App aids cities in tight times

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - NEWS - DAN HAAR dhaar@hearst­medi­act.com

When I met Ben Berkowitz in a New Haven cafe to talk about the SeeClick­Fix plat­form his com­pany de­vel­oped, I fig­ured we’d walk around the neigh­bor­hood so I could see how the app worked.

The app guides users to re­port prob­lems such as bro­ken curbs and il­le­gal dump­ing to a city or town. The mu­nic­i­pal­ity, in this case New Haven, can then com­mu­ni­cate back to users through email di­rected by the app.

If we could find a prob­lem to re­port, we’d have the full ex­pe­ri­ence in real time on a rainy Tues­day.

Af­ter 10 years in business, SeeClick­Fix has about 330 clients, mostly cities and towns — in­clud­ing Chicago, San Fran­cisco, Hous­ton and Detroit — along with some uni­ver­si­ties and other or­ga­ni­za­tions with cam­puses.

Berkowitz, 39, founded SeeClick­Fix with three part­ners — in­clud­ing Miles Las­siter, the founder of Higher One — af­ter he had trou­ble find­ing any­one in city hall who cared about graf­fiti on a build­ing in the neigh­bor­hood where he lived a dozen years ago, near Mod­ern Apizza.

Now Berkowitz, who lives with his fam­ily on the same street where he grew up in the Westville sec­tion of New Haven, is a key player in the city’s soft­ware scene with 34 SeeClick­Fix em­ploy­ees down­town. He’s an ac­tive board mem­ber and for­mer pres­i­dent of MakeHaven, the mak­erspace lo­cated in the same build­ing as his firm.

But this story isn’t re­ally about SeeClick­Fix, which just launched its fifth soft­ware ver­sion and is al­most, but not quite, con­sis­tently gen­er­at­ing net cash prof­its. It’s about the des­per­ate need for pub­lic agen­cies to be more re­spon­sive to res­i­dents and busi­nesses while cut­ting costs — in some cases, while elim­i­nat­ing jobs.

A grow­ing body of re­search shows the im­por­tance of civic links, in­clud­ing a study just this year based on Con­necti­cut data, which con­cluded, “adults who are con­nected to and trust­ing in the place where they live are more likely to be sat­is­fied with their lives.”

That study, based on a mas­sive 2016 sur­vey done for New Haven-based DataHaven, re­ported that “only 10 per­cent of Con­necti­cut res­i­dents re­ported feel­ing that gov­ern­ment re­spon­sive­ness was ‘ex­cel­lent.’ ”

That’s where SeeClick­Fix comes in, us­ing Google map­ping data and smart­phone tech­nol­ogy to let city work­ers con­nect with res­i­dents — and each other. Think Uber and Lyft, but in­stead of one trans­ac­tion it man­ages work­flow and com­mu­ni­ca­tion for on­go­ing is­sues across many de­part­ments — code en­force­ment, snow re­moval, traf­fic man­age­ment and so on.

“This is our 311 sys­tem,” said Tom Gaudett, who heads up spe­cial projects in the of­fice of Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim.

In that city, it’s branded as Bride­port 311, and if some­one calls in, the city worker uses the same SeeClick­Fix plat­form. “It is THE city’s tool” for in­put from res­i­dents, Gaudett said. “It al­lows us to do more with less.”

It also lets Ganim’s of­fice see how the var­i­ous city de­part­ments are per­form­ing.

Gaudett and of­fi­cials in other cities all said there’s no way to mea­sure the cost savings be­cause the plat­form touches so many de­part­ments and re­places old en­ter­prise com­puter sys­tems. And, as Gaudett said, it’s about re­spond­ing more, not nec­es­sar­ily spend­ing less.

So it’s as much a cul­tural change as a sys­tem up­grade.

“We could never go back to not us­ing SeeClick­Fix,” said David Flin­tom, di­rec­tor of the Mayor’s Ac­tion Cen­ter in St. Peters­burg, Fla., which in­cludes in­com­ing calls from res­i­dents of that city of 250,000. “It’s so­cial me­dia for cit­i­zens in a lot of ways.”

Tak­ing the app for a spin with Berkowitz, we find — sur­prise — that we don’t even need to leave our win­dow seats at the cafe. Right across Or­ange Street, at the en­trance to a Mediter­ranean restau­rant and hookah lounge, is a honk­ing rip in the curb and side­walk, partly cov­ered by an old, shoddy, as­phalt re­pair job.

Berkowitz shoots a pic­ture of the mess right through the G Cafe win­dow. He up­loads it to the SeeClick­Fix sys­tem, re­port­ing it as a curb and side­walk re­pair is­sue. Al­most in­stantly, the city re­sponds with an au­to­mated com­ment, show­ing that up to four users have pre­vi­ously re­ported the same is­sue.

We find the first com­plaint, with a pic­ture, sub­mit­ted ex­actly a year ago — show­ing pretty much the same dam­age.

Un­for­tu­nately, SeeClick­Fix hasn’t de­vel­oped an app that pours ce­ment, sets gran­ite curbs, cleans up il­le­gally dumped trash, trims trees and fills pot­holes.

We en­ter my email ad­dress and I start re­ceiv­ing up­dates. The fol­low­ing day, I see more re­ported is­sues on the same block. On Fri­day morn­ing, I’m told about a park­ing ban on the odd side of the street. Some­day I’ll learn the curb we re­ported is fixed.

Good stuff. And best of all for SeeClick­Fix, the com­pany doesn’t have any di­rect com­peti­tors who do what its plat­form does in the same way.

Af­ter an ex­haus­tive search with a smart­phone app as a re­quire­ment, Gaudett in Bridgeport said, “SeeClick­Fix was far and away the sys­tem with the most at­tributes that we were look­ing for.”

From what I can tell, the cost of SeeClick­Fix — be­tween $10,000 and $60,000 per year depend­ing on lots of fac­tors (the app is free for users, of course) — is many times less than the value it brings. Maybe the firm could charge a lot more.

In Bridgeport, it’s han­dling more than 600 no­ti­fi­ca­tions a month.

In St. Peters­burg, 30,000 a year, and both places said the app is grow­ing fast. New Haven, the flag­ship city, is also huge and cities re­port 10 per­cent or more of res­i­dents con­nected.

So why isn’t SeeClick­Fix al­ready adopted uni­ver­sally, with hun­dreds of pro­gram­mers and en­gi­neers en­sconced on Chapel Street, where the com­pany is about to move into new of­fices?

“It’s gov­ern­ment and it’s slow, they’re un­der­funded,” Berkowitz said. “We’ve grown fast for a civic tech com­pany ... and we’re on the lead­ing edge of gov­ern­ment cus­tomer ser­vice.”

The com­pany, in fact, had to cut back on a mar­ket­ing depart­ment that was mak­ing cold-calls to would-be cus­tomers.

It’s still early in the sci­ence of civic en­gage­ment. Af­ter I left, Berkowitz and his team heard a re­port from an MIT stu­dent do­ing his Ph.D. dis­ser­ta­tion on the ef­fec­tive­ness of city out­reach and en­gage­ment, us­ing SeeClick­Fix as the source of data and com­men­tary.

“When you’re at the be­gin­ning of some­thing it takes time to get trac­tion,” Berkowitz said.

Dan Haar / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Ben Berkowitz, CEO of SeeClick­Fix, at the com­pany’s New Haven of­fice.

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