Cleaning Up Boston with the iPhone

Remember the “House Rules” that were posted on your childhood refrigerator? Is it just me, or were these rules always daunting challenges despite the simplicity of their request? For example, “If you sleep in it, make it” seemed to always escape my list of priorities when I rushed out the door in the morning; “If you drop it, pick it up” was an easy rule to avoid, thanks to my family dog who was punctual to the point of neurosis when it came to windfall profits at the dinner table. I hated these rules, so I ignored them. While I didn’t appreciate these House Rules at the time, in retrospect I now understand that my parents were teaching me the importance of taking responsibility for my actions and contributing to the household.

A similar lesson is being instilled in Boston residents today, and technology is taking the House Rule “If you break it, repair it” to a whole new level. Mayor Menino and the City of Boston are promoting an iPhone application called Citizens Connect that allows users to report graffiti, request a traffic light fix, report damaging potholes, and clear any other obstruction or infraction they notice. Initiated in October 2009, Citizens Connect remains largely successful, attracting 8,500 users whose reports accounted for 14% of the Mayor’s total complaints.
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When I heard about this program, I thought it was awesome; partially because it is a wonderful idea and the city is looking better by the day, but mostly because I found my escape route - I don’t own an iPhone! But fear not, my fellow chore-avoiding, non iPhone- using peers; the latest installment of Citizens Connect will create not only an interactive feature between contributing residents, but is also going to become available on Droid phones, and there will be a webpage accessible by BlackBerry and more conventional computers. Those with the application will be able to view not only the reports they sent in, but they will also view the reports of others and thus can post again to emphasize the problem, or move on to the next blight. The city also plans to make its data available to the public, allowing programmers to build their own apps, make mashups, and have other fun on the Web. These features will be available next month, and there will be a kick-off party November 8th at Ned Devine’s Pub in Faneuil Hall.

A “Culture of Participation” is the inspiration behind the new program, with the hope that the more contributions that are made, the smaller the gap becomes between citizen of Boston and its decision makers. In other words, it glorifies the relationship between parent and child, encouraging the latter to play a part in accomplishing life’s day to day tasks that make the world a better place. Lars Torres summarizes the importance technology plays as an emerging mode of participation: “When hundreds, sometimes thousands of citizens, are engaged in information and knowledge building exercises in service of decision-making, the careful application of information and communication technologies is a critical factor of success." It is evident that in the sphere of civic engagement, technology has stepped in to take the lead where human indolence normally falters- and I, for one, am grateful.
Next month will debut the newest changes to Citizens Connect, and I hope you will join me in participating. For the sake of Boston, I urge you to do your part. The next time you pop your tire on Storrow Drive, remember those simple, yet meaningful House Rules. But at the very least, if you can’t repair it, by all means-call in someone who can.

Download the Citizens Connect iPhone App, here.

-Contributed by Sarah Hurley @Sarah_Hu