Crowdsourced local problem reports as community news
"It's important not to define news too narrowly. News and information are bleeding together." When Block by Block lead organizer Michele McLellan made this observation during the closing session of the recent Community News Summit, several participants applauded loudly. Many were motivated to start a hyperlocal news site partly in order to have the freedom to reframe what "news" is.
Also at this conference, Zack Beatty of SeeClickFix explained to me how hyperlocal news sites can use their free web widget to illuminate local issues, spur community discourse, and spark story ideas. But even more importantly, this is an example of community news that doesn't necessarily come packaged in story form...
SeeClickFix began life about five years ago as a website where people could report problems in their communities, such as potholes or graffiti, and then connect with neighbors and local governments to get them fixed. Since then it's evolved into a popular mobile app.
Also, nearly 100 municipal and county governments, and some universities, now integrate SeeClickFix data into their back-end work order systems. But even in cities where the local government is not directly tied in to SeeClickFix, the service can be a useful tool for public discussion with city officials and accountability.
Recently, SeeClickFix introduced web widgets which local news venues, community or advocacy groups, agencies, or residents can integrate to their websites. Beatty attended Block by Block in part to reach out to hyperlocal site operators about these services.
How SeeClickFix works: Users can file a public report of a local issue (such as "more bike parking needed") via the SeeClickFix website or mobile apps (iPhone, Android, or BlackBerry). You don't have to register on the site to file a report, and anonymous reports are permitted. All reports are geocoded, and photos can be attached.
Users can "vote" for individual reports -- effectively saying "Yes, I want this fixed too." Again, you don't have to register to vote.
Users can review reported issues in a neighborhood, sort them by date or popularity (number of votes received), and find out whether any corrective action or further advocacy efforts have been made. Each report has its own URL, so you can link directly to a specific report. Full integration with all the major social media services is offered.
SeeClickFix offers two types of widgets that can be installed on any website just by copying and pasting in some HTML code. The free version of these widgets includes advertising. Ad-free versions are available for a fee. .
The interactive map widget plots on a Google Map local issues reported by SeeClickFix users within a geographic area specified by, say, a community news publisher who plans to display the widget on her website. The right side of the widget shows a list view of individual reports. Web visitors can sort the report list by date (most recent first), or filter by issue status.
Visitors also can vote for and comment on reports directly from within the widget. "We pride ourselves on allowing visitors to stay on the website. We don't actually care whether they visit SeeClickFix.com," said Beatty.
The dynamic text widget displays the same information, but in list format (not on a map). This approach can take up less space in your site layout, and may be easier to accommodate with your design:
The hyperlocal New Haven Independent includes a SeeClickFix text widget in its right-hand siderail. In the text widget, links take users to report pages on SeeClickFix.com in a separate web browser window or tab.
Solutions, not just problems
"It's been really interesting to see how people are using SeeClickFix in ways we never imagined," said Beatty. "For instance, lots of reported issues are not expecting a city fix; they're more protest-related. Someone might note an available retail space and their report is, 'I don't want a national chain store on this block which has a lot of local small businesses.' Then others could vote to support that position, or discuss it."
Sometimes community members use SeeClickFix as a way to discuss and work out disagreements, or collaboratively devise and implement their own solutions.
Beatty recounted how recently in New Haven, Conn., there was a bus stop right outside the door to SeeClickFix's offices that lacked a bench. This led to people standing around on the sidewalk, presenting an entry obstacle and evacuation hazard. Beatty reported this problem on SeeClickFix. He and other users investigated it and learned that the city had known about this problem for years but lacked funding to install a bench there.
Another user, Doug Hausladen, suggested buying a bench from a local company, Chairigami, which makes sturdy office furniture from cardboard. (It can be varnished for outdoor use.) Five SeeClickFix users each donated $20 to cover the cost of the bench. They then picked it up and installed it at the bus stop -- and even left some markers to decorate the unvarnished areas. Now people use it, and they've decorated it ("nice stuff, not graffiti," he said), and it has helped relieves sidewalk congestion around the door.
Value to community sites
Other than cool eye candy, this kind of widget can benefit hyperlocal sites and the communities they serve in several ways.
First, SeeClickFix reports can be a story and source mine. Having the widget on your site makes it easy to stay aware of community-reported issues, help you spot specific incidents or topics to cover, or help you find sources or quotes to round out your coverage.
The widget also can serve as a general community dashboard or scanner. And if your site sometimes focuses on certain themes, such as transit and alternative transportation, you may want to generate issue-specific widgets to complement your stories or sections.
Also, community site operators could train community members in how to install the SeeClickFix app and use the service for community reporting and monitoring. This can eliminate obstacles to citizen journalism. While many community sites publish community-contributed news reports or commentary, the act of writing a narrative-format story or the technical mechanics of submitting a photo or video can be offputting to many would-be contributors. Taking a photo, filling out a brief form, and submitting everything via a simple-to-use smartphone app might be more appealing than writing an article.
SeeClickFix widgets also can enhance civic engagement -- a key mission for many hyperlocal sites. Simply displaying them can encourage your readers to get involved with reporting, discussing and advocating on local issues, whether via SeeClickFix or more traditional means.
In some cases, SeeClickFix has become a way for citizens to help local governments solve problems. "That happens a lot with reports related to traffic and parking," Beatty said. "In one long-running thread I'm following, about reconfiguring a dangerous intersection, architects and other local experts have drawn up detailed plans and done significant research into possible solutions. The result is the equivalent of a year's worth of free consulting to the city."
In some communities, SeeClickFix has become a tool for community brainstorming and problem-solving that doesn't hinge on government involvement.
"Once one of our users reported that a homeless man was sleeping on the grounds of a local school. Rather than just call in the cops, in 48 hours through a comment thread, community members found a shelter for him and arranged to get him over there," he said. "This kind of organizing can be more difficult on Facebook, because Facebook is mainly for raising awareness among people who are already in your personal network. We help you connect with your neighbors whether you know them personally or not."
The Community News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.