Civic engagement: Fix potholes with smartphones

Pothole? Graffiti? Street light out? In Boston, one of America’s most tech-savvy cities, residents who see such problems can use a smartphone app to click photos and send them to the city. Crews will actually get on the case. It’s an impressive demonstration of modern civic engagement. But it’s also an important way for city government to gather information about what people want and figure out how to address those demands more efficiently.

Use of a constituent service program launched in 2008 by Mayor Menino has skyrocketed, the Globe recently reported, from an original 8,000 reports a year to 150,000 in 2012. The system spares residents the burden of calling from office to office. When reports come in via e-mail, website, text, call, or the smartphone app, issues are channeled to the proper department, which can then send work orders to the nearest crew. Particularly impressive in this “press 9 for more options” era, phone calls to Boston’s 24-hour hotline are actually answered by a live human being, and data are monitored for crew punctuality and performance.

Boston leads the nation in this approach to connecting citizens to city services, according to the Public Technology Institute consulting group. “Our constituents are our best eyes and ears out there,” says Justin Holmes, the city’s director of constituent engagement. The impressive program creates a high bar for Menino’s successor.