Boston connects residents with mobile app
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino institutionalized the city's commitment to innovation by creating its first cabinet-level Chief Information Officer, Bill Oates, and by hiring a new chief of staff, Mitch Weiss, who has made innovation his top priority. As a result, Boston has embarked on a number of new programs and projects that dramatically expand constituent-facing services. The city's key project is Citizens Connect, which is a free application for iPhones that enables users to request service, such as pothole repairs. When a problem is spotted, the resident launches the app, selects the issue, takes a photograph and presses the submit button. Using the iPhone's built-in GPS and Internet connection, the app routes the issue to the appropriate city work queue. In less than a minute, the eyesore the resident spotted lands on the to-do list of the appropriate employee. When work is completed, the person reporting the problem receives a text message from the city. Meanwhile, the resident can track the progress through a built-in map.
Although the city has staffed a 24-hour hotline for constituent requests for decades and provided online opportunities to do the same for years, the application engages a different audience, a group who had less interest in calling a hotline or using online forms, but more interest in blogging or tweeting about neighborhood issues. The app engages them, helping translate their civic interest into civic improvement.
Moreover, the channel gives people a different experience when reporting an issue. Most residents who see and then report a pothole that needs repair might feel like they are nagging if they call back 30 seconds later to report another problem; Citizens Connect users often report constantly, leaving trails of reports of problems located throughout the city.
The city's app has led to nearly 8,000 resolved requests, but its most significant impact has been inside city hall. The approach to project design, development and testing — in addition to the actual technology — were all novel for the city. City arborists and street light electricians are exploring mobile app ideas, and the IT department has broadened its focus, tapping into new technology and the resurgent spirit of civic engagement to create a stronger, more productive and beautiful Boston.
- Read the main story, "The new public square," to learn how New York, Boston and Miami-Dade County are engaging residents through e-government and mobile applications, including social media.
Nigel Jacob is the co-chair of the Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics.