March 29, 2010 -- Thanks to the wonders of mobile technology, smart phones can help people fall asleep, hang pictures straight and even learn how to play a guitar. Now, smart phones can fix potholes.
In some cities, citizens can now report potholes, graffiti and other issues directly to their city with their smart phones. After being downloaded onto a smart phone, the software -- commonly referred to as "applications" or "apps" -- allows a citizen to take pictures of a problem and with a click of a button, e-mail it directly to city officials with the exact coordinates of where the picture was taken.
This contrasts with the more traditional way of reporting issues, via a city's Web site or by calling a non-emergency city service line.
"People love it, citizens are just giving us the thumbs up," said city project manager Rick Nixon for the city of Portland, Ore., which has recently released mobile software that allows citizens to request service on public infrastructure such as park equipment, street lights, potholes, sewer catch basins and graffiti, and have the problem fixed within 24 to 48 hours.
Before, Nixon said, if citizens saw an issue, they would have to go back home, look for the correct number to call, describe over the phone what the issue was and where it was, or fill out a long, cumbersome form via Web site. And often, he said, by the time they got back home to report the issues, they would forget exactly what the issue was, or where it was located.
Now, he said, there are less barriers to reporting issues to the city.
"It's been very well-received, maybe too well. The amount of incoming traffic has been pretty immense, there are a lot of iPhone users," said Nixon. "They're still figuring the best way to handle increased traffic."
Los Angeles Councilmember Paul Krekorian's office is rolling out an iPhone app with the same functionalities in April.
"It will speed up the delivery of constituent services and create a new vehicle of communication to make government more transparent and open to our constituents," Krekorian said.
Both Portland's and Krekorian's mobile software were developed in-house and will be made available to citizens for free. While the software will not generate revenue for the city, they have tremendous value for city officials, says Brent Blackaby, an online political strategist.
Mobile software can help keep a constituency engaged during an official's elected term without breaching that "firewall" between the official-side and the campaign-side, said Blackaby, whose firm Trilogy Interactive helps manage online communications for Democratic candidates.
"What we're trying to do, while someone is still in office, is to communicate with the people that support them all the good things that the elected official is doing so that people are still connected and still in the loop with what's happening," Blackaby said.
"And then when it comes time for campaign season to begin again, you've got a strong base of support and a strong team of people online, you have grassroots support behind you, that you've continued to build and grow and hopefully over time," said Blackaby, whose team has worked on online campaign communications for a handful of Democratic senators including California Sen. Barbara Boxer and New York Sen. Charles Schumer, as well as Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Wesley Clark.
"They need to feel like their part of your campaign, they're part of your organization, they're part of your success, and keeping them connected with what you're working on in elected offices i think is a critical part of that," Blackaby said.
Governing Apps: Good for Campaigning Too
This is especially important for keeping people engaged during a long governing term, he added.
"When you're in a campaign, you're talking about the next primary in a couple of weeks.You've got key deadlines and milestones, and a relatively short time horizon," Blackaby said. "When you're governing you're talking about a four-year term, you talking about programs that have a decade or more of a lifecycle to them. And I think to keep that activist energy going in a governing phase relative to a campaign phase is difficult."
Blackaby said there's a lot of potential applications for political campaigns using mobile technology. For example, he pointed to the Voter Activation Network's new iPhone and iPod Touch app, which allows accredited users to download a list of voters, survey those voters, enter their responses and add the data to a main voter file.
Also, he said, "Research has shown that especially within certain communities, text-messaging can be a really powerful tool."
A quick search at the online iTunes store showed only a handful of campaigning iPhone apps -- mostly for Republican candidates, including Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who is running for Kansas governor; Ohio Rep. Bob Latta, who is running for re-election; and former Rep. John Kasich, who is running for Ohio governor.
The apps range from simplistic, carrying recent press releases and news alerts, to flashy, featuring YouTube video and most recent Tweets. But mobile software for politics is limited in one key regard -- fundraising.
"In politics, raising money through text-messaging is still a little bit difficult, because there are certain compliance requirements and other issues that make it more difficult to do stuff like that," Blackaby said. "Part of that is a regulatory issue, you know, making sure you can figure out with the people who regulate campaigns.
"There's technology just waiting to be exploited, and I don't think we're quite there yet," he said.
For citizens whose local governments have yet to create mobile software for issue-reporting, developers such as Steve Barham have created ones citizens can download directly.
Barham's app, called "311 Universal," is available for citizens whose cities offer a 3-1-1 non-emergency reporting line and can be found at an online store for $0.99. It works with any smart phone.
The software allows citizens to take pictures and descriptions of non-emergency issues that can be e-mailed to a city's designated e-mail address for its 3-1-1 center.
"With my app, instead of talking to that person on the phone, you can get all that information that you need -- a picture tells a thousand words -- send that to the person, and you don't have to talk to them," he said. "It doesn't take very long."
And from a city's perspective, Barham said, "I don't have to have a bunch of data systems set up in order to accept the information. I just have to know how to deal with e-mail."
Barham said apps like his can be also used to alert authorities of cars on the street that have been broken into, or allow them to see patterns of crime.
Could it also be used to make complaints on annoying neighbors?
"Any non-emergency issue that you can think of," he said. He said to date, about 200 people have bought his app.
New Apps Part of 'Government 2.0'
Barham said apps like his can change the way citizens interact with their governments.
"It's hard for governments to stop it, they have to respond," he said.
Techies like Barham call this "Government 2.0" -- the usage of Web technology to make government more transparent, efficent and accountable.
Krekorian said his coming app -- available only on iPhones at first -- will also be used as a news alert system to communicate with citizens in the event of emergencies, road closures or other situations.
"We're living in a time where people expect more efficiency, more engagement and acocuntablity from their elected officials. This is a vehicle to accomplish all of those things," Krekorian said.
Especially during a time of severe budgetary restraint, he said, enlisting citizen engagement to be the eyes and ears of government to report issues makes it easier and less costly to deliver services to constituents.
"We're at the beginning of a new century that is going to see changes that we can't even imagine," Krekorian said. "Governments still seem to be delivering in the 19th century. We're trying to change that."
But how soon will potholes actually be fixed, once the report reaches his office? Krekorian could not say exactly.
"As quickly as our servces will allow," he said. "At least this is a way to get the complaint in."