Chapter 3: Help Residents Solve Problems and Access Government

Cities are using a variety of methods to help their communities address concerns and get in touch with government more easily. By interfacing with residents directly and following up on calls for service, cities are able to demonstrate their commitment to bringing residents into the governing process and engage in a continual feedback loop with the public. Some cities are tackling resident problems by developing applications internally and in partnership with external stakeholders. Other cities are using existing structures to get insights from their communities. The important part is opening up lines of communication between residents and government and encouraging public participation in governmental processes.

Case Studies

Denton, TX, has a strong developer and web designer presence. It also had historically low voter turnout (4 to 7 percent compared to 20.9 percent in non-presidential year local elections). The city worked with its development community to solve this problem. The city provided voter files and geographic information on voting districts, and the local tech community created According to Councilman Kevin Roden, organizer of the hackathon where this application was built, “[] is a demonstration of what can happen when innovative technological solutions are sought for civic problems. By highlighting the density of creative tech talent within our city, it makes an important economic development point: Denton is quickly becoming the region’s leader for fostering an environment of innovation.”

Aurora, IL, created “My Place,” a feature on its website for residents to search for school, voting, and zoning information. Users enter an address, and receive detailed information on the county, township, park district, school district, garbage pickup days, congressional, senate and house districts, as well as detailed voting information, including polling places. “‘My Place’ is a quick and easy resource for Aurora citizens to locate useful information in a matter of seconds,” said Mayor Tom Weisner. “It’s also a great addition to the city’s website and is another illustration of how we place customer service as a number one priority for all of our residents.”

When Oakland, CA, built its real-time crime application, Calls for Service, residents were able to find incidents in their neighborhood, and started requesting that the information be sent out via RSS or XML feeds. Although the public application is obvious, the idea actually came from the Oakland Police Department, who approached the division manager of Public Safety Services and Business Applications with a request to publish 911 data. Oakland encouraged this internal demand for data by building out dashboards with real-time information for command staff to use in the field.

Mobile, AL, combined resident reports to its 311 call center and pictures code enforcement officers uploaded to the city’s Instagram account to tackle its blight problem, mapping the location of blighted properties and creating a plan to improve particularly blighted areas. By using existing systems, Mobile was able to rapidly record 926 blighted properties on Instagram, assuring the community that the city was taking this problem seriously and acting now.

Questions to Consider

  • Are there problems in the city that can or should be addressed with public input?
  • Do you have a relationship with your city’s tech community? Do you have in-house development capability?
  • Are there any existing structures or systems in place to solve this problem?
  • What questions can you ask to find out the type of tech solutions that your city’s residents would find helpful?
  • What systems are used internally that may also have value for the public?

Related Tools and GovEx Resources

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