It all started with graffiti on a wall.
Ben Berkowitz, a New Haven native, noticed it on the side of his neighbor’s building. He called City Hall to file his complaint.
“At some point in the phone call, I realized there was no way to connect,” he said.
As a new way to cut through this red tape, SeeClickFix.com was born. Co-founded by Berkowitz in March 2008, the site allows citizens from any city to report non-emergency issues in their communities to their city officials. The process is self-explanatory: residents SEE a problem, CLICK and upload it to the website (dialogue ensues) and, ideally, the city FIXES it.
While its original purpose was to shine a spotlight on basic infrastructure problems, and to eventually get them resolved, SeeClickFix’s goals have expanded in the past four years to include a question-and-answer service through which users can ask local authorities about public information, such as library hours or how to obtain a marriage license.
SeeClickFix has helped to open up the relationships between citizens and their local governments, making communications and grievance processes much more transparent in various cities around the globe. The site’s success derives in part from its New Haven origins and the city’s civic framework, an accomplishment that has little to do with the prominent presence of Yale University (excepting the handful of Yalie interns SeeClickFix has enlisted in past years).
While residents in and outside the Elm City have embraced the SeeClickFix phenomenon as a novel method of civic engagement, the most transient of New Haven denizens — Yale students — have yet to make the most of the website.
“I think Yalies underutilize [the site],” said Hans Schoenburg ’10, a SeeClickFix.com user and one of its mobile app developers. “More importantly, they underestimate its power.”
In the beginning, SeeClickFix focused on forwarding users’ non-emergency requests to the appropriate municipal department. If you saw a run-down playground, the parks and recreation division would be notified of your complaint; if there was a need for a new crosswalk, it fell under the Department of Transportation’s purview.
At present in New Haven, City Hall is not only receiving emails about these grievances, but SeeClickFix entries are now integrated into the city’s complaint records and work order system, Cityworks.
This assimilation, said New Haven’s chief administrative officer Rob Smuts ’01, arose from SeeClickFix’s popularity among residents, which outpaced usage of the original 3-1-1 program, a telephone number used to access non-emergency municipal services. While Cityworks still serves its purpose as an archive of complaints, Smuts added, SeeClickFix has come forth as an alternative reporting mechanism. Essentially, a two-way street has been unlocked: both complaints lodged directly to City Hall and to the website are imported into SeeClickFix.com.
As a result, the volume of issues reported to the New Haven government has significantly increased, Smuts explained, prompting city officials to take a closer look at how the grievance system can function more efficiently.
“That’s really been an ongoing process. I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll ever get there; it’ll be an ongoing process we’ll be working on.”
The process of integration includes a new smartphone application, through which users can locate and record an issue via photo or video, report it in real time and incorporate it into the city’s workflow. Once the issue has been fixed, the original complainant can be notified of its resolution.
“Can you draw me a map of the city?,” asked Brandon Jackson ’13, who formed part of the team that developed the mobile application.
I choked — it was one of those questions I thought I knew how to answer.
This reaction, Jackson said, is symptomatic of a larger affliction many Yale students tend to share: lack of involvement in New Haven and a reputation for being disconnected from their urban setting. SeeClickFix aims to curb this trend, but it’s unclear how much it has influenced campus behavior thus far.
Yale counts as its own “watch area” on the site, a geographically distinct region monitored by its citizens. Some complaints in this “watch area” have been funneled to University departments, namely Yale Police and Yale Transit. After protests on the website about the fast speed of Yale shuttles, Berkowitz told me, the problem was addressed and settled, resulting in slower buses.
Over 100 Yale email addresses are registered on SeeClickFix.com, Berkowitz said, though it is near impossible to quantify the actual number of Elis who use the website.
One of these Yale users has been Brian Tang ’12. In Tang’s view, the site has grabbed a mighty brass ring — it cuts the middleman, streamlining and enabling a new kind of city involvement that was otherwise unfeasible before.
“While I don’t think SeeClickFix is the singular answer that will make the public process work so much better, I do feel our existing assumptions about how the public reaches out to governments is pretty lacking, and it could be a lot more meaningful,” Tang said.
Yet the possibilities allowed through SeeClickFix are not only limited to civic interactions, and the site’s potential could be harnessed and scaled down to meet more specific Yale interests. For instance, Schoenburg suggests applying the SeeClickFix interface in residential colleges so students can self-report issues affecting their own facilities. And although Yalies can be their own watchdogs inside their dorms and off campus, they often become the source of grief on SeeClickFix.com.
“Lux et Trash,” regarding 36 Lynwood Place: “The sidewalk is overflowing with household trash discarded by students,” reported by Schoenburg himself on August 27, whose user profile labels him as a “municipal avenger.” “It covers both sides of the street and much of the sidewalk. Talk about bringing down the neighborhood.”
In the 1950s and 60s, New Haven became a laboratory for pioneering urban renewal strategies, which included the construction of connectors and parking garages, the launch of new cooperative housing projects, and the renovation of neighborhoods such as Wooster Square.
The city’s adaptive attitude toward public policy suits the nature of SeeClickFix, Jackson said, even if the start-up scene here is not as vibrant as those in Silicon Valley or New York City.
“SeeClickFix is a very rare exception,” he told me. “It’s ability to launch in other places was very dependent on New Haven because the city had a lot of faith in the website. That’s a powerful endorsement.”
Now, municipal administrations in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. are implementing the site’s platform. Tens of thousands of communities use it to document their infrastructure issues, and additionally, the company has about 80 clients who pay for enhanced features tailored to their needs, including collegiate costumers such as Southern Connecticut University.
For Berkowitz, New Haven is both a home and a sandbox, a fitting breeding ground for a new generation of empowering civic initiatives.
“It’s a small enough city that you can test something and actually make an impact,” he said. “But it’s also big enough that the impact is treated with credibility by others looking in.”
The website has enhanced New Haven’s ability to address the work order system, Smuts explained, dramatically improving the city’s ability to get back in touch with citizens and close the loop. On a different note, police officers in New Haven also receive direct alerts on their cellphones from citizens reporting crime issues within their “watch areas,” allowing for quick arrests.
As for the bond between Yale and SeeClickFix, it’s a matter of mentality. Students see New Haven as an extension of Yale, and not the other way around, Tang noted. If Yalies are to truly engage with the city in any capacity, be it online or not, they must first begin to consider New Haven as something more than just a college town.
“As citizens, we have rights and responsibilities,” Tang stated. “This is where I live; this is home now. I am a New Havener.”