“I think for most people to ask themselves what they can do for other people,” SeeClickFix co-founder and CEO Ben Berkowitz says, “they have to first ask what they want to see for themselves.” Working out of offices fittingly located within New Haven’s emerging Ninth Square, SCF proceeds from the idea that individual citizens have as much responsibility in upholding their community standards as their local elected officials do.
Between SeeClickFix’s website, mobile app and widgets, residents and community groups can document, report, and track unaddressed issues they see in their neighborhoods, from pesky potholes to illegal dumping; local governments can listen and respond to constituents via an elegant, organized interface; and local news media can help engage their audiences with these activities on their own websites.
SCF is expanding globally, but New Haven is the company’s home for reasons that go beyond heritage. The city’s widely varying demographics and medium-small size make it an excellent environment for testing and observing how people use and engage with the platform. It’s also a great place to see the results of their work. “There’s a lot of problems to solve,” Berkowitz says, “but we’re small enough of a city to see and directly feel the impact of community resolution.”
Years ago, those kinds of resolutions weren’t as easy to actualize. After trying, with much frustration, to get graffiti removed from a neighbor’s building downtown via the usual channels, Berkowitz was convinced that there had to be a better way, and he and his team have streamlined and opened up the process considerably. Now, all one has to do is post a description of the issue, ideally with photo, to SCF’s website. That alerts participating government and organizational officials, who can then “acknowledge” the issue. Other users can see and track the issue, lend support to its resolution and follow up with administrators. And once an issue’s been fixed, the posting can be “closed.” So it’s not just a way for citizens to hold government accountable; it’s also a way for government to get credit for the good work it does.
Even (or especially) when problems don’t require government intervention, SCF helps regular community members get together and solve them. This in turn helps the government; as Director of Client Relations Emma Richards notes, “local governments are faced with increasingly limited resources, and citizens can be a huge asset for strapped communities.”
One of the SCF team’s favorite citizen initiatives occurred after a number of their users expressed the desire to convert a previously unused space into what is now the Wooster Square Dog Park. SeeClickFix engaged with the effort in a deep way, liaising with the city to get approval for the conversion and actively communicating with the company’s users to help fundraise.
That particular effort helped SCF model for its new “Projects” software feature, which, Berkowitz says, is being Alpha-tested just in New Haven and has been live for a mere three weeks or so. “Projects” allows individuals to propose and raise funds for, you guessed it, their own community projects. A current proposal, for example, seeks $4200 to convert a single street parking space into a bike corral. The idea is to encourage health and eco-consciousness while allowing more foot traffic for area businesses, since 10 cyclists would be able to park in the amount of space normally reserved for a single vehicle.
Efforts like these mean more when they originate from the grassroots, Berkowitz says. “When people have collectively decided what they want and need for their own community, it’s always more sincere.”
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Written by Courtney McCarroll. Photographed by Uma Ramiah.