On our first day in Boston, we were excited to join a conference call hosted by the City to announce developer access to its Citizens Connect platform. Citizens Connect is an innovative mobile app that allows residents to use their smartphones to report non-emergency problems throughout the city. Citizens take a geocoded photo, write a report and submit their problem to the Citizens Connect system. City Officials use these reports to track issues ranging from un-shoveled sidewalks to broken stoplights and graffiti. The idea – which augments Mayor Menino’s 24-hour telephone hotline – is to tap the collective awareness of Boston’s residents and to create a positive feedback loop of government responsiveness. The mobile app launched in October 2009 and has already fielded over 9,000 reports. There are over 10,000 registered users of the system.
By adding an application programming interface (API), the City is inviting developers to access the data and architectural structure of the Citizens Connect system, which will open up new opportunities for analysis and innovation. As Nigel Jacob — from the Mayor’s Department of New Urban Mechanics — put it, “Boston is on the cutting edge, but we want to stay ahead of the curve”.
They showcased the power of that API platform with their new app, “Street Bump.” Street Bump is an mobile Android app that allows citizens to help the city monitor potholes not by seeing or clicking, but just by driving. By leveraging the phone’s sensors, the app is able to identify and submit potholes in real-time. When a car hits a bump, the phone’s accelerometer records it, and using the GPS and web connections, it submits it to the Street Bump website. Currently in prototype testing, the app should eventually push reports directly to Citizens Connect.
The conference call was an auspicious start to Code for America’s engagement with the City. First, it represented the successful launch of an API that is similar to the one Code for America plans to implement. (The Boston team will be building an API to connect data from the Boston Public School System, Boston Public Library, Boston Centers for Youth & Families and MBTA. The vision is to make “the whole city into a classroom”.) It also displayed the City’s commitment to open data, transparency and engagement — principals that are near and dear to Code for America’s heart.