“Anonymous” asked about getting more trash cans. “City of New Haven” responded with a phone number to call. A neighbor offered two extra trash cans that she had. “Department of Public Works” followed up to see if everything worked out.
All that happened online on SeeClickFix, New Haven’s homegrown problem-solving website. None of it would have happened six years ago.
Back then, SeeClickFix was just getting started. It didn’t have the global reach it has now. The city hadn’t yet embraced SeeClickFix as a way to track and respond to neighborhood requests for city services.
The website allows users to report problems from downed trees to clogged sewer drains, from potholes to prostitution. Other users can comment, and city officials can respond to the problem and to the person who reported it.
Now, nearly six years after the site launched, as a new mayoral administration prepares to take the reins of city government, SeeClickFix founder Ben Berkowitz (pictured) and outgoing city Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts reflected on the growth of SeeClickFix. They released new data that shows how much an integral part of New Haven’s civic daily life SeeClickFix has become, and how much a private outside new-media experiment can become a partner with government.
For many city departments, SeeClickFix is now the main system for tracking tasks from assignment to completion. As it has grown, SeeClickFix has shaped New Haven government and community, and transformed itself in the process—creating a model that has now spread to cities worldwide. With New Haven as a laboratory, SeeClickFix has grown from four employees to 18. The site is in use on every continent except Antarctica. It has 2,000 registered government employees worldwide and 160 official partner cities. Some 400,000 people have created content on the site.The cities that use SeeClickFix as a “primary digital interface” have a combined population of 25,000,000 people.
Web311 Flops, SCF Surges
“It sort of happened to us,” Smuts (pictured) said of SeeClickFIx’s growing integration with New Haven city government.
SeeClickFix’s crowdsourced approach to fixing neighborhood problems organically overtook a city-implemented service designed to do the same thing.
The “alpha” version of SeeClickFix went live on Jan 13, 2008, right around the time the city launched “Web 311,” a similar internet service offered by a different company but run through the city bureaucracy.
Web311 wasn’t user-friendly, said Smuts. Hardly anyone used it. And it wasn’t transparent, pointed out Berkowitz. Everyday citizens couldn’t track how government workers responded to complaints.
Berkowitz had begun working on SeeClickFix after fruitless efforts to get the city to clean up graffiti on State Street. He thought there had to be a better way. He and three other tech-savvy entrepreneurs—Jeff Blasius and Kam and Miles Lasater—set about making that better way.
From the beginning, SeeClickFix offered a fully transparent way to tackle neighborhood problems. All reported problems are public and can spark online and even real-life conversations between neighbors.
Berkowitz recalled one of the first times he saw the potential that the website could have, when an online conversation blossomed into real-life action. In 2008, someone found an old boat abandoned in the woods at the top of Orange Street near East Rock. A conversation started online that led to neighbors pulling the boat out so that the parks department could remove it.
When SeeClickFix debuted, Berkowitz helped Smuts sign up for alerts and the CAO started getting messages about neighborhood problems and discussions. He soon realized that SeeClickFix was doing in a grassroots way what the city-implemented Web311 was meant to do.
“No one really used their system,” Berkowitz said. “Everyone used SeeClickFix.”
That was true partly because SeeClickFix is so user-friendly, said Smuts. Web311 was built according to what city governments determined they wanted, not in response to what neighbors actually use.
SeeClickFix “took its lead primarily from user interaction,” Smuts said. The site is easy to use, intuitive. It’s easy to train city staff to use it, Smuts said.
As SeeClickFix took hold among New Haveners, the city integrated it more deeply into the daily workflow of various city departments. Web311 faded into obscurity; the city eventually pulled the plug, enshrining SeeClickFix as government’s interface with citizens.
“We finally killed it a few months ago,” Smuts said of 311. SeeClickFix, meanwhile, is at the top right corner of the city’s homepage.
All The Data
Under Smuts’ leadership, city government has been moving toward using SeeClickFix more and more.
In July 2012, the city decided to make SeeClickFix the “universal front end” for handling non-emergency issues. That means that when a New Havener with a streetlight out calls any number in city government, whether it’s public works or the mayor’s office, whoever answers the phone can handle the repair request, using SeeClickFix. The idea is to prevent people from getting “stuck in phone-tree purgatory,” Smuts said.
That vision is not yet a reality, Smuts said. He said the city is making progress. Smuts stressed that SeeClickFix is not just for people who can access the website. People calling problems into the city are using SeeClickFix without knowing it, because the city worker who answers the phone is putting the problem up on the site.
In Sept. 2012, the parks department moved its entire tree-trimming workflow on to SeeClickFix. Instead of a system of manila folders and incomplete spreadsheets, the department now uses SeeClickFix for logging all tree-trimming requests and tracking them through to completion.
Other departments have followed, Smuts said. “Now we have weekly meetings with different departments on how we’re doing on workflow,” he said. “Having numbers behind something, having all the data is really powerful as a management tool.”
