Wanna get the attention of City Hall? Boston and New York residents with iPhones may soon have a way to do that without traveling downtown, standing in line, or navigating a telephone queue thanks to new smartphone applications that allow them to access city services on the fly.
Many third-party applications already provide access to a vast array of information about transit schedules and similar city services. But the new applications appear to go a step further, allowing users to snap pictures tagged with GPS coordinates to alert city officials to problems that require attention. Boston’s app, it is said, will assign each submission a tracking number that allows the user to follow actions in response to their request.
Harnessing the power of social networks and new technology has proven a costly and daunting task for city officials. Although many jurisdictions have established websites or made an appearance on Faceboook or Twitter, few have figured out how to actively engage citizens in the process of community governance. Providing people with a new way to lodge complaints will not necessarily improve the quality of those services.
New technology and social media raise familiar questions for city officials: How can we use these tools to do things better and cheaper? If the experience of social entrepreneurs and non-profits are anything to go by, the possibilities are indeed interesting. The best of the applications developed by these organizations provide new ways for people to identify with or form communities of interest with people they might not otherwise come into contact with. Finding ways to mobilize these interest groups for the common good should be a primary focus of local government social networking strategies.