07/08/2013 by Matthew Grant Anson

New smart phone app in Alameda County matches technology with civic engagement

(Photo Credit: Rob Bouden)

Alameda County has over 1.5 million people, which means when a tree falls in the road, a power line goes down, or a teenager with a spray can decides they're an artist, it can affect a lot of people.

County residents now have a new tool for reporting issues like these to their Alameda County Public Works Agency, and it comes in the form of a smartphone application called Mobile Citizen. The app, available for iPhones and Android phones, allows citizens to take a photo of the problem and submit it along with GPS coordinates gathered by their phone.

"We're getting better information," Deputy Director Rick Ruiz said. "When they submit a photo, we get the exact coordinates. Before, there were times we couldn't find the problem because people would just say it was near or by something. Now, we're finding it -- it's within a couple feet."

Ruiz believes this is the start of a growing movement towards local governments promoting civic engagement through tech. "I really do," he said. "I think this is just the beginning of government using technology to allow the community to have a quicker response. We knew technology was changing, and we wanted a way to better interface with our customers."

James Park, a 22-year-old Berkeley resident, sees the benefits that come with the app. "It's kind of the equivalent of going out and being a good neighbor," Park said. "I don't see any downsides to it. If it helps with safety, a life spared is a life spared."

The primary draw of Mobile Citizen is the real-time response. Citizens receive automatic notifications throughout the process, confirming their request was received, when the work order was approved, and when it's been closed.

Perhaps most noteworthy of all is what happens when a citizen sends in a request from an area outside of the Public Works Agency's jurisdiction. "A lot of the times we'll get some requests that aren't in our jurisdiction, so it's nice because we get the info and we put that request in," Ruiz said. "We'll notify the requester that we've notified the right people for them. We strive to do that, to go out of our way. Most folks don't know the right jurisdiction to call, so it's easier on everybody -- and the folks are very happy."

Ruiz says counties and cities in the Bay Area have kept up a dialogue about different technological innovations they can undertake to improve the lives of their residents. "I just did a demo to San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Contra Costa to show them what our system is doing," Ruiz said. "They probably will move towards that."

As more and more people have smartphones in their pockets, another feature that these city apps could include comes from Park: "I think it would be nice if crimes could be reported by individuals through the apps," he said. "Then they could be displayed in public on LCD screens in public areas in real-time. That would alert locals to be vigilant for their own safety without having to wait for delayed news agencies and police reports."

Perhaps an app for citizens to submit their app ideas should be the next project for Alameda County. Anything that efficiently boosts citizen engagement in how their city operates would be worth the download. 

Categories: Californians, Civic Engagement

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