Berkowitz said he thinks SeeClickFix has helped neighbors appreciate city workers more. “From my perspective, amongst SeeClickFix users, they get a ton more respect. Their work is being shown.” People can see their complaints acknowledged, and see the amount of work that needs to be done, and what is getting done.
“I feel like if you’re a New Haven resident and you’re still saying nothing ever gets fixed, you’re just not knowing about this,” he said.
SeeClickFix recently added a “Say Thanks!” button that people can click when someone fixes their complaint. City workers get an email every Friday with that week’s thank-yous.
Outside of City Hall, SeeClickFix “has been able to show that being an active citizen is not just about speaking up and voting,” Berkowitz said. The site has given people another way to help each other.
For instance, Berkowitz said, the animal hospital on State Street has helped recover a number of lost pets by posting info on SeeClickFix when distressed owners come in looking for missing Fido.
“It’s not without creating tension,” Berkowitz said. Fights can erupt on SeeClickFix, with people closing and reopening reports, and sniping at each other in the comments.
Just a few days ago, Berkowitz himself got into a testy exchange with a user over a bad experience he said he had with a police dispatcher when phoned in a theft from a Volkwagen Jetta.
Smuts chimed in on the same comment chain to address the larger issue of call-taking and police dispatch, an issue that grew out of the comments on the initial report. The thread evolved into a largely civil and very detailed discussion between Berkowitz and a police dispatcher.
In his comments on the issue, Berkowitz explained his frustration when he had eyeballed an alleged thief and called in a crime, then felt the dispatcher’s slowness let the guy get away. A dispatcher talked about the difficulty of doing a job that requires you to talk to frantic and sometimes verbally abusive people for up to 14 hours at a stretch. It was a dialogue that might never have happened without SeeClickFix as a forum.
The same comment thread also included a message from the grateful owner of the car, who offered a reward for the return of a stolen duffel bag that had belonged to the owner’s late father.
As SeeClickFix has grown, it has used New Haven as a test kitchen for new features, and taken feedback from the city about how to improve the site.
“Users locally have been quite tolerant of us testing things,” Berkowitz said. Even when those tests don’t work out so well.
After winter storm Nemo, SeeClickFix organized a fire hydrant-clearing event. SeeClickFix put in the latitude and longitude of all the city’s fire hydrants and organized users to go shovel them out and report when they’d done it.
Through a glitch in the system, SeeClickFix ended up sending out “thousands and thousands” of emails about fire hydrants to certain users who had created “points of interest,” areas in the city that they wanted to be notified about. People complained about inboxes flooded with emails.
Lesson learned, Berkowitz said. The lesson: Give people the information they need without overwhelming them.
SeeClickFix now has a “Questions & Answers” section, which has become a kind of crowdsourced FAQ about all sorts of city functions. It includes questions like: Will the clerks office have extended hours before the election? Can I build a greenhouse in my front yard? These questions can be answered by anyone. Many of them have been answered by “City of New Haven.”
Smuts said the city plans to add a “widget” to its website to access these questions and answers, and to have them available for anyone answering a phone in City Hall, so that city staff can immediately put their finger on information people need.
A Lot Of Trees
New Haven has 13,000 registered users. Smuts recently compiled the data on three years of SeeClickFix reports, issues opened since October 2010. Berkowitz crunched the numbers and made a series of pie charts showing the breakdown of open, acknowledged, and closed issues, by category.
The numbers show that tree-trimming is far and away the most reported issue. Smuts said that’s partly because the parks department was an early adopter of SeeClickFix and uses the site to track all its trimming. And it’s partly because New Haven has a lot of trees.
Looking at the same categories by percentage open, acknowledged, and closed shows that the city has a pretty good response rate with tree trimming.
In other categories, like “Sidewalks and Curb Damage,” the city hasn’t done so well. Smuts said that’s because the public works department hasn’t taken to SeeClickFix in the same way that parks has. So some of those issues may have been addressed but not checked off online.
Also, infrastructure projects like sidewalks and sewers take longer to fix, Smuts said. The same is true for traffic signals.
“Policing Issues” has a huge percentage of open and unacknowledged issues. Smuts offered several reasons why that is. For one, the police department is one of the last areas of city government to incorporated SeeClickFix. Also, policing issues can be a little more amorphous. When a pothole is fixed, it’s clearly fixed. But how do you know when car break-ins have really stopped?
Smuts said the city also hasn’t quite figured out how the police department can acknowledge SeeClickFix crime concerns without tipping criminals off to its plans.
As Smuts prepares to hand his duties over to the city’s next chief administrative officer, he mentioned SeeClickFix in his report to Mayor-Elect Toni Harp’s transition team. “I certainly will be talking with them about it.”
Berkowitz said he’s already met with Harp. He said he’s hoping her administration will help release a New Haven-branded SeeClickFix app.
Berkowitz said New Haven has been a perfect spot for SeeClickFix to grow because “people believe we’re at a tipping point.” The city has problems, but it also has people eager to tackle them, he said.
“This is a very DIY city,” he said. “We have a city of people willing to help out.”