Civic innovation uses new ideas and technology to address existing problems affecting our daily lives. A few examples of these issues were presented at this Fridays Innovate Pasadena talk: Reducing traffic congestion, increasing public access to spaces, providing last mile of transportation from buses / trains, obtaining emergency medical services, enabling smart irrigation / water conservation, repairing streets / downed trees and easily finding a bus schedule.
The last two were addressed in depth by Innovate Pasadena’s co-founder Andy Wilson, and have application solutions worth repeating so that other communities might also implement them to the benefit of their citizens.
Civic innovation includes new ideas, technologies or methodologies that improves upon existing processes and systems in order to improve the lives of citizens or the function of the society that they live within. – Andy Wilson
Requesting City Services
Let’s out line the problem and the application solution for interacting with local services: Anyone who has tried to get a pothole fixed, or wants graffiti removal or to report a gushing sprinkler in the road median, or to have a downed tree limb removed knows it is a convoluted process. The first step is to figure out which city department is responsible for the required service. This onerous task stops many people at this beginning stage, and it shouldn’t be the citizens issue to figure out a city organizational structure. Some website searching and you may have the right entity. Step two is to find a phone number, email or on-line form to state the issue. Step three is providing the specific information – most likely you know the general area of the pothole, or the nearest cross street for the debris on the roadside. But with a smartphone and GPS, technology we all have at our fingertips, it seems very last century to have to type everything into a form or email.
Afterwards, you most likely receive an automated email response saying your information has been received. In many cases, you don’t even get that much. One of the biggest frustrations and complaints about city services has been a lack of transparency regarding service requests.
The “Pasadena Citizen Services App” (iPhone and Android) was developed to streamline the process above, as well as provide a single point of contact interface for all city services. This creates a higher citizen satisfaction and make it more cost effective for the city to provide services. This app takes advantage of smartphone technology. Simply take a picture of the problem, the GPS coordinates are captured to pinpoint the location, and upload to the city. But the most valued part of this centralized service is that is is closed-loop: You can see in real time the status of your issue, and all other reports in the city as well. The city gets the reports needed to know where the problems are, the city saves money on the cost for processing reports, the repairs are done faster and cost less since the city knows exactly where to send the service crew as well as what is needed on site in terms of equipment, supplies and number of workers. And the citizens are happier, less frustrated with local government and get the requested services in a more timely fashion. Even better, you know the issue is being addressed because you can see it in the app – no more guessing or grumbling if anyone at city hall got the request.
Public Transit Information
Now consider what should be a simple task – figuring out when your bus is arriving at the bus stop. Until just a few years ago, you would look at a printed route and time-table booklet. Most often this is on the busline marker pole or in the enclosed bus stop. Rarely would you have the printed materials with you so you could plan ahead to when you need to be at the stop. And if the bus schedule gets changed due to construction, detours, weather or traffic there was no way to know. This method has been both costly to the city in terms of having to print the schedules, and frustrating to riders since it’s only rarely that the bus arrives as predicted on the paper.
Transit providers started putting the printed version on-line so it was at least available to everyone, anywhere, anytime. This saved on the printing costs, but a static .pdf document doesn’t address the core issue of knowing exactly when the bus is coming. With additional funding, some transit authorities began putting electronic kiosks and display at the bus stops to show more real time schedules. However this solution turned out to be costly in terms of the screens, personnel to install and maintain, and in overall management. And this still doesn’t help the rider who is deciding when to leave home / office / restaurant / etc. to have enough time to catch the bus.
The city of Pasadena reached out to the local tech community to help solve this issue. Again, the technology we all carry with us helped form the solution. A transit app on your iPhone which shows you closest stop and provides Estimated Time of Arrival for buses. Also lets you browse, schedules, stops, routes and save favorites. Using the GPS data from the buses, the app shows real time bus positions and allows you to view where the next bus servicing your stop is currently located.
Taking this a step further, it will soon show you all your options to get to a destination. If you have Uber or Lyft installed on your phone, the locations and cost of their carpool options will be displayed. Similar bus routes, as well as train / light-rail, options will be available.
Many cities are now hosting hack-a-thons and other engagements to make it easier for people to innovate solutions to problems related to everyday living in cities. Most will make available massive databases and infrastructure access in order to facilitate developing apps and websites. As more of the city planning and usage is brought to the residents, we see an evolution to the “Smart City” of the near future. There are a number of interesting texts related to this, and we would suggest the following from Amazon:
Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
Smart Cities that Work for Everyone: 7 Keys to Education & Employment
Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia
What other Civic Innovations would you like to see implemented in your city? Please share below…
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