“Goodnight Sweet Possum.” Participatory Urbanism the Boston Way

As we become an increasingly urban species the challenges related to growing numbers of people occupying finite spaces becomes an acute concern. The friction generated as we rub elbows can make us all uncomfortable. I found out at an event last week that when it comes to moderating these challenges while running the sixth most densely populated urban area in the United States, there’s an app for that.

A highlight of the recent-reports_tcm3-33922[1].png Massachusetts Digital Government Summit was a presentation on the City of Boston’s Citizens Connectapplication available for mobile devices. The groundbreaking set of resources empowers residents to be the City’s eyes and ears. Seeing a problem such as a pothole or graffiti users of the app can take a photo and send a message about the problem. A service request is created and flows directly to the person who will apply the fix. The app allows the originator and interested parties to monitor the progress toward resolution. Citizens Connect provides a low cost addition to communicate with the City that includes the City’s 311 service, the Mayor’s Hotline.

According to the Chief Information Officer of the City of Boston, Bill Oates, “Today 20 percent of the service requests that come into the City are coming through this mobile channel.” Because requests flow directly from the originator to the person delivering the results, transactional latency decreases and a direct interpersonal connection is created. City employees who used the app were so energized by the apps potential that they requested an enhancement that now allows them to provide direct feedback of the action taken, such as a picture of the repair they have performed, that is sent to the service request’s originator and the public at large. Followers of the Twitter handle @CitizensConnectreceive real-time status updates including links to pages with pictures, pinpoint maps and links to other nearby reports. Mr. Oates said, “Social media and mobile platforms have transformed what government can do for citizens. We’ve changed people’s perspective of what to expect from government.” In more ways than the obvious, Boston is a leader in ushering in a new dynamic of civic engagement.

At the core of Citizens Connect’s success is Boston’s embrace of Open Government. The City is on forefront of a global movement to make, “key government records available to the public.” This philosophy not only creates an atmosphere of accountability in government, it opens the door for the concept of what has become known as, “participatory urbanism.” In the video below (@ 4:05), Chris Osgood, co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, tells the story of how city residents empowered by this information jump in to help their neighbors (“Possum” reference). A virtuous cycle results as people become more engaged, city resources are applied more efficiently and conditions improve for all.

Boston’s Citizens Connect has now morphed into six applications with more planned. One truly innovative component is Street Bump (explained @ 4:34 in the video). Street Bump captures accelerometer data from the Smartphones of participating users and uses the data to map the severity of street bumps. This data is allowing city planners to better direct their road repair resources.

Snow Cop is another tool that leverages data from the cities 311 system to better manage snow removal (@6:17). The City uses the data in real-time to direct snow removal efforts. Prior to an impending weather event, historical information is used to plan for contingencies such as prepositioning snow removal assets.

As someone responsible for creating communications solutions for government customers I am truly excited by the potential to use this information as these concepts rapidly evolve. The possibilities to create good are limitless. As someone who often visits Boston on business and for pleasure, I am thrilled that a place I so enjoy is becoming even better as government, residents and visitors crowdsource solutions to shared problems.

Thank you for your time.

I’d be honored if you chose to follow me on Twitter @gclinch and check out my LinkedIn profile.

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