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Using Smartphones to Complain to City Hall


Like any motorist, Jason Kiesel hates potholes.

Last year he was frustrated with the process of getting the potholes that kept appearing in his Los Angeles neighborhood repaired. He looked down at his iPhone. "I thought to myself, wouldn't it be cool if I could take a picture of this pothole and send it directly to someone at city hall?" he says.

Months later, the result is CitySourced, a startup that aims to harness millions of smartphone-wielding urbanites and turn them into the eyes and ears in the never-ending battle against urban blight. Its iPhone application, expected to be approved by Apple (APPL) any day now, promises to make complaining to City Hall as easy as snapping a picture with a cell phone. Applications for the BlackBerry, Palm Pre, Android, and Windows Mobile operating systems are also in the works and should be available next year.

CitySourced is an example of the Government 2.0 movement, a phrase meant to embody the idea that a healthy dose of technology such as social media and wireless communications, can help make governments more efficient in delivering services where they're most needed. Other cities have similar efforts under way, most of them using the iPhone. New York City recently launched an iPhone application that enhances its 311 service—so named for the phone number for reporting problems. Washington, D.C., residents can report problems via its DC 311 app. Boston offers an iPhone app called Citizens Connect, while iPhone-using Pittsburgh residents have iBurgh.

Location, Location, LocationSmartphones are ideal for reporting problems, Kiesel says, because they go everywhere, almost always have cameras, and thanks to connections to GPS satellites, always know their location. A picture of a pothole combined with data on its precise location is better than a phoned-in complaint with an imprecise description of where the problem is. "People are fallible. They call in and say a broken light is at one intersection when it fact it's at another," Kiesel says. "Usually someone has to go find the problem first and then only later is a crew sent to fix it. We help save that first step."

Barely two months from its debut at the TechCrunch50 conference in San Francisco, CitySourced, which has only four full-time employees, has landed its first customer in nearby San Jose. City council member Pete Constant tapped the company to give constituents in his district—San Jose's District 1—the means to report problems they see with their iPhones. Constant, first elected to the city council in 2006, had been looking for a way to streamline complaints about traffic problems, illegal trash-dumping, and other problems from his constituents. Usually, people call the city's general information number and sometimes get transferred from one department to another only to give up in frustration. "It's not a real efficient system," he says. He met Kiesel and his partner, David Kralic, by chance at a political event. "I had been wondering if the city could build its own smart phone app, but then I met these guys." After a series of demonstrations of an early version of the app, Constant awarded CitySourced a one-year contract. If it works, Constant says, he plans to propose that the technology be adopted citywide.

Knowing the exact location of the problem determines who's responsible for fixing it, and more important, where the bill goes. Kiesel says part of CitySourced's strength is a detailed location database containing the exact boundaries of cities, towns, and counties. It's not uncommon for the boundaries of towns and suburbs to butt up against those of larger cities, and sometimes crews can be dispatched to work at locations that aren't within their own city limits. "The application decides who gets the report based on your GPS coordinates," Kiesel says. See a mattress in the road on I-280 in San Jose that's tying up traffic? Snap a picture, and your report gets routed to the California Highway Patrol. Report the same thing on a city street in Constant's district, and the report is routed to the city's Transportation Dept.

Channeling ComplaintsOnce a report is submitted, CitySourced also takes responsibility for making sure it gets to the proper person. Most cities already have their own systems for sending reports to different departments. Kiesel says CitySourced has developed software that formats the data properly to work with those systems. "We provide a system that works with what they already have and charge a subscription fee," he says.

Why pay a fee to an outside firm for a service a city might develop itself? Kiesel says cities that have built their own application have been known to spend as much as $80,000 doing it. "We can do it for less." Plus, there's a benefit that comes with having numerous cities share information on a large network. "We can detect trends that are affecting lots of cities. We get better with every city that gets added," he says.

The reports can also be a source of data used for other city services. A surge in graffiti in a neighborhood is often an early indicator of gang activity and can be used to alert police to bolster their patrols.

CitySourced is backed by a single angel investor, Dale Okuna, president and CEO of EZData, a software company based in Pasadena, Calif. He didn't disclose the size of his investment. He says he backed the company because it aims to help citizens understand and communicate more effectively with government. "It's a people-empowering social media technology," he says. Okuna originally backed FreedomSpeaks, a Web site from which CitySourced sprung. The social networking site is devoted to helping voters connect with their elected officials at the local, state, and county level. "The two go together," he says.

The buzz generated by Kiesel's appearance at the TechCrunch conference has brought numerous inquiries from cities around the world, and no small amount of interest from venture capitalists, who like the company for its combination of mobile technology, real-time data capability, and social features. But they also like the civic-engagement features. Says Kiesel: "Civic is the new green."
Arik_hesseldahl
Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com
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