Pothole? Abandoned Car? There’s an App For That…

Tech advances make it quicker, easier to connect with City Hall with concerns, complaints.

good government 470x290Henry Binford is a formidable figure, bursting with civic pride and armed with an iPhone. 

When Binford sees a wrinkle in the social fabric – say an overflowing Dumpster or an abandoned vehicle – he uses a mobile app on his iPhone to report the infraction to authorities in his hometown of Evanston.

The SeeClickFix app allows him to take a photograph of the problem and write a brief description. When he files his report, officials at the City of Evanston not only can see the problem, they also receive GPS coordinates showing the exact location.

"I feel like I’m doing my duty as a citizen," said Binford, 70, an associate professor of history and urban affairs at Northwestern University.

Binford lives in a house that backs up to a strip shopping center.

Over the course of more than two decades, he’s reported to the city incidents of "fly dumping," people illegally disposing of construction debris and old tires in the waste bins behind retail stores.

Binford used to make phone calls. Now he’s used the SeeClickFix app six times in the past three years to report fly dumping and one instance of an abandoned car.

"It’s easier and the response is quicker," Binford said. "The city immediately can size up the problem and know how big a crew to dispatch. And the problem usually is resolved in two days, when it could take a week before."

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More Munis Tap Apps

The City of Evanston is one of a growing number of governments across Illinois using mobile apps to improve communication with citizens, assist with bill paying, and speed the response to problems ranging from potholes to broken street lights.

There are government apps that allow residents to track the progress of city snowplows, enable motorists to pay for parking, determine the arrival time of the next train, inform diners of which restaurants have had health code violations, and let home owners pay utility and water bills.

Popular apps such as Candy Crush and Clash of Clans garner most of the attention. But the arena of government technology, dubbed "govtech," is expanding, and software developers are designing new tools just at the time governments are slowly showing more interest in adding mobile apps.

"Governments are still way behind on technology, but they’re starting to catch up," said Benjamin A. Katz, a San Diego-based software developer affiliated with Code for America, a non-profit focused on using technology to make government more transparent and efficient.

While the public sector is notoriously behind the free market when it comes to changes, adding mobile apps appeals to local governments for two reasons: they increase efficiency and they are relatively inexpensive.

Thus, the City of Chicago and suburbs including Algonquin, Buffalo Grove, Evanston, Glenview, Naperville, Oak Park, South Holland and Waukegan are among the local communities that have begun offering free mobile apps to citizens.

Across Illinois, communities such as Champaign, Charleston and Oswego have added mobile apps, along with McLean and Sangamon counties.

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Chicago Leads Way

Chicago is regarded as a leader in this area, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans in 2012 to use technology to make city government more accessible and efficient. Chicago’s Open311 application protocol interface (API) offered software engineers access to the city’s 311 service data, and these so-called "civic hackers" started creating mobile apps.

Among the first was Ald. Ameya Pawar of the 47th Ward, who helped develop the Chicago Works app, which allows residents to use their smart phones to snap a photo of a pothole or graffiti and send the information to the city’s 311 service.

The application includes GPS mapping information, and sends a service order tracking number to the citizen and the local alderman. Chicago also established a formal relationship with SeeClickFix, a private firm offering similar tools on its mobile app.

Brutal Chicago winters in recent years have increased the popularity of the city’s Plow Tracker app, which offers smart phone users real-time tracking city snowplows.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Transit Authority’s Transit Tracker app allows riders to know when the bus and trains will arrive.

The Open311 system also has enabled civic hackers to use city data to create a number of innovative free apps.

Was My Car Towed lets a driver enter a license plate number to find out if the city has towed a vehicle. Foodborne Chicago is an app enabling diners to quickly report a case of food poisoning to the health department, while it also tracks Twitter feeds for complaints. If the complaint appears legitimate, Foodborne Chicago replies, asking the tweeter to report the case to the city.

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 Open Gov Hack Night

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Derek Eder
Open Gov Hack Night Founder

Each Tuesday, civic hackers gather at Merchandise Mart for Open Gov Hack Night to share ideas on the latest projects using city data.

"What we have in Chicago is the most vibrant, productive civic app community in the nation," said software developers Derek Eder, co-founder of Open Gov Hack Night.

The Open311 system allows the City of Chicago to keep technology development costs down because it simply supplies the data to citizens to develop the mobile apps, Eder said.

"Government is typically not good at building apps anyway. So the city puts the data in the hands of civic tech people to do it," Eder said.

Other communities pay to create mobile apps, but the cost is relatively low compared to other expenses.

Evanston used SeeClickFix until early 2014, when it developed the Evanston 311 app as part of an upgrade of its 311 service, said Ericka Storlie, the city’s deputy city manager.

The 311 upgrade, which includes phone center, Internet and mobile services, costs Evanston less than $10,000 a year, Storlie said.

Evanston residents can still use SeeClickFix to report problems, as the city still monitors and responds to submissions from that mobile app.

Low Cost Entry

Evanston’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department also created an app that provides park information and GPS map tracking, a listing of events, and the ability to sync calendars and receive text notifications. The app costs Evanston $2,500 a year, Storlie said.

"I think more governments are going to adopt these apps because it offers citizens improved services and there is such a low cost barrier," Storlie said.

The Village of Glenview added mobile apps that allow residents to pay for utilities and commuter parking. The parking app, provided by Passport Parking, has proven popular for train station commuters.

It allows motorists to enter the parking space and pay online. Customers are notified by text when the parking session is set to expire, and can use the app to extend the time.

"It’s a real convenience for people who are running to catch a train and don’t have time to stop and feed the coin box or swipe their Visa," said Amy Ahner, Glenview’s director of administrative services.

Other Chicago area communities using Passport Parking include Brookfield, Des Plaines, Downers Grove and Villa Park.

Sizing Up Problems Quickly

SeeClickFix is one of the more popular govtech mobile apps, because it’s often citizen-driven. A smart phone user can create a SeeClickFix watch area by highlighting boundaries on a map, be it a single block, a neighborhood or an entire town. When residents begin reporting broken streetlights, potholes and other problems, municipalities often take notice, join the network and respond to the complaints.

The average annual contract for a municipality is $10,000-$20,000, said Tucker Severson, SeeClickFix’s vice president of marketing.

The City of Champaign pays $7,000 annually for its SeeClickFix app, which has helped the public works department improve its response time, said Kris Koester, the city’s administrative services manager.

"Receiving a picture and getting the geographic location allows us to quickly size up the problem and determine what size crew to send," Koester said.
Koester remembers receiving a SeeClickFix alert of a massive sinkhole at a major intersection. The photo enabled the public works department to not only determine the size of the sinkhole, but also that it was caused by a broken water main.

"If we would have got a phone call, we would have sent a crew to fix the sinkhole. But now we knew we needed to fix the ruptured water main, too," Koester said. "It saved us a lot of precious time."

Expect more governments to introduce mobile apps in the future, said Andrew Todd, president of Constituent Outreach Consultants, a Forest Park-based firm that creates government apps.

With governments nationwide spending $500 billion annually on information technology, according to the research firm Gartner Inc., and consumers becoming more accustomed to using mobile devices, the demand is there, Todd said.

"Twenty years ago, no municipalities had websites. Now that’s a given. The public will someday have the same expectations for mobile apps," Todd said. "The demand will only grow as we increasingly use our phones."

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John T. Slania is a freelance writer for the BGA's policy team.

About the Author
  • John T. Slania

    John Slania is a regular BGA freelance contributor who often writes about policy issues.