SeeClickFix Citizen Q & A – Stephen Musgrave

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SeeClickFix is a civic tech platform that has some of the best government and citizen users in the world. With that in mind, we’ve reached out to some of our citizen superusers to find out what they think of the platform and how they are using it to create real change in their neighborhoods.

In this edition of SeeClickFix Citizen Q & A, I speak with Stephen Musgrave, a civic activist in Jersey City, NJ who was instrumental in bringing the SeeClickFix platform to his city.

Tell us a little bit about yourself?

By day I’m a partner at Capellic, a technical services agency that builds and maintains Drupal websites for nonprofits. I’m an engineer, and while being a partner at a small agency requires me to think about the bigger picture, most of my time is spent architecting and implementing the technology.

By night I guess you could call me a civic activist who gravitates to the enabler role. I’ve built out several websites for civic organizations here in Jersey City, co-founded Code for Jersey City, a Code for America brigade that works with the community and city to identify technology solutions where we can, and pioneered the adoption of SeeClickFix in our neighborhood and now city-wide. (Credit goes to Anna Lukasiak, the other co-founder of Code for Jersey City, who did a lion’s share of the work in getting the brigade off the ground.)

Tell us about your neighborhood: how long have you lived there and what makes it special?

My wife and I moved to the Harsimus Cove neighborhood in downtown Jersey City in 2009. At the time I recall it just feeling right: A historic neighborhood with human scale buildings, blocks away from the train into Manhattan, enough restaurants and curiosities to hold our interest and, most notably, a balance of cultural and economic diversity.

He’s since passed on, but in our early years here, our immediate neighbor was Angel Ortiz. He was retired and a fixture on his stoop. I saw him daily as I came and went. Some days we shared just a nod, other days he told me a dirty joke. Those moments, those ephemeral moments, are what city living is all about. More than anything else, city life, for me, is about these little moments of running into neighbors, sharing a nod or having a quick chat. Given my tenure on the Harsimus Cove Association board, I now know a lot of my neighbors and I get to have even more of these moments.

What issues and/or challenges does (did) your neighborhood face?

When we first moved here it became pretty clear that for whatever reasons, the city struggled to keep up with some basic quality of life issues. From sloppy garbage collection, to overflowing public trash cans and litter in general — can you guess what my pet peeve is? Litter for me is one of those general health indicators, it’s one of things that if people see a place that’s clean, they tend to keep it clean, and a clean block is, as I see it, an indication of stewardship, that someone has taken it upon themselves to go out there and tidy up beyond their own sidewalk.

But maybe not, maybe these good people are overwhelmed, tried it and failed in the face of the sheer amount of time it takes and a city that didn’t care to inspect how well garbage collection was being done. I am convinced that there are stewards everywhere, and they play different roles. Some will go to city council meetings and make demands (as they should!) and others awake when they see that something positive is happening. It’s about getting to that tipping point to get more people involved in creating and maintaining the qualities of a neighborhood that make it a nice place to be, to be a venue for those serendipitous moments I value so much.

How did you deal with these issues and/or challenges in your neighborhood before SeeClickFix?

Before SeeClickFix? You had to know someone in the city or someone politically connected to get things done. You either had to know someone or go to your neighborhood association meetings to make the case there. It wasn’t nefarious, it’s just the way things had been done for decades.

But that’s a ridiculous amount of effort for someone to go to for something as simple and obvious as getting the public trash cans emptied more often. Some people try, valiantly, and some even succeed. In the end, we have a great number of citizens who want to see their city improve but have no reasonable way of helping that happen.

How did you learn about SeeClickFix?

Of course, the engineer in me saw a technical solution for what at some level were discrete issues. I live all day long in a case management system which is really just a glorified task list. But where it excels is that it allows us to, in a centralized manner, record information about the problem and discuss potential solutions while passing them around to different people who have different roles in getting the job done. Why shouldn’t a department of public works be using this? Turns out the city did have a case management system but it was largely ignored due to the most difficult problem to fix — a lack of leadership and organizational change. May this be a warning to engineers who think they change the world with a hot, new technology platform: it’s not likely. Well, SeeClickFix is making huge progress, but after years of a lot of work I’m sure that the leadership at SeeClickFix has also come to similar conclusions. I too had to learn this lesson.

I discovered SeeClickFix in 2010 while searching for a public civic case management tool that could rival what the City of Jersey City had installed. It had to have two things: one, it had to have an open case management issue queue. Not because I’m a transparence nut (which I am!) but because so often an issue a citizen is having can be addressed by a neighbor. I recall one such issue several years back about a raccoon that had taken up residence in someone’s trash can with the idea that animal control is the solution to the problem. Instead, in a matter of minutes, a neighbor had posted a comment to the case with a recommendation on how to deal with the situation. The next morning the reporter responded to say that the suggestion had worked. Perfect!

Two, I had to be able to report an issue via my smart phone while I was on my way to somewhere else. This is an important part of the workflow. I need to feel like I can pause for 60 seconds to open the app, take a photo, be sure the auto-locator got the address right, describe the problem and then keep going. And yes, I realize that apps are the desired workflow of a limited demographic and a good case management system and call center will allow residents to report issues the same as they always have, but now we have a new, growing inroad which is a huge departure of the paradigm of old where you had to know someone. At the time there was only one other platform out there that I found doing the same thing with a mobile app — CitySourced. I evaluated both and SeeClickFix won out. I can’t remember why, that was six years ago!

How often do you use SeeClickFix?

I log 4 to 10 cases a week and also monitor cases in my watch area to provide assistance if a problem can be solved without getting the city involved. I do a lot of running and I see issues all over the city — just the other day I stopped my run twice to log overflowing trashcan issues. Yeah, that’s a bit much but if I don’t, who will?

