See, Click?

In a move of technological savvy, last May, the city of Albany became the first city in New York to launch a partnership with SeeClickFix, an app/website designed to encourage people to report various issues to their local governments, last May. This means that when you enter something on the site or app—say, “the snow plow knocked over the street sign on my corner,” city officials will see it, acknowledge it, and assign it to the person responsible.

I had apparently signed up on the site and entered my neighborhood as an area to “watch” long before the city partnership, but suddenly in the past month activity fired up and I began getting all sorts of notices, which inspired me to bring up a signal timing issue that I’ve been complaining about for a long time, but had not done anything about, dreading finding my way through a bureaucratic maze to the right person who may or may not want to be talking to me about it. It was pretty exciting to get a response within days that they’d adjust the timing and thanks for the heads up.

And that, of course, it how it’s supposed to work. On the one hand, the people who actually live in the neighborhoods have a more efficient venue for sending information about how the systems of the city are or aren’t working to those who need to know. On the other, citizens feel more positively about their local government as they get acknowledgement, and sometimes even resolution, of their concerns, and watch other issues logged and dispatched in their area.

I think that part is a good thing, and there are a whole lot of really good uses for it: signal timing, signage, potholes, utility problems, playground maintenance, plays that need crossing guards, and on and on.

But when I was saying “Hey, isn’t this great?”, a friend threw in a note of caution. That is not always how it’s going to be used, she pointed out. It will be, and is being, also used to report on things where a measure of blame, and consequences, will fall on private citizens—unshoveled sidewalks, cars without plates sitting in driveways.

And that’s where things get dicey. Because when someone can report a neighbor with a simple click, it becomes even harder to do the already hard thing of having a conversation with that neighbor first. That moves us away from increasing social efficacy (a group coming together to solve its own problems) and robs us of opportunities to build community. Last winter, for example, I know someone who got cited for uncleared snow when her whole family had come down with the flu. If the person who called that in had instead knocked on the door to see what was up, they would have realized that the right and neighborly thing to do would have been to shovel it for them. I’m quite sure the grateful homeowners would have paid it forward. Other folks with code issues might have money problems and qualify for some of the programs out there to help people in that situation—but that won’t help as much if they’ve got a big fine lumped on top of it.

These conversations are hard. I can’t say I’m all that great at it. And it doesn’t always work. But I’m quite sure our communities would be better of if that were our first impulse.

City codes exist for a reason. People should shovel their sidewalks and landlords should maintain their houses to a basic level of decency, etc. Absentee owners who let their properties deteriorate to the degree that they pose serious safety hazards to their neighbors should have the book thrown at them.

But codes are also an accretion of rules and interpretations formed over time, not always totally logical, never enforced uniformly or fairly, so I don’t think that any person reporting a code issue always has the moral high ground, much like someone running to the cops every time they smell marijuana smoke doesn’t. There’s a nasty history of code complaints being used in gentrifying neighborhoods to punish and push out those too poor to always keep every i dotted and t crossed. I do worry that an app like this will make it easier for that to happen.

In addition, even without malign intent, those neighborhoods whose residents are tech-savvy enough and have enough time and motivation on their hands to use this more are likely to start to receive disproportionately (even) more of the city’s resources as they wield it.

I’m hoping that the silver lining of that is that the platform can also bring some transparency to the process, and could be used to monitor equitable treatment of, and response time to, different neighborhoods.

If what you see is not a problem with public property or infrastructure, I encourage everyone to think, and reach out, before you click.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Jan. 16, 2014.)

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