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Cities add citizen engagement mobile apps to their portfolios:
KM issues include software integration, transparency

This article appears in the issue May 2011, [Volume 20, Issue 5]
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In February 2011, the city of Arlington, Texas, launched a citizen engagement mobile application to coincide with the city's hosting of the Super Bowl. The app, available for iPhone and Android, was downloaded thousands of times within days of its launch. Its users can access city services, report problems such as graffiti, pay bills and tickets, apply for permits, search for local jobs, or use the city directory to contact people and organizations throughout the city.

Trey Yelverton, Arlington's deputy city manager for economic development, says city and state governments have no choice but to get on the mobile app bandwagon. "This is not a passing fad," he says. "I have seen enough movement in the last 18 to 24 months to convince me this is a real shift. If you don't get out on this playing field soon, you are going to be way behind the curve."

Avoid long lines

The mobile tools can reach a younger generation of citizens who don't pay as much attention to direct mail or websites, he says, and they can change the way citizens interact with the city. "If you can pay a bill or get a license using your phone rather than waiting 45 minutes in line at city hall, that is a huge enabler," Yelverton explains. "We are putting the power in the residents' hands to do the transaction when they want to. It can help us both minimize costs and stay open 24x7."

But the new technology also poses knowledge management challenges for municipal executives and information technology leaders. First, they may have to redesign outdated business processes to meet citizen expectations. They must make sure that the iPhone and Android apps can be integrated with their employees' customer relationship management (CRM) and work order systems, and they must stay up to date as the mobile technology changes. Finally, they have to decide how much government data to expose to citizens and third-party software developers.

One key to success, says Louis Carr, city of Arlington chief information officer, is working closely with city agencies that will provide the content. "This isn't as complex as building the city website, but there are many of the same issues to work through," he explains. "They have to decide what information they want presented and in what order."

Arlington worked on the mobile apps with San Francisco-based software developer MacroView Labs. Its CEO, Aron Ezra, says Arlington has a strong IT team. "They were very involved in the development, and the app is better for it," he says.

Where the magic happens

From his experience working with cities, Ezra recommends that governments think beyond just replicating their website on a phone. "Those websites may be 10 years old and feature a folksy picture of the mayor," Ezra says. "They have to focus on how to use the functionality of the phone-for instance, how to use location-based services to help people identify what is nearby."

Software developers, who are working on crowd source applications that help citizens provide input on issues such as crime, graffiti and potholes, say the key to success is developing an end-to-end solution. "That is where the magic happens," says Kurt Daradics, director of business development for CitySourced, which has worked with several cities including Corpus Christi, Texas, and Glendale, Calif. Its software is delivered as a service with an annual subscription fee based on city population.

Here's how it works: Residents report an issue with a digital photo. Through a Web service, their request is interfaced with the public works software, so the city employees don't have to learn new software. They open the work order and see the photo, and it is geo-coded. Having a photo means that workers don't have to send a truck to see how big a water main break is. They know which tools they will need to fix it. Then when they close out a work order, the citizen who reported the problem gets a notice that it has been resolved. "That closes the feedback loop," Daradics says, "and it is all automated."

The early adopters are cities that are already proactive with civic engagement and have strong back-office CRM systems, according to Daradics. "It really is putting the cart before the horse if you don't have a strong CRM," he says. The municipal champions of those projects tend to be one-third CIOs, one-third geographic information system (GIS) executives, and one-third policymakers or city managers, Daradics adds.

"We are talking to CIOs who are thinking on a global enterprise level about their data, not on a departmental level," he says. "This helps get public works, public safety and emergency management all on the same page."

Another mobile app developer that has grown rapidly is called SeeClickFix, which began in 2008 when its co-founders wanted a new and better way to report problems with graffiti. Three years later, the company has 40 paying government clients from small cities to big ones such as Philadelphia and Houston.

"Citizens are already using tools like this, and we offer the cities a way to structure that information," says Ben Berkowitz  CEO and co-founder of SeeClickFix. Cities get custom-branded iPhone apps, reporting features and customized e-mail responses. A small city of under 100,000 pays $100 a month, and larger cities pay an extra $100 per month for every 100,000 of population above that, so a city of 400,000 people would pay $400 a month.

A few cities have responded to SeeClickFix that they don't want to receive input in that form from citizens. "We have had very few of those responses. They have been jumbled and confused and from cities that have bureaucratic problems in responding to their own citizens," Berkowitz says. "But we have been pleased with how willing most cities are to be transparent and responsive to citizens."

Even smaller cities are getting in on the action. Fishers, Ind., with a population of only 77,000, has a sophisticated iPhone application,  and an Android version is in the works. Fishers' app goes beyond offering citizen reporting of potholes and other problems. "We have about 80 percent of what is available on the website on the app," says Maura Leon Barber, director of communication for Fishers, Ind. It launched in February 2010 and in just a few months had more than 2,000 downloads. "We are working on enhancing the GIS functions so citizens can not only see maps of problems such as road closures, but also add their comments or concerns to those maps," Barber adds.

Boston's Citizens Connect

For the city of Boston, its Citizens Connect mobile app grew out of an overhaul of its 24-hour call center. In 2006, CIO Bill Oates launched a new work order management system. After the back-end system was up and running, the city started looking at ways to improve how citizens report problems and considered developing a mobile app. 

Although the city initially thought it couldn't afford what it would cost to create a great mobile app, it found a local company called Connected Bits and convinced its executives that Boston could be an initial development site for software the company could scale to other cities, says Nigel Jacob, co-chair of the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics.

Rolled out in October 2008, Boston's Citizens Connect allows people to enter service requests with four basic types: potholes, graffiti, streetlights and other. The message is sent directly to the work order management system, and a service ticket is created. The person who submitted it gets a message and can follow up and check the order's status. When the ticket is closed, the person also gets a message.

Last year, Boston launched Version 2.0 of the app, with a goal of making it more interactive. Jacob says, "With the initial app, they couldn't see each other's reports. Now we want to make it more about community. They are not just interacting with the city but interacting with each other."

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