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There’s an App for That: Residents Use Smartphone Technology to Communicate with Their Municipal Governments

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tim Dodd
February 3, 2017

As technology continues to develop, the way people receive and transmit information continues to change. Many individuals use their phones to pay bills, read the news, communicate with relatives and check the scores of their favorite sports teams. As the ways people use their phones continues to grow, many municipalities are finding smartphones provide a unique approach to improving communication with residents.

In 2013, officials from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts joined with officials from the City of Boston and other participating municipalities to launch a smartphone app allowing residents to report quality of life problems, such as graffiti and potholes, in real time directly to their local government for resolution. Based on the app called Citizens Connect, developed by the City of Boston, Commonwealth Connect expanded to over fifty cities and towns across Massachusetts, changing the way residents interact with their municipal governments.

Originally chosen through a competitive application process, participating municipalities have access to a tool which transforms communication between citizens and their local government. app-1013616_1280Commonwealth Connect includes municipalities with a total population of 2.5 million, or 38 percent of Massachusetts.

Available through both the iTunes Store and Google Play, individuals have downloaded the app more than 5,000 times. Originally implemented in Boston through the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, the app has resulted in more than 45,000 improvements in the city’s neighborhoods since 2009. Today, more than 20 percent of all quality of life requests come through the app.

Commonwealth Connect was originally made possible by a $400,000 Community Innovation Challenge (CIC) Grant awarded to the City of Boston by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 2012. The program, administered by the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, invested in innovations with the potential to lower costs and improve services through regionalization, new uses of technology and improved management practices. The program’s goal was to provide communities with tools and resources to improve the delivery of services citizens want.

Commonwealth Connect uses smartphone GPS technology to automatically identify the location of the reported problems. While each municipality can determine specific categories through which residents can report issues, common reports include downed telephone lines, graffiti, potholes, broken streetlights and uneven roads. To file a report, residents carrying their smartphones, open the app, take a photo of the problem and submit it instantly to their municipality. For every case submitted, the resident receives a tracking number so they may follow the progress of the resolution. Many municipalities also have a GPS map on their website, allowing residents to view tickets based on geography.

If someone lives in Marlborough and commutes to Boston, they only need to download the app once to report issues in both communities. Using GPS technology, the “skin” of the app, including graphics and color scheme, changes as the phone moves through different communities. This approach ensures users submit issues directly to the municipality where the pothole, down street sign or tree exists, while making the process as easy as possible for users.

The application supports municipal staff by providing a work order management system which allows them to track requests and collect data on response times and the locations of requests. Each participating community received support from the City of Boston and SeeClickFix, a company that helped Boston with the development of Citizens Connect, as the community develops the app and its work order management systems. Some municipalities use the app as the “front end” of a preexisting work order management system, while others use the app to receive requests and manually enter responses into a spreadsheet. Some participating municipalities also integrated the app into existing 3-1-1 programs. The program allows communities of various sizes and structures to participate, ranging from Boston with over 600,000 residents to smaller communities like Monson (population 8,560) and Ware (population 9,707).

Programs such as Commonwealth Connect are revolutionizing the way residents communicate with their municipal government, as well as the way governments collect data about quality of life issues and respond to residents. Municipalities also use these reports to collect critical data and make decisions about deployment of resources and better understand factors related to how quickly issues, such as potholes, can be fixed. This supports the efforts of many municipalities to use data to make decisions and drive results.

As more and more citizens rely on smartphones to communicate with old friends, pay bills and buy movie tickets, they will likely expect that they can also use them to communicate with their local governments.

Author: Tim Dodd is the Chief Performance Officer for the City of Santa Monica, CA, previously serving as the Performance Manager for the City of Baltimore and Director of Performance Management for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. [email protected]

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