Ben Berkowitz on SeeClickFix, Self-Sufficiency, and Love
May 27th, 2010

New Haven: Ben thinks it's better than your townSeeClickFix is a free mobile phone and web app that enables citizens to take care of their neighborhoods by seeing non-emergency issues in their neighborhoods, clicking to create ‘tickets’ describing the issue and how to resolve it, and fixing the issue or reporting it to whoever can. This is smart mobby neighborhood stewardship – technology-enabled collectively intelligent behavior to identify and resolve neighborhood issues. And at the Gov 2.0 Expo, I had the great pleasure of interviewing founder and CEO Ben Berkowitz. Following are a few tidbits from our conversation.

When asked about the trajectory of reported issues, Ben told the story of Wooster Square neighborhood in New Haven. Wooster Square, like most neighborhoods, started out reporting potholes, pedestrian safety issues, and then low-level muggings. But as more and more neighbors started posting complaints, they started connecting online through their complaints, and eventually migrated their activity offline into a neighborhood group. (I joke that mobile/local social apps are just helping us strike up conversations with the random dude sitting next to us at the local coffee shop, i.e. to befriend our neighbors. Ben laughs.) The group was ethnically and racially diverse, with a broad age range, and made up of individuals had never and may not have otherwise congregated offline. The neighborhood group actually included a police officer, but when Ben attended one of the group’s meetings, he noticed the officer was able to take a “backseat” in the conversation because, instead of simply complaining to him, neighborhood residents were stepping up to resolve issues themselves. The group ended up taking their issue to city hall as a demand for streetlights, which was eventually granted by the city. Score! The Wooster Square trajectory, which began with individuals reporting issues online and culminated with them collaboratively resolving issues offline, is paradigmatic of other neighborhoods, and perhaps of SeeClickFix itself: as SeeClickFix expands its user base worldwide, in turn servicing the emergence of a more ‘open city,’ its usage may shift from predominant ‘seeing’ and ‘clicking’ to increased ‘fixing.’

When asked about the trajectory of cities that have adopted SeeClickFix, and when unusual suspects began participating, Ben noted the first smallest, surprising city to join: Bozeman, Montana. There have also been surprising international requests, like a city in Bulgaria where the resident didn’t think his city hall used email, and was planning to hand-deliver hard copies of SeeClickFix tickets. Through SeeClickFix, he learned that his city did, in fact, use email, and successfully solicited city officials to engage with their citizens on the site. To check other places using SeeClickFix from Bozeman to Bulgaria and beyond, check this activity map (currently zoomed in on Stolichna, Bulgaria). I told Ben I’d Love to see a map animation of issues reported through time, so presumably it will be available soon.

In writings about government 2.0, you’ll find lots of images of the long tail, with government employees on the tall tail, citizens on the far end of the long tail, and a middle tail representing an emerging category of people who fall in between, such as government employees whose primary function is citizen outreach or citizens who are very actively engaged. In this context, gov 2.0 is creating mechanisms to ‘activate’ the long tail, bridge it to the tall tail, and populate the middle tail, i.e. to leverage the capacity of the civic sector and facilitate collaboration between citizens and their governments. SeeClickFix is one such mechanism operating at the city scale, leveraging the capacity of neighborhood residents to identify their issues, and to resolve them on their own or to collaborate with their city officials in order to do so. When asked if he’d ever be interested in running for public office, Ben responded with an emphatic no: he adores what he does, and furthermore already considers his work a critical component of public service. And given that his work connects city governments and their citizens in order to cultivate what could be called an integrated open governance system, he’s absolutely right.

Ben describes his future vision of government as a combination of Republicanism and Socialism, harking back to Thomas Jefferson’s ideals of self-sufficiency. He imagines a return back to smaller government with less central power and greater self-sufficiency, but with enhanced communication and the capacity for collective action on a much larger scale. Sounds like we’re returning to the same season, but in a very, very different year.

As far as Ben knows, SeeClickFix has only produced one love story: his with a stray dog named Pepper. But if you have a SeeClickFix love story, definitely let Ben know. Speaking of, New Haven and Providence are due for a battle over which city can sell more my-city-is-better-than-yours t-shirts (see image above). May the most-loved city win!

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