For cities searching for ways to use mobile technology effectively, Boston's latest app offers a case study on how to do it right.
When Boston launched Citizens Connect in 2009—a mobile app designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems to the city—there were fears that city hall would be buried in complaints about burned out streetlamps, potholed streets and crumbling sidewalks. Fortunately, these concerns were unwarranted, and now the city plans to launch what amounts to a loyalty program to reward the app’s most frequent users.
Under Mayor Thomas Menino, who retires in January after 20 years as the top executive, Boston has become one of the savviest users of mobile technology in government. In its latest move, the city is using apps to underscore the idea that citizens can be an extension of city staff.
A new version of Citizens Connect, which launches later this year, will include an experimental feature called Street Cred that lets citizens create profiles and earn recognition as enthusiastic users of the service request system. “It will allow us to sort of credential folks for being active reporters of issues in their neighborhoods,” says CIO Bill Oates. These power users will be invited to join special programs—like monthly “pothole patrols”—that target specific problems or particular areas of the city.
Street Cred exploits an interesting phenomenon created by the mobile app, says Oates. “We got a great response when we first launched the app, and when we asked people why they liked it, they said, ‘When we call, we feel like we’re complaining, but when we use the app, we feel like we’re helping.’”
The new release of Citizens Connect also includes a few other novel features designed to forge closer ties between constituents and city workers. For instance, once workers complete a repair on a malfunctioning stoplight, they can snap a photo of the fix and send it to the citizen who submitted the service request. Citizens will receive the photo along with the names of the city workers responsible for the job, and they’ll be able to respond to workers with virtual high-fives or other forms of recognition.
All of this is meant to further cement the notion that citizens can be the eyes and ears for city repair crews. In September, The Boston Globe noted that service requests coming into the city’s constituent service program have risen 35 percent since 2010, driven largely by a spike in requests submitted by mobile app users. At the same time, the paper says mobile technology helps the city handle requests more efficiently by sending work orders directly to road crews in the field, cutting travel time.
Closer interaction between citizens and city workers is possible because the city is merging Citizens Connect with a parallel mobile application used by city workers to receive work orders and document repairs. Oates adds that city workers were a driving force behind some of the new features, including the ability to send citizens snapshots of completed repairs.
The latest makeover marks the fourth release of Citizens Connect, and those upgrades are one key to the application’s ongoing success. Much like a commercial software company would, the city has continually revised the app since its launch four years ago to take advantage of new technology and react to consumer trends, says Oates. “This has been a real focused effort on product management that keeps things fresh and functional.”
It’s no secret that mobile device use is exploding and that a growing number of citizens expect to interact with government using their smartphone or tablet. For cities searching for ways to use mobile technology effectively, Citizens Connect offers a case study on how to do it right. The application literally is helping Boston transform the citizen/government relationship.
“The mayor always says he wants to use technology to bring people closer together,” says Oates. “We think this is a great example of how that can work.”
This column originally appeared in GOVERNING magazine.