In the past, I’ve often enough described cities as being “all about difficulty“:
They’re about waiting: for the bus, for the light to change, for your order of Chinese take-out to be ready. They’re about frustration: about parking tickets, dogshit, potholes and noisy neighbors. They’re about the unavoidable physical and psychic proximity of other human beings competing for the same limited pool of resources….about the fear of crime, and its actuality.
If this is so, and I continue to believe that it is, are we compelled to accept it? Or is there anything that can be done about it? And especially, might the constellation of tools we’re just starting to wrap our collective heads around offer us any recourse in our struggle against this tangled welter of hassles and frustrations we call life in the big city?
Well. Some measure of friction is unavoidable in urban life — both endemic to any physical system anywhere near as complex as this and, truth be told, not such a bad thing. But there’s no reason why we can’t use our new capabilities to get on top of the roil, see what’s going on, and maybe even keep the less felicitous contingencies from solidifying.
Two services that I’m familiar with address this set of concerns, each representing a slightly different way of framing the problem: New York City’s 311 gateway to non-emergency services and, in the UK, mySociety‘s awesome FixMyStreet. There are others — many, many others — as well as roughly congruent resources facing other domains, but as far as municipal services are concerned these two are the best-known, arguably the most successful, and the most faithfully representative of their respective approaches.
As an official utility of the City of New York, 311′s stated mission is to:
- Provide the public with quick, easy access to all New York City government services and information while maintaining the highest possible level of customer service;
- Help agencies improve service delivery by allowing them to focus on their core missions and manage their workload efficiently;
- Provide insight into ways to improve City government through accurate, consistent measurement and analysis of service delivery Citywide.
…while FixMyStreet’s proposition is a little simpler: it allows its users to “report, view or discuss local problems.”
Despite the clear differences in aim and ambit, I think of both as frameworks for citizen responsiveness. Their essence is that some issue arises — a pothole, a fallen branch, an open fire hydrant or a wandering elder — is identified by a member of the public, and is then raised to the attention of whatever municipal authority is empowered to respond to it. (We’ll get to the weakness of this last link in the chain in a bit.)
While it does provide an online point of entry, 311 is in my experience predominantly something you engage over the phone. It’s an easy number to remember, the city’s representatives have repeated the mantra “911 for emergencies, 311 for everything else” until it ought to be second nature and, nicety of niceties in this IVR age, your calls are answered by a human being. Every time I’ve ever had cause to engage it, my calls have been answered in seconds, not minutes.
In fact, this is the nicest aspect of 311. There’s a certain deep satisfaction in venting your frustrations to someone listening with (at the very least a convincing simulacrum of) empathy, and I’d imagine this has practical consequences, too — that a decent swath of incoming complaints are prevented from escalating via the simple expedient of hearing the caller out.
When navigating a beast like municipal government, though, even the best and most sensitive operator is unlikely to have all the answers at his or her fingertips. So 311 operators are coupled to a reasonably good search database, and from what I’ve seen they’re usually able to point you at the proper resource or department in short order, whether your problem is a registering a noise complaint, a shattered bus shelter, or tracking down the taxi driver who drove off with your briefcase.
But that’s where 311′s utility largely ends. Once this connection is made, the caller is deposited right back into the universal thicket of big-city bureaucracy. Worse, the categories into which the catching department will sort your issue are likely to be brittle, and there tends to be little provision for following up on the status of an issue — or for that matter, identifying the single team or individual responsible for resolving the complaint.
Similar things are true of FixMyStreet, which collects issues on its users’ behalf and then forwards them to the relevant department of government. Despite offering users a range of tools that 311 lacks, and which ought by now to be table stakes in the domain, like the ability to pinpoint issues on a map, or document them with pictures, you get nothing in the way of confirmation or response other than a terse notification that the complaint was “Sent to Kensington & Chelsea Borough Council 1 minute” after its entry.
Seeing the city as software
So how would you close the loop? How would you arrange things so that the originator, other members of the public, the city bureaucracy itself and other interested parties are all notified that the issue has been identified and is being dealt with? How might we identify the specific individuals or teams tasked with responding to the issue, allow people to track the status of issues they’re reported, and ensure that observed best practices and lessons learned are gathered in a resolution database?
