Potholes? There's an App for That

Potholes: Photo illustration by Emily Keegin and Tracy Ma; Photographs: Alamy(2); Getty Images(3)

When Boston Mayor Thomas Menino started the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, the idea was to turn blogs and tweets complaining about neighborhood problems into a plan of action to solve them. The Democrat’s push for “participatory urbanism” means residents have more than 20 different venues to suggest improvements to City Hall.

The office’s most popular program is Citizens Connect, an app that allows people to report a variety of issues, including potholes and graffiti, directly to the right city department, along with pictures and a geo-tagged location. Since it launched in 2010, Citizens Connect has been downloaded more than 23,000 times and generated more than 31,000 repair reports. It allows the city to spend less time locating or inspecting the problems and more time fixing them. “What the app has generated is new eyes and ears in our neighborhoods,” says office co-chair Chris Osgood.

Best of all, pilot versions of such technological innovations generally cost the city less than $10,000. How? To encourage experimentation, the office partners with startups or other gadget makers willing to work on the cheap for the chance to actually test out their ideas. Other smart rollouts include a universal school identification card that grants schoolkids access to transit, public libraries, and community centers and an online tool to help parents pick the right public school for their children.

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