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    Citizen engagement? There's an app for that.

    5 IoT-enabled apps to get citizens involved in managing their cities


    An original promise of the tech-enabled society was that it would empower us as citizens. That promise remains. IoT-powered apps, for one thing, are giving people new powers to participate in how their municipalities are run and to shape their environments for the better.

     

    Here are five apps showing the way towards the future not only of the city, but of how we govern ourselves, too. By finding new ways to engage and educate citizens and get them involved, these apps are improving the urban fabric, creating the conditions in which government institutions can be more responsive, and even potentially saving lives.

     

    This article focuses on citizen apps creating change in cities in the USA. But the principles described here are global, and are also being adopted by many forward-thinking cities around the world.

    New York, New York


    Roughly contemporaneous with the recent improvement of New York’s mass transit system, the city’s MyMTA app offers straphangers a range of useful info. Users of Metropolitan Transportation Authority services can click on icons for real-time information on how particular subway, bus, or commuter rail lines—and even particular stations—are functioning. 

     

    More specialized information about the NYC transit system is available, too. The app keeps users abreast of whether the subway system’s notorious elevators are working or not—a crucial service for the disabled and for parents with baby carriages, among others. (Remarkably, such information used to be hard to get, essentially freezing whole populations out of using the subway, or at least out of using it with ease.)

     

    This app remains a work in progress. But it also represents an important step forward in the MTA’s project to win back New Yorkers’ confidence after a long period of systemic decline.

    Hurst, Texas


    Hurst, a town of just under 40,000 in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, has a hit with its Hurst Where We Live app. The app gives residents a frictionless way to report a variety of issues and nuisances, from uncut lawns to potholes to streetlights on the fritz, and beyond. Looped as it is into a GPS system, Hurst Where We Live can pinpoint the location of a report, eliminating the chance that a road crew might waste time driving around in response to vague directions.
     

    So far, so much like a typical 311-style city app. But Hurst has also made some other smart moves. It’s piggybacked other useful services onto the app, for example. Citizens can pay utility bills and fines through it, not to mention access local business listings. They can even take a peek at what animals are locally up for adoption. The result is a digital destination that offers users much of the information they need to live and prosper in Hurst.

    Los Angeles, California


    City apps often focus on eliminating routine urban problems. In Los Angeles, earthquakes fall into that category, and an app makes it easier for residents to weather them. 

     

    ShakeAlertLA, which the City of Los Angeles developed in tandem with the U.S. Geological Survey, the Annenberg Foundation, and AT&T, issues warnings at least a few seconds in advance of any earthquake clocking in at 5.0 or greater. That window of time, brief as it is, will give Angelenos the chance to get to the safest place they can and ride the tremors out. 

     

    The app is enabled by hundreds of sensors placed in geologically sensitive spots around the L.A. area.

    San Antonio, Texas


    Released in 2018, San Antonio’s 311SA does other city apps one better by incorporating social media and gamification. That makes it more appealing to use than certain other city apps, which can present themselves as smartphone-proportioned versions of typical governmental websites: personality-free, insufficiently straightforward distillations of the bureaucratic spirit.
     

    The way 311SA incorporates a social media component is by giving users the capacity to share their app postings on Twitter and Facebook, thus “mainstreaming” those postings out of the government-app twilight zone. As for gamification, frequent posters can win “medals” that designate them as “neighborhood leaders,” “community representatives,” and the like.

    Honolulu, Hawaii


    The Hawaiian state capital scores high in surveys of the most livable U.S. cities. That has a lot to do with the city’s weather and coastal location — but the existence of the city’s Honolulu 311 app can’t hurt. 


    The app lets Honolulu residents file non-emergency police reports — reports for crimes that have already been committed, to give just one example — via a simple interface that takes mere minutes to fill out. The tool is a small but powerful one when it comes to letting citizens exert control over their own circumstances, because it eliminates psychological roadblocks that in the past might have dissuaded people from reporting crimes. Among these are the feeling of personal exposure that you might undergo while on the phone with the police department, or discomfort with the idea of presenting yourself at the police station and filling out time-consuming paperwork. The app also functions as a 311-style city app, letting users report potholes, abandoned cars, and so on with the help of GPS capability.


    The Honolulu app has paid off, not only in terms of governability and livability, but also in terms of sheer ROI. The app has cut the cost of fielding public comments and complaints by 10 times.

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