The rise of the connected citizen

Armed with digital devices, connected citizens are starting to challenge government's historic monopoly on public policy.

When entrepreneur Ben Berkowitz tried—and failed—to get the city to clean up graffiti on a street in New Haven, Conn., he knew there had to be a smarter way to report problems in his community.

So in 2008 Berkowitz co-founded SeeClickFix, a communication platform that enables New Haven citizens to report non-emergency issues like potholes, graffiti, and broken streetlights directly to local authorities.

“We started SeeClickFix because of the ‘can’t’ we were experiencing in New Haven,” Berkowitz says. “When it came to connecting with city hall to solve small problems in the public space, the problem of how to connect seemed substantially larger than it should have been."

The SeeClickFix app works like a digital 311 service. Citizens see something that’s broken in a neighborhood and take a picture of it, and then send that picture to their local government—and the government responds. 

Berkowitz says establishing digital connections with the local government was just the beginning.

“At some point, the government started asking us to build software to manage the data it receives," he says. "That’s when we found that we had a business model that helped solve more problems.”

Connected citizens find their voice

Berkowitz and his fellow entrepreneurs forged a professional relationship with the city government that helped resolve residents’ issues more quickly. Two sides that were seemingly at odds with each other—citizens and government—became harmonized.

Other connected citizens are starting to find their voice and challenge government's historic monopoly on public policy. Hundreds of smartphone apps already rely on users to report on road conditions, accidents, job postings, weather, and more. In the future, transportation agencies will use real-time data from cars and smartphones to trigger a network of intelligent traffic signals that reroute traffic away from accidents.

Meanwhile, citizens will use wearables or embeddables to send stats to doctors, or call 911—which is particularly useful in areas with aging populations. Citizens will also enhance early-warning systems during natural disasters, by reporting flooded roads or helping to record the epicenter of earthquakes.

In short, the people using the apps and entering the data become so-called citizen sensors. As more and more people engage with mobile apps, governments have many opportunities to extract useful insights from large volumes of useful data at a relatively low cost.

This has galvanized local governments to improve the quality of the services that they provide. Here are five examples of government authorities that are tapping citizen-sensor data to improve their public services:

  • Boston, Massachusetts. The mayor’s office released an app that uses GPS and smartphone accelerometers to identify potholes in the roads.
  • State of California. The California Department of Food and Agriculture released an app called Report a Pest that enables citizens to snap photos of insects and submit them to inspectors and entomologists for identification. If a bug belongs to an invasive species or poses some other threat that requires an immediate response, the agency can contact the citizen and investigate further.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Federal agency is working with citizens who own air-quality monitors to obtain hyperlocal air readings and detect pollutants.
  • Malaga, Spain. Residents use a mobile app called Malaga CitySense to report real-time data about everything from humidity to job postings. The data can be culled to reveal useful information about the city and its constituents.

Hacking the government

It’s not just concerned local residents with smartphones driving the change. Citizen hackers are increasingly lending their talents to government-sponsored hackathons that crowdsource solutions to social challenges. By tapping into the knowledge of the private sector, these hackathons are bringing private-sector ingenuity to the public policy world.

In late 2015, for example, the government of New Zealand ran three hackathons to uncover fresh public policy ideas. “There’s a recognition here that innovation is not necessarily coming from your own government IT staff," says David Eaton, HPE chief technologist in New Zealand. "It happens if you make an ecosystem available and provide an incentive for people to access your data and do interesting things with it.”

The California Department of Food and Agriculture recently held its first hackathon to tackle major state challenges, such as water conservation during droughts. The agency has also awarded multimillion-dollar grants to private companies and University of California researchers to test a system that uses weather, ground-based sensors, and farmer data to optimize watering and fertilizer schedules.

How to take action

The rise of citizen sensors and citizen hackers creates the conditions for a new social contract in which the private sector and public officials collaborate to improve the quality and transparency of government services in a hyperconnected world.

Given the proliferation of connected devices, many citizen sensors are already active and gathering data. All authorities need to do is work out how to gain access to it.

If you’re thinking of ways to improve your responsiveness to the public, you may consider partnering with other agencies to provide the digital services your citizens expect, or there may be incremental changes to existing systems and processes you could make to help transform the services you already have in place.

Similarly, it’s worth reaching out to citizens to ask what information they would find valuable if given access to it, and then looking for ways to partner with citizens to improve the flow of data between you.