You don’t have to cast too wide a net to find people willing to criticize government officials as out of reach, out of touch or simply not doing enough to help propel communities forward. While those criticisms are subjective, of course, technology now offers an objective way for local leaders to better understand what’s working for their constituents and what isn’t.
Whether you’re a city official who wants to enhance your understanding of a specific community around you, or you’re a citizen looking to vent about impossibly long lines at the DMV to those in a position to do something about it, we’ve rounded up four apps that local governments are using to gauge how to best fix their cities.
THE APP THAT POLICES THE POLICE
It’s common practice for police departments to keep tabs on what’s happening in a neighborhood, such as the number of assaults, robberies and thefts. But there hasn’t been much traction in measuring more abstract problems, like how a community feels about their local officers.
Until now, beat cops have been the eyes and ears of a community, and major cities like Philadelphia and New York dispatch police to patrol on foot and talk with local residents in a protocol known as community policing. But how does one measure its efficacy?
Enter Elucd, a Brooklyn-based startup that compiles data on how residents view local law enforcement. The company reaches hundreds of thousands of people each month via location-targeted smartphone popup ads — including on perennially popular apps like CandyCrush and Instagram — that link to short surveys. So far, Elucd has announced partnerships with four police departments, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
In New York City — home of the country’s largest police department and Elucd’s first client — precincts have implemented the company’s data-driven “sentiment meter,” which compiles users’ responses into a “trust score” and provides rankings on how safe they feel in their neighborhoods. Commanding officers then use that feedback to determine how to improve community engagement with neighborhoods where scores have gone down or remain low.
THE APP THAT ISSUES REPORT CARDS FOR CITY SERVICES
Had a really annoying time at the DMV? Disappointed by the state of your local park? Tell the government about it! In Washington, D.C., a city initiative has been letting residents do just that since 2012.
The website Grade.DC.gov is powered by software meant to analyze customer sentiment toward the hospitality industry, but local leaders in the nation’s capital have been tapping it to generate feedback on government services instead. On the site, users can grade their interactions and experiences with more than a dozen public agencies, including the departments of education, transportation and health, and submit comments; think of it as the Yelp of social services. The platform also culls publicly posted comments from sites like Twitter and Facebook and uses those to inform the letter grades.
The results have been mostly positive, and any bad grades that are initially recorded tend to improve almost immediately. For example, the District Department of Transportation received an initial F grade in November 2017; one month later, the agency was boasting an A-minus, putting it near the top of its class.
But whereas former Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who piloted the customer-service initiative, had viewed those grade bumps as incredible achievements, they also brought into question how measurements were actually done. For example, the Department of Transportation still has a B-plus rating as of June 2018, despite public sentiment showing quite the opposite.
Still, the platform continues to be a powerful way for people to voice their opinions on how their government serves them. Last month alone, Grade.DC.gov saw more than 4,000 people submit reviews.
THE APP THAT ENCOURAGES CITIES TALK TO EACH OTHER
As the old adage goes: People can find more strength in their similarities than in their differences.
Last year, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago began pairing urban areas with their sister cities through its Peer City Identification Tool, which was designed to help troubleshoot local issues based on what’s working in other cities of similar demographics.
By gathering data on close to 1,000 cities and townships across the nation, local government leaders in places from Anchorage, Alaska, to Montclair, New Jersey, can peruse data on a range of issues. By examining their city’s labor market conditions or economic outlook against those of comparable cities, officials are better able to discern solutions that have demonstrated impact elsewhere.
For example, let’s say your smallish town has an affordability gap. You could see where there’s another town of roughly the same size with similar industries and population demographics, but with plenty of inexpensive housing options, to try and figure out if what worked to close the gap in that city can be replicated in yours.
In Rockford, Illinois, city officials used the data from the tool to map out its Transform Rockford initiative, which aims to build a more inclusive and equitable city by 2025.
“For a community our size, having access to the data the Chicago Fed has — there would have been no way we could have done that by ourselves,” Jake Wilson, Transform Rockford’s program manager, told NextCity.
THE APP THAT LETS YOU REVIEW RESTAURANTS — AND PRISONS
Many people turn to the giant of online user reviews, Yelp, to pontificate on everything from the bathroom condition of a local dive bar to the best brunch for your money on Sundays.
And now, prisons and jails are increasingly getting the Yelp treatment.
“I reviewed jail on Yelp because I couldn’t afford a therapist,” one user reported. Others have left comments on how to score the best meals from a prison’s kitchen staff; the dress-code requirements for prison visitors; and the interior design of the facility (“The windows were too small and the view sucked,” according to one disappointed former inmate).
It’s unclear if prison administrators actually act on the reviews, but according to a report by The Marshall Project, just letting people know what to expect before their time in the slammer is helpful in its own right.
Athena Kolbe, a social worker in Detroit, told the publication that she wanted people to “be prepared for [prison] mentally when you go into it, [and] when you come out of it, know that all that disrespect you experienced, everybody else is also experiencing that. It’s not just you.”