Last year, the budget discussion in Cambridge grew testy when City Councilors insisted the City focus on technology innovation. The results of those discussions are beginning to bare fruit as Cambridge has released its first smartphone application.
The Cambridge iReport application, available for both Android and Apple smartphones, is an example of the new breed of applications cities are often providing. Designed to allow citizens who see a problem to immediately report it, the iReport app accepts reports of potholes, defective streetlights, graffiti, rats, missed trash or recycling pickups and unshoveled sidewalks. After selecting a problem type, the application uses the GPS of your phone to locate you, allows you to take a picture of the problem, asks for identifying information and submits the report to the Cambridge Request System. An email confirmation is immediately sent, as well as another one when the problem is "closed". You can also get a status report on problems you've submitted.
This basic functionality is very convenient for reporting conditions you observe during travels within the city. But convenience is not a consistent experience with this application. You must, for example, enter your name and email address every time you use the application. And the email reporting that ones request has been "closed" reflects a status in the City's internal tracking system, rather than the ultimate disposition of the problem.
If you wish to report a problem somewhere other than your present location, the application is puzzling. Despite lacking visual cues such as scroll bars, the displayed map can be moved to another location. But since the map can't be zoomed out, scrolling more than a small distance is tedious, and quickly results in repeated error messages.
Reporting graffiti can also be frustrating. By policy, during the winter, the city will only remove "profane" graffiti. Rather than informing you of that before you make your complaint, it is the confirmation email that reveals that policy.
The City has yet to perfect the processes behind iReport. An iReport of an obvious pothole at the corner of Mass. Ave. and River St. (pictured above) was quickly closed, yet the pothole went unrepaired. According to Lisa Peterson, Commissioner of Public Works, who took to Central Square herself to discover what happened, the address as reported via the iReport app was "22 Central Square", a location closer to Green Street. The photo supplied was not helpful, as it did not come through that iReport process in a way that City staff could open it. Thus, some minor potholes, closer to Green Street were fixed. Peterson says that the issues uncovered by this report are being reviewed. She was not yet sure whether the picture problem was a unique problem or something systemic. However, the "reverse geolocation" issue - assigning an address to a specific geographic point - had been encountered before and that improvements are expected. And, after the correct potholes was identified, the collapsing manhole that was causing it was quickly repaired.
It is difficult to assess the effectiveness of the iReport app. Peterson reports that the Department of Public Works is still "trying out" the app, assessing whether it meets their business needs. According to city Chief Information Officer Mary Hart, who responded to questions via Ini Tomeu, Public Information Officer, to date, the application has been downloaded 510 times, with 84 problem reports received through it. In both the Android Marketplace and the Apple iTunes App Store, all 7 ratings have been 5 stars. Hart says that it's "early to fully evaluate the success of this new app, we anticipate that it will improve the delivery of services both through better customer service and streamlined business practice."
Hart said that the applications "platform development cost" was $45,045. She clarified that the city had contracted with American Contract Services, a Newton-based IT services provider, to develop the application, but that the city now owns the application and plans to enhance it using city staff. Other costs, such as that of city staff to integrate that application with city's infrastructure, are not included in the $45,045 figure according to Hart. A maintenance release is planned in about a month.
The City has also not followed through on promises made during last year's budget discussion to create an "E-Gov Steering Committee" that would include citizens as well as city staff. Instead, in November, City Manager Robert Healy, in a communication to the City Council, asserted:
1. Public input- Develop a workshop for January 2012, which will assemble City departments and provide a forum through which the E-Gov Executive Committee is able to receive input and suggestions from the public on technology improvements to enhance interaction with the City.
STATUS: Planning is in process for this workshop for January 2012. A working group of the E-Gov Executive Committee, comprised of the Deputy City Manager, Deputy Finance Director/Budget Director, Chief Information Officer, Assistant City Manager for Community Development, Commissioner of Public Works and the School Department Chief Financial Officer, plus three members of the public, will be responsible for selecting the date, time and location of the workshop, developing a workshop format and other details. This working group will report back to the E-Gov Executive Committee.
Hart says that planning for this event, dubbed an "IT World Café", is underway, though no date has been set.
City Councilor Leland Cheung, a consistent advocate of technology innovation since his election, says that he "applaud[s] the IT department for launching this application" and that he's "excited to see how it evolves."