The annoyances of urban life are familiar to any city dweller: rubbish, unlit street lamps, potholes, graffiti. Cleaning up such eyesores has become the basis for an entire trend in policing – the “broken windows” theory, used to great effect in 1990s New York, which asserts that dealing with petty crimes makes big crimes less likely. In many cities, though, it can still be difficult for conscientious citizens to report problems.
Enter SeeClickFix. Dreamt up as a quick way to report graffiti, the website and mobile app allow residents of cities around the world to flag problems on a map. In many cases, that alerts officials and agencies, which fix the problem and respond to the person who reported it.
Founded in 2008 in New Haven, Connecticut, SeeClickFix has contracts with more than 160 cities to provide reporting tools and software to mayors’ offices, sanitation departments and public works agencies. To date, more than 350,000 users have reported some 800,000 issues. While the company has not yet turned a profit, this year it expects to book $1.2m in annual recurring revenues, mainly from government contracts. SeeClickFix recently signed up its first city in the Middle East and inked its first contract with a state department of transportation, in Utah.
For residents, the site promises to eliminate red tape and endless phone transfers when they report an issue, and allows them to see the city’s progress in solving problems. It also allows them to follow local “watch areas” to see what is happening where they live.
“The value of SeeClickFix has been creating new connections among people who live really close to each other, or interact in the same public space, where they wouldn’t have interacted before,” says Ben Berkowitz, SeeClickFix founder. He tells of how one New Haven man used the site to organise a group of people to remove an abandoned boat from a city park.
What makes SeeClickFix different from Facebook or Twitter, which also foster communities that can extend offline, is the government side of the site, where officials respond to and resolve issues. “It has to have a resolution. A tweet does not have a resolution,” Berkowitz says, adding that this is important for residents, who feel their voices are being heard, and for cash-strapped cities looking to provide better public services at lower cost. SeeClickFix sells itself as a tool for the era of shrinking government spending at city, state and federal levels. Annual contracts can total as little as $30,000 for many cities, Berkowitz says – far less than the hundreds of thousands of dollars often charged for such software.
Stacy Donohue, director of investments at Omidyar Network, the philanthropic investment company started by Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, the auction site, says: “They are using technology to allow citizens to interact with government in a positive way that helps them contribute to the solution instead of just complaining about the problems.” ON was an early financial backer of SeeClickFix, investing in 2011. Berkowitz raised $1.5m in venture capital funding that year but has not sought new investment since.
Donohue says the company was a “pioneer” as a civic-focused start-up and experimented with a range of revenue models, from municipal contracts to partnerships with local media outlets, to find a sustainable one. One challenge “inhibiting” the growth of public service-focused start-ups similar to SeeClickFix, Donohue says, is the difficulty of breaking into the byzantine world of government procurement.
Government contractors are having their (perhaps unwanted) moment in the limelight with the error-plagued launch of HealthCare.gov, the Obama administration’s insurance website – drawing scrutiny to the process of awarding such projects. “The silver lining of HealthCare.gov is that what was a completely geeky issue six weeks ago is on every front page,” she says.
For companies not scared off by the recriminations over that rollout, she holds up SeeClickFix as an example because of its experience in “how to sell to governments as a small start-up … [It has] been through a lot of permutations and experimentation with what works and what doesn’t.” The company itself is also embracing its role as a model. In November it announced a fellowship for aspiring New Haven entrepreneurs, who will work at SeeClickFix for six months while developing their business ideas.