Ever damaged your car by driving over a gaping pothole? Or found it difficult to see at night because a streetlight (or two) was broken? Thanks to a new wave of apps that connect people with their local authorities, you’ll never again have to wait helplessly for your neighborhood problems to get fixed.
On the Caledonian Road in North London sits a red telephone box. It’s been vandalized. Tom Steinberg – the founder of mySociety, a non-profit organization that empowers urban dwellers through online technology – walks by without a second glance; it’s not an uncommon sight in the city.
The next time he passes the phone box, it has been repaired. But before long, it’s destroyed again. Right then, in 2007, he has a light bulb moment and launches Neighbourhood Fix-It – a website that allows users to report local problems that need, well, fixing.
Soon, Neighbourhood Fix-It was renamed FixMyStreet and in 2008 the FixMyStreet app was born. “You can use the app to report things that are broken or dirty or damaged or dumped; things that need fixing, clearing, or cleaning – like graffiti, dog fouling, potholes, or streetlights that don’t work,” explains Matthew Somerville, FixMyStreet’s senior developer.
“You can include a photo and details of the issue. We then pass the information on to your council or any other responsible body, like TFL (Transport for London) for traffic lights in London.”
Almost 260,000 reports resolved
It’s a simple and intuitive app to use; one that puts power back into the hands of urbanites who might have otherwise been discouraged by their council’s lengthy, often complicated reporting process. In the eight years since the launch of FixMyStreet, nearly 660,000 reports have been made in hundreds of council areas across the UK – and almost 260,000 of those reports were resolved as swiftly as possible.
The number of problems fixed is actually likely to be higher, says Myf Nixon, FixMyStreet’s marketing manager, as a lot of people who initially report a problem don’t return to check it off as fixed.
It’s not just a one-way thing, either. With FixMyStreet, UK councils can easily communicate with their residents, creating a far more interactive process. “Reports go into the same e-mail channels as reports made via official council websites,” says Nixon. “Council staff can respond directly to the reporter by simply clicking ‘reply’ – just like they would with any other e-mail.”
As well as benefitting the app’s users, the UK’s local authorities also reap the rewards. “Users are effectively on-the-ground scouts,” elaborates Nixon. “They feed in far more information about the local community than the council’s own staff could gather.” The result is a streamlined, blissfully uncomplicated process that encourages more efficient improvements of a city – through collaboration.
A global phenomenon
The concept of connecting citizens and local authorities to create better cities isn’t exclusive to the UK – the FixMyStreet idea has blossomed all over the world. In Brazil, a country that’s notorious for its corruption and poor communication, an app called Colab is connecting the country’s inhabitants with their city officials; all in an effort to improve the situation.
The idea for Colab came to co-founders Bruno Aracaty and Gustavo Maia when they were developing a political campaign for the 2012 municipal elections in Recife, a seaport of 1.5 million inhabitants in the northeast of Brazil. Even then, social technology played an integral part; after using Facebook polls to ask what issues were most important to people in the city, one poll received 50,000 responses – in just one week.
“We realized that people needed an effective communication channel to the government and politicians,” Aracaty told The Guardian. “We came up with a transparent and open social network where citizens could connect with each other and with their municipalities.”
Developing the idea further, Colab was launched in 2013 with a focus on Recife. It proved so popular that São Paulo wanted in on the action and that same year it won the AppMyCity! competition – a contest to find the world’s best new app to improve people’s urban experiences. Today, there are around 50,000 Colab users across Brazil, with plans to expand to more cities and, eventually, the world.
The USA and beyond
New York City. After a decade working in urban administration for California, Washington D.C., and the Big Apple itself, Lily Liu launches PublicStuff in 2010. It’s another app that enables city dwellers to submit requests to their municipalities and by now more than 200 US cities have adopted the platform as an official communications channel, including Philadelphia, North Miami Beach, and Palo Alto – the city that Apple calls home.
PublicStuff’s wide adoption isn’t surprising, considering some of its unique features. Its One Voice technology, offering real-time translation for 16 languages, is particularly resourceful and has proven incredibly useful for its clients’ multi-lingual communities.
“As a person who came from a household where more than one language was spoken, if your city makes you try to navigate a phone menu or website in English, you won’t communicate as much,” said Liu to Fast Company. Ultimately, the hope is for PublicStuff to evolve from resolving issues like cracked pavements and broken streetlights to inspiring people to actively improve their communities.
Authorities still need to become more open
All of this only scratches the surface. From FixMyCity in Germany to iChangeMyCity in India, civic tech-focused apps are popping up all over the world in a bid to create cities that are more enjoyable to live, work, and play in. “There’s plenty of potential for apps to help with community action and open government,” says Somerville of the bright future.
There comes a caveat, however: “It all depends on government organizations wanting to improve how they operate; many councils in the UK still prevent recording of council meetings and don’t publish – or publish with great complexity – the decisions of those meetings.”
If city authorities around the world can become just a little more transparent, a future where we’re all building close-knit communities together – with a tap of our phones – is just around the corner.
Header image: Colab