November 16, 2009 By Chad Vander Veen
Earlier this year, San Francisco announced that citizens could use Twitter to inform the city about municipal service problems, such as graffiti, broken streetlights and potholes. By following San Francisco's SF311 Twitter account, users can submit "tweets" to the city and receive a tracking number that lets them follow the city's progress -- or lack thereof -- in addressing their issues.
The simple act of incorporating Twitter into its customer relationship management (CRM) process adds San Francisco to a growing list of cities using Web 2.0 applications to make the citizen-government relationship a little easier. These applications tend to be easy-to-use and easy-to-integrate, providing benefits to the city and the citizen at minimal or no expense. On the East Coast, New York and Boston aim to join San Francisco by adding their own 2.0 twist to CRM.
In winter 2008, as snowdrifts lined the streets of Boston, a few staffers at Mayor Thomas Menino's office came up with an idea. The city's CRM service had been receiving a lot of input regarding snow removal, said Nigel Jacob, the mayor's senior adviser for emerging technology. Jacob and his colleagues thought it would be great if Bostonians could let the city know, via their mobile devices, where snow was piling up.
Then, as now, Apple's iPhone was a consumer blockbuster, due largely to its ever-growing list of handy applications -- or apps. To Jacob and his colleagues, the iPhone seemed like the perfect platform to experiment with a mobile CRM/311-type application. There was only one problem. They needed to build the application.
For help, Jacob turned to Connected Bits, a Boston software development company that specializes in mobile software.
"Our thought in trying to make it interesting to Connected Bits was that if we could develop an application like this, then at some level integrate with our CRM back end, presumably other cities would be interested in something like that as well," Jacob said. "So isn't it in their best interest to do this work for us? It worked."
Development work on the app began in mid-April. For about $25,000 to cover technical support and server costs on Connected Bits' side -- and thanks to some long hours put in by Jacob and his staff -- the free app, called Citizen Connect, was ready in mid-August for iPhone users to download.
With Citizen Connect, Boston-area iPhone users report problems to the city in four categories: potholes, graffiti, streetlights and other. And it's the "other" category that could prove revolutionary. Jacob cited the example of a citizen who wants a tree planted in his community.
"By selecting 'other,' you could snap a photo of the location, the GPS will grab your coordinates and you can write in the field, 'Plant tree here.' So those are the kinds of things that this enables," he said.
Jacob also noted that if residents think a street needs more lighting, the Citizen Connect app will work in the same way. An iPhone user only needs to take a photo of the street, and the GPS details are uploaded with the picture to the city CRM. Like San Francisco's SF311, Citizen Connect generates a ticket for each issue submitted, allowing users to track what's being done.
"I think this is just a chance for us to build some excitement and interest in this as an approach, and then we'll do a lot of other things as well," Jacob said.
A few hundred miles southwest of Boston, New York City also is upping the ante in the Web 2.0-enabled