Greatest Hits Tour Wows Gov’t Techies

Paul Bass PhotosRoss Whitsett walked by a crowd of visitors from across the country as he navigated Olive Street on his way downtown for a sandwich. He noticed a man with a suit telling the visitors about traffic-calming.

“There are no crosswalks anywhere around [Wooster] Square!” Whitsett called out to the suited man.

The suited man explained that the state had just paved the neighborhood’s main roads, that restriping will follow soon.

“When’s it going to be painted?” Whitsett pressed.

It sounded like a textbook case for SeeClickFix, the web-based problem-solving website where citizens can connect with government officials.

Unbeknownst to Whitsett, he had stumbled into a real-life SeeClickFix interaction.

The man in the suit was Douglas Hausladen, city government’s transit chief, who practically lives on citizen-interaction sites like SeeClickFix. Standing beside Hausladen was a man in a black T-Shirt: Ben Berkowitz, who founded SeeClickFix in New Haven eight years ago and grown it into engine for revolutionized civic information-sharing and problem solving in cities around the world.

Hausladen and Berkowitz were leading a tour for government and not-for-profit citizen-engagers from cities across the country Wednesday afternoon. They were in town for the first day of a two-day “SeeClickFix Summit” aimed at sharing ideas about how to use SeeClickFix and other web tools to connect with citizens and address problems ranging from litter to deadly traffic.

Some 50 summiteers in all spent the morning in workshops that had to be moved form Artspace to the 200 Orange St. basement public meeting room after a gas leak cleared the block. They remained in the hall for remarks from Mayor Toni Harp. Harp formally welcomed them to “New Haven,  worldwide headquarters of SeeClickFix,” and told them that New Haven is even more of a “foodie” mecca than Portland, Oregon.

Half the summiteers then returned to Artspace for a workshop on designing mobile apps. The other half gathered outside 200 Orange to follow Hausladen and Berkowitz on a tour of SeeClickFix’s greatest hits in Wooster Square: Examples of how neighbors and government have worked together through the city and then in real life to solve problems.

Along the way Hausladen called their attention to Federal Plaza, where a SeeClickFix campaign helped the city push federal employees to stop hogging the pedestrian space with their parked cars. “We got them down from 32 to eight cars,” Hausladen reported.

What made the tour especially fun was the way passersby punctuated the guides’ points. Hausladen was telling the group about how more than 10,000 new residents have moved into downtown and Wooster Square since 2009, so that now 14 percent of city commuters walk to their jobs and many bike as well. “There go two now!” a summiteer called out as two cyclists zoomed by on Court Street onto State.

Hausladen followed with a story about how all those new Wooster Square walkers were complaining on SeeClickFix about the lack of lighting on the Court Street bridge connecting the new apartments in the former Strouse Adler corset factory to downtown. Between 30 and 40 muggings occurred after dark in a matter of weeks. The city worked with neighbors and installed new LED lights powered by solar panels. Neighbors thanked city officials with a cookout.

At the corner of olive and Court, Hausladen told the crowd the sad story of how a driver fatally ran over an 81-year-old Dolores Dogolo in 2014. He spoke of how neighbors filled SeeClickFix with specific suggestions for traffic calming (a subject that brought nods from many of the visitors, who find the topic trending on their own cities’ SeeClickFix pages). He spoke of how the neighbors and city officials were able to have civil community meetings, free of shouting, to craft solutions like the new push-button flashing sign pictured at the top of this story.

“There! Now!” a summiteer called out as the driver of a black car sped by anyway.

“We still have some work to do,” Hausladen acknowledged.

That’s when Ross Whitsett walked by and registered the complaint about the disappeared crosswalks. Hausladen explained that the state had been paving. Whitsett responded that Olive Street had already been repaved for two weeks now.

“There’s still nothing,” observed Whitsett, who had a day off from his job at Yale-New Haven.

“That’s the power of neighbors,” Hausladen remarked to the crowd. “That’s citizen action.”

“Is he a politician?” Whitsett subsequently asked a reporter about the suited man. Informed that the man runs the city transit department, Whitsett responded, “Hopefully he can” get the new striping.

The tour turned down Chapel to Union Street, where Ben Berkowitz told the story of how neighbors used SeeClickFix to debate the future of blocks with lots of empty buildings or unused space stretching toward Water Street, creating a no-man’s land between Wooster Square and downtown. The idea of a dog park popped up on the site. So did the idea of putting it on Union Street. City officials responded, as did other neighbors, who raised money to build the park.

Berkowitz spoke of how United Illuminating pitched in to light up the park so people would feel safe. Then he pointed across the train tracks to the 360 State residential tower. A tenant there complained on SeeClickFix about how the light shone right into his room; UI then shifted the angle.

Berkowitz and Hausladen, a former alder who helped organize the park project, spoke of how neighbors have met each other there, what a popular spot it has become. As if on cue, Zoe Lloyd, a business and forestry grad student who lives on Court Street, walked by with her Boykin Spaniel Cam after one of their regular visits to the park. “Having a dog, you meet other people” there, she said. “It creates community.”

Berkowitz proceeded to tell the summiteers about how two developers are now planning to build some 800 apartments across the street and using the park as a marketing lure to prospective tenants.

“I’m learning a lot I can bring back to D.C.,” remarked summiteer Joanne Lin as the group moved on. Lin works in Washington as an “impact analytics associate” for Global Giving, a not-for-profit group helping other not-for-profits grow; and for a group called Feedback Labs that aims to get citizens and government communicating and working together to solve problems. She said the dog-park tale exemplifies what the group hopes to accomplish. “Feedback has changed what this city does,” she observed.

The tour ended at Artspace on Orange Street, where another round of workshops was set to begin, followed by a happy hour at 360 State.

Meanwhile, Doug Hausladen was on the phone with the state Department of Transportation. To get an answer for Ross Whitsett about Wooster Square’s crosswalk-striping schedule.

(Update: Hausladen reported on Thursday that the state Department of Transportation plans to being restriping the area’s roads next week.)

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posted by: Bradley on September 15, 2016  6:41am

Ben and Doug are long-time friends of mine and they are doing really useful work. For example, the crosswalk improvements described in the article decrease the odds of pedestrians being hurt or killed. But, to state the obvious, there are real limits to what they can accomplish using this approach. The tweaks that SCF facilitates will not, by themselves, change the blithe disregard many drivers (and cyclists and pedestrians) have for traffic laws. Moreover, many of the key problems facing the city in areas such as education and economic opportunity are structural in nature.

posted by: New Haven Taxpayer on September 15, 2016  8:03pm

I would love to see an article about the difference in fines collected by the Parking Department since Mr Hausladen has been in charge. My guess is he has substantially increased revenues with the addition of increased enforcement/ticketing. Any stats Mr. Bass?

posted by: fastdriver on September 17, 2016  8:29am

I’d like to see the Parking Department stats also! Specifically, the parts of the city where tickets have been issued AND the parts of the city where the fines/tickets are IGNORED!