, who was also going through the program — later demonstrated their group project, a digital instrument that could load in a web browser, to SeeClickFix head of engineering Ren Provey. Both were hired “pretty quickly” after that, Smith said.
After doing projects here and there for a year, Smith was put on the Android team, where he has been learning as he goes. He said he plans to stick around.
“Once I was in A100 and saw all the software companies around, I thought it was good place to be,” Smith said of New Haven.
While A100 aims to retain homegrown talent like Smith to build up a stronger base for software development companies in New Haven, the city’s tech scene was a welcome change for Wyrtzen, a Texas native last seen in Austin.
Having graduated from Yale’s divinity school in 2007, Wyrtzen left to teach high school English in his home state after the recession hit. There, he made his first foray into the tech scene: a lesson-planning app he worked on with three other teachers.
After a brief stint in Cleveland, Wyrtzen found himself back in Austin working for a large startup when he realized he wanted to be doing work that had meaning and purpose.
“The city I loved had gotten a little too big,” he said, citing a culture in his industry that lacked “loyalty.”
So when he reached back out to networks in New Haven and landed a job at SeeClickFix, he knew he was where he needed to be: working for the betterment of society, solving real-world problems.
Like Smith, Wyrtzen has picked up his skills through “trial by fire,” learning as he goes. He thinks back to his time in college, working as an apprentice to a carpenter, and then remodeling houses with a friend in graduate school.
“If you know how to build things, you know how to build things,” Wyrtzen said. “You figure it out.”
“I used to build houses, too,” Smith replied. And now? They build apps.
A Better App At Hand
The new app they built, which was launched last week, has been visually overhauled to fit a set of design standards outlined by Google.
Now, new users will find the app more intuitive to use, Smith said, pointing to a navigation bar at the bottom of the app that makes it easier to work the app with only one hand.
The new app can also recognize when users try to report an issue that has already been reported. You can now add up to five photos when reporting issues, too: a commonly-requested feature that helps fieldworkers better understand what the issue is about.
“If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then five pictures are worth 5,000 words,” Wyrtzen said.
The update makes it easier for you to add a location when flagging an issue, too, by picking up the GPS coordinates of the photos taken.
These changes are part of a SeeClickFix initiative to unify its mobile phone service, bridging the gap among users, their neighbors and government officials. (The update for iPhone users is still in the works.)