See a Problem? Text City Hall

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Tech-savvy Bostonians with a bone to pick with the city (snowed-in streets, potholes, leaking fire hydrants) needn't worry any more about bureaucratic red tape. Thanks to a new iPhone app called Citizens Connect, residents can snap photos of busted streetlights or stray graffiti, punch in a few key details, and submit the complaint directly to those with the power to help. It even integrates the iPhone's Google Maps software for easy locating, and complaints can be submitted anonymously. The app was posted last November, and according to Boston.com, its popularity has exploded, logging more than 750 complaints and 2,500 downloads. And the best part (besides the fact that it's free): Reaction to complaints seems to be quick.

It's all part of a groundswell that a recent CNN story identified as "Gov 2.0," as state and local governments move towards sharing data about their civic services with developers to cultivate in a useful way.
It's government transparency for the digital age, and though Citizens Connect was created by the city of Boston itself, third-party programmers are getting into the game as well. Government Outreach, a company founded to better connect City Hall with its constituents, recently launched GORequest to cover 22 smaller cities (like Santa Monica, Calif. and Arvada, Colo.) in similar Citizens Connect fashion. Then there's iBurgh, developed for Pittsburgh by tech company YinzCAM, that does away with categories of problems altogether and lets users upload photos of whatever is bothering them-rude cops, perhaps. The grandaddy of them all seems to be SeeClickFix, which works in almost every city and allows users to see nearby complaints on the app and on the company's Web site.



The number of these sorts of apps is growing, which could mean more than just a stop-sign remounting. The same CNN story identifies one by-product as the "death of a passive relationship with government": younger, savvy city dwellers fed up with the old way of doing things can report issues painlessly, quickly, and in a familiar way -- thus they'll be more likely to speak up. But access to the sheer volume of government data means iPhones can directly connect citizens to every aspect of the city, like Buster (Chicago bus-tracking software) and Stumble Safely (using crime stats to map the safest walk home from DC bars). The necessary pieces are out there; it's just a matter of smart, interactive presentation before every aspect of our city lives can be found on the iPhone.

Though we're talking non-emergencies here. If you're in some real trouble, there's an app for that, too: 911.
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