In a talk I heard him give a few months back, technology entrepreneur Jyri Engeström suggested stealing a page from the practice of software development as a way of addressing shared problem spaces more generally. He pointed out that, during his time at Google, employees turned the tools developed to track open issues in software under development toward other domains of common experience, like the shuttle buses the company provides to haul them back and forth between San Francisco and Mountain View.
When hassles arose with the bus service, employees treated them just like they would known issues in some application they were working on: they entered their complaints into an existing bug tracker, which provided each case with a unique identifier, a space to characterize it more fully…and perhaps most importantly, the name of a party responsible for closing out the ticket.
The general insight Jyri derived from his experience got me to thinking. An issue-tracking board for cities? Something visual and Web-friendly, that’s simultaneously citizen-facing and bureaucracy-facing? Heck, that begins to sound like a pretty neat way to address the problems with systems like 311 and FixMyStreet.
You provide citizens with a variety of congenial ways to initiate trouble tickets, whether they’re most comfortable using the phone, a mobile application or website, or a text message. You display currently open cases, and gather resolved tickets in a permanent archive or resource. You use an algorithm to assign priority to open issues on a three-axis metric:
(a) Scale. How many people are affected by the issue? Does this concern just me, me and my immediate neighbors, our whole block, the neighborhood, or the entire city?
(b) Severity. How serious is the issue? In descending order, will it result in imminent loss of life, injury or the destruction of property? Is this, rather, an aesthetic hazard, or even simply a suggestion for improvement?
(c) Urgency. How long has the tag been open?
Because a great many urban issues are going to crop up repeatedly, routinely, perennially, perhaps you offer the kinds of tools content-management software for discussion sites has had to evolve over the years: ways to moderate tickets up or down, or mark their resolution as particularly impactful.
You assign tickets to specified agents.
Then, of course, you apply the usual variety of visualizations to the live data, allowing patterns to jump right out. Which city department has the best record for closing out tickets most quickly, and with the highest approval rating? What kind of issues generally take longest to address to everyone’s satisfaction?
So. To reiterate. As I see it, a contemporary framework for citizen responsiveness suited for big cities would offer most if not all of the following features:
- Two aspects of 311, an easy-to-memorize universal point of entry and a catching mechanism of empowered human operators lying just behind it;
- A useful spread of other points of access, including desktop and mobile applications;
- The kind of location-specific overview provided by services like Everyblock, with maps as one obvious and logical way in;
- An appropriate prioritization algorithm;
- Moderation tools;
- The accountability, transparency and ticking clock-to-resolution offered by an open-ticket system;
- A persistent archive of resolved issues;
- Top-notch graphic design, capable of holding its own with best contemporary Web practice; and
- A layer of data analytics and visualization.
Beyond trouble tickets
As is well-known, I tend to be skeptical when the replacement of human systems, however clumsy, with novel and untested technical frameworks is contemplated. I’m also acutely aware that the purpose of a system is what it does, and there may well be occult reasons why urban systems that appear intractably broken are allowed to remain that way, i.e. they’re actually functioning just fine in support of some agenda.
No issue-tracking system, even the best-designed and most cleverly devised, is going to quash the frustrations of city life completely. I believe, though, that the system I sketch out here would give cities a supple and relatively low-cost way to close the loop between Jacobian “eyes on the street,” and the agencies that serve and are fully empowered to respond to them. What I’ve described here is, if nothing else, a way to harness the experience and rich local expertise of ordinary citizens.
I’ve always taught my students that if you scratch a New Yorker, you’ll find a committed urbanist — someone with intense and deeply-held opinions about the kind of trees that ought to be planted along the sidewalks, or the right way to organize bike parking, or ways to reconcile the conflicting needs of dogwalkers and parents with children in city parks. And the same thing, of course, is true of Mancunians, Singaporeans and Cariocas.
The point isn’t that all of their notions are going to be fair, practical, practicable or even remotely sensible, but that an immense body of pragmatic insight and — more importantly, in my view — passion for the city is going untapped. Pundits, bobbins and bureaucrats talk constantly about improving the efficiency of municipal services, but if improved information is a driver of that efficiency, why aren’t we even trying to gather all the incredibly rich data that’s just lying there, more or less literally begging us to use it? We have the tools, we have the models, we know what they’re good for and where they fall down. It’s past time to build on this experience and bring its lessons to bear on the places we live.