How has SeeClickFix helped you deal with issues and/or challenges in your neighborhood?

In 2011, now a member of the Harsimus Cove Association board, I suggested that we use SeeClickFix as a way of allowing people in the neighborhood to report issues using the ease of the app. Because I was able to set up a watch area (http://en.seeclickfix.com/watch_area/16846-harsimus-cove-association), the plan was that I’d get email notifications of a new issue anytime someone reported one in the Harsimus Cove watch area — another great feature of SeeClickFix. I’d then transpose those issues into the city’s system — but only if it was an issue that I didn’t know how to route to a person. Like I said, you had to know someone to get things done, and to this point I had accumulated a handy list of city employee email addresses. If it was a trash issue, I knew exactly who to email and the issue would get resolved. (Thank you, Crystal Fonseca!) But if I put it in the city’s case management system? It would languish. So clearly there were good people doing good work on the other side, and clearly the system was broken. The same can’t be said for all departments, but so it goes, and that remains the big part of the challenge.

There were a number of Harsimus Cove Association regulars that took to the SeeClickFix app after I presented it at our February 2012 meeting. (http://www.harsimuscove.org/news/presentation-of-seeclickfix-report-quality-of-life-issues-with-your-smart-phone) (Special thanks to Mike Francisco for helping me get and keep this ball rolling.) It was great to start to see the issues flow in as I played 311 dispatcher, and then I started to see cases being logged by users I didn’t know, and that was really exciting as it was apparent we were giving an inroad to someone who otherwise wouldn’t have it. So this is fine and good, but completely unscalable, and it never got to a point where I couldn’t keep up, but this whole effort was our sneaky way of telling the city, “You see, this works, and people want to use it.” Basically we conducted a pilot for them and we have the report to prove it! (http://www.harsimuscove.org/news/seeclickfix-annual-report-stats-and-observations) And yes, we did try to get the city to engage in the platform directly, but the administration at the time wasn’t interested. As disappointed as I was to hear that, I can also sympathize when I realize we’re dealing with budget limitations, training issues, etc, etc. And yes, this could be seen as a litany of excuses and eventually it is, but it helped me keep on going without burning out.

I’m going to ramble beyond the scope of the question here to tell the full story.

Mayor Steven Fulop took office in July 2013 and with it came an understanding of how technology can play a role in making government more efficient and more responsive. Candice Osborne, our new city council representative, worked at WebMD at the time and totally got this. She led the Mayor’s transition team for communications and technology and I served on it. A big part of what we were recommending was “social listening,” a term Candice was using to describe how the city should be listening on Facebook and Twitter in addition to apps like SeeClickFix. No, not in a “drinking from the waterhouse” manner, rather if someone calls out an issue and tags @JC_Gov on Twitter, then that should get a follow-up. This was a huge departure in how the Twitter account was being used. Anyway, it was our recommendation that the city adopt SeeClickFix or a platform like it.

As with any administration, there were priorities and budget issues. Instead of switching over to SeeClickFix, the city decided to invest in the mobile app side of WebQA, the case management system they were currently using. Again, I was sympathetic, but in the end this didn’t sit well with me; simply building an app for it didn’t address the larger issues, which I detailed in this blog post. (http://stephen.musgrave.org/the-missed-opportunity-with-jersey-city-adoption-of-fix-it-app)

This also marked the time when I was done playing dispatcher for Harsimus Cove. The fact was I had great faith in the newly appointed director of the Residents Response Center, Althea Bernheim, herself an accomplished civic activist, to work on the change management end of things. I also knew that Brian Platt, working in the Mayor’s Office got it, as he had started attending Code for Jersey City meetings from the beginning and is now the Director of the new Office of Innovation, and he’d be moving things along. In due time, with the right amount of periodic public pressure and internal capacity building, they’d get around to adopting a new platform whether that was SeeClickFix or something else. And guess what? That day has arrived!

One day I saw Althea in a market (one of those serendipitous moments!) and she told me the news! I was elated! The funny thing is, I hadn’t thought about SeeClickFix in some time. The city’s ability to deal with trash and other quality of life issues in Harsimus Cove has greatly improved and I didn’t have a constant need to log issues, and for those that I had, I knew the right people. I also knew it was only a matter of time. But now that I have Jersey City Connect, our very own version of SeeClickFix, installed on my smart phone, I’m absolutely going to find my way back to being the eye on the street. (No burned out pedestrian signal will go unreported!) After all, it’s the city that has the equipment, person-power and authority to take care of issues that I can’t, but it is up to me — it is up to us — to let them know where the problems are.

Would you recommend SeeClickFix to your fellow residents?

Of course!

How would you get more of your fellow residents to learn about and use SeeClickFix?

This is a hard one.

Because “the city” firmly exists in the space it occupies and apps exist, well, nowhere and everywhere at the same time, it’s sometimes hard to make the connection. Sure apps such as Swarm that facilitate checking-in bridge that gap somewhat, but this idea of seeing something, clicking something and then having it fixed — that’s a bit of an odd thing to get one’s head around. Obviously talking about this at neighborhood association meetings is something we did and that’s essential.

The Mayor needs to push it and keep pushing it beyond the initial press release. It needs to be covered in media of all kinds, and I think the most effective way to get the word out is if there is attention drawn to it in the very place it is meant to improve. How? Flyers on utility poles! The flyer would have a QR code that takes you right to downloading the app. Yes, I know there is an inherent irony there, and I bring it up in jest. In fact it’s illegal in Jersey City, but it would be the most effective.