SeeClickFix may address communication problems after storms

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Photo by Harry Simperingham.

After Tropical Storm Irene, some city residents turned to the New Haven-based SeeClickFix website to report power issues when the response from utility companies was delayed.

SeeClickFix, which works as an online public forum where residents can post complaints, has been praised for its effectiveness in addressing crime and other public works issues, and citizens in the New Haven area used it to report some post-storm problems, including power outages. And while United Illuminating Co., one utility company serving New Haven, said it relayed information to customers in a timely manner about outages and repair efforts, some residents have complained about a lack of timely information.

New Haven area users reported large tree branches on power lines, utility poles down and extended power outages in several neighborhoods. One anonymous poster living on Front St. in Fair Haven complained: “I have been unable to access UI’s website or call since the outage on Sunday.”

SeeClickFix’s CEO Ben Berkowitz says his site can do better.

“There was clearly a concern that some utility companies did a poor job at communication [after Tropical Storm Irene],” Berkowitz said. The site might be able to provide information to residents more quickly Berkowitz said, because SeeClickFix increases communication, transparency and accountability between the general public and the government or utility companies.

But Michael West, the director of corporate communication at UI, said he does not view transparency as a main factor in the delay of information and power in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene.

“There’s a perception that transparency is an issue to customers, but it’s not our goal or design to withhold information that is helpful to the public,” West said. “As soon as we get information and it’s validated, we share it.”

In the case of Irene, some UI customers wanted to know as early as Sunday when power would be back on. But it was difficult to make correct assessments and give estimated restoration time because the Tropical Storm lingered over the area for a long time, West said.

He added that UI workers were not able to do repair work in the air as the wind was greater than 40 miles per hour, but dispatch crews patrolled the area and sent back photos and reports to the company’s main database.

“In society today, there’s a speed at which we expect receive information, but it’s a challenge in our business because electricity, if used incorrectly, can be dangerous,” West said.

The public already sees transparency through Facebook and other news outlets like news and radio stations that find and identify issues, West said. Still, he said he supports more sources of information.

Some question whether SeeClickFix is a viable alternative for information in disasters, despite problems in dealing with utility companies. Ann Marie Campagna, a custodian at Yale who lives at Carriage Condos on Whalley lost her power, provided by Consolidated Edison, from Sunday morning until Wednesday afternoon.

“I called [Consolidated Edison] twice, and they told me they had all their manpower out already, ” Campagna said. But she said she would still not use SeeClickFix in the future. “I’m not sure it would make a difference,” she said.

Megan Sinisgalli, a library services assistant at Sterling Memorial Library, said she would consider using SeeClickFix as a complement to information from UI because she liked that there was a smartphone application available for the site.

SeeClickFix was founded by Ben Berkowitz, Kam Lasater, Miles Lasater, and Jeff Blasius and first launched in March 2008.

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