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The Missed Opportunity with Jersey City's Adoption of "Fix-It" app

November 24, 2013

By Stephen Musgrave

There were many brilliant things that happened during the Sandy recovery effort – many of which happened online.  Social media, much maligned for being where people go to share photos of their food, played an integral role in pushing out information, tracking who needed help and finding the volunteers who could help them. But it was the Facebook Group that made the biggest difference. The group quickly grew from an information sharing tool to a community of neighbors helping each other. Where a centralized relief effort would quickly become overwhelmed, the all volunteer Jersey City Sandy Recovery effort was able to scale due to the fact that anybody could see what was going on, but more importantly, participate. In one case a post to the group asking for a mattress was quickly answered and a third person chimed in with the offer to deliver it in their van – all in a matter of hours. The Red Cross would be envious.

For some time I've been interested in how the online can help the offline, how software with enough people using it can make a difference in where we live, work and play. The software is social and only when software that's dealing with community issues lends itself to be social is the software of any real value.

I discovered SeeClickFix.com and its smart phone app in the summer of 2010. The app allows me to report an issue at the moment of observation. If I waited until I got home to log it in the city's existing online system – well, it just wouldn't happen. I took to it immediately and set up an account allowing me to receive alerts when anybody reported an issue in Harsimus Cove, effectively becoming become the neighborhood's de facto 311 dispatcher. The Harsimus Cove Association adopted SeeClickFix as our own case management system in February of 2012.

It worked! Neighbors reported abandoned TVs, uncollected trash, downed tree limbs and other quality-of-life issues. More recently, as more and more people started to use it, a community started to form on the website as exhibited by this case where the Village Neighborhood Association, instead of handing the issues over to the Anti-Graffit Task Force, made an attempt to commission a mural.  After a year of the Harsimus Cove Association's program, I gave a report which I knew would be helpful to convince the City of it's value – we had just completed a pilot.

While the last administration showed no interest, Steve Fulop saw the value, even referring to SeeClickFix by name in his Government Structure and Modernization platform paper. I was on Mayor Fulop's Information Technology transition team which produced a report that made it clear that "open data" and "open source" software needed to be at the core of the City's technology adoption strategy. Cities such as Raleigh, Albany, San Francisco, and Newark are moving as quickly as possible in this direction. This isn't a matter of leading the way, this is a matter of keeping up. I introduced the SeeClickFix people to the City, attended a meeting with the City to explain the value in the social dynamics of an open case system and I thought my job was done.

The City of Jersey City this week released a mobile app that allows residents to report quality-of-life issues. Great!  Wait, what?  It's not SeeClickFix?

While the "JC RRC Fix-It" app certainly provides a technology solution, it fails to offer a social solution as there is no open case management system. Instead, it's a black box. Only the reporter of an issue and the City will know about it and so only the City can solve the problem. As the Sandy recovery effort tells us, the City may not be the best equipped to provide the solution. Sure, only the City is equipped to handle most of the issues that are reported as most of us don't have access to a dump truck, but what about those things that we can do for ourselves?  Those things that we can crowdsource?  What better way to build a community than promoting tools and processes that allow the community be self-sufficient?  The City should be building communities of resiliency, engaging at the street level, and not taking a "we'll fix that for you" posture as it doesn't scale in emergencies, is tied to politics and is simply unsustainable. Our need to be involved is at the very foundation of our participatory democracy.

I've been told by the administration that SeeClickFix is too expensive to adopt. Code must be written to exchange data between SeeClickFix and GovQA, the case management system that City has used for several years, or the City would need to dump GovQA and use SeeClickFix's case management tools exclusively. And while I can sympathize with the constraints of the budget, I think it unwise to commit the City to vendor lock-in for a product that doesn't move us towards the ideal of open data. Can we change from GovQA to something better in the future?  Sure, technically, but it's not like flipping a switch. Many users won't make the jump and will simply stop using it. And then there is the data migration of existing cases and case history which is in essence a knowledge base, a guide of how similar problems were resolved.  Any transition will deplete the very thing that makes the software valuable in the first place: the people.

And in a stroke of timely irony, an article was just published about another city, New Haven, that ended up dumping GovQA in favor of SeeClickFix. The benefit of being a laggard in this regard is that the road has been paved for us, but only if we take it.

So now what?

We need a citizen advocacy group. But not just a group of advisors, but a group of doers. That is what I'm arguing for after all – the ability to be involved. Lucky for us we already have a very engaged community. And we have a lot technologists that live in Jersey City. Well, what do you know, such a group was founded last week!

I met with Anna Lukasiak, also on the IT transition team, about her idea to found "Open JC" to play this role. She has already established Open JC as a Code for America "brigade" and our first meeting is on December 3. She has also set up a Facebook page. The guest speaker is Ward E Councilwoman Candice Osborne, who understands the value of social technology because of her day job (WebMD product manager), her involvement in Sandy recovery, and her role as chair of the IT transition team.

Open JC seeks to drive the open technology agenda and to demonstrate the value of open source software and open data. This group will engage with citizens and city employees alike to learn and build open software solutions together. The City needs help creating an RFP for a new website?  The citizens want a tool to easily slice and dice the City budget?  Open JC can help.  And again the good news is that many cities around the world are already doing this and we can gain a lot in knowing what's worked and how they are organized.

Mayor Fulop has pledged to make Jersey City the best mid-sized city in America. But what he really meant is that we will make Jersey City the best mid-sized city in America. We have to do it together with the government. We need to get started now.  December 3rd is the day.  The meet-up starts at 7:30 PM at Indie Grove (121 Newark, 5th Floor).  I'm in.  Are you?