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Editorial: Handy smartphone program alerts cities to quality of life problems

Before too long, Northampton residents should have a new and improved way of dealing with annoyances like potholes and unplowed roads. It turns out there’s an app for that.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz announced late last month that the city is one of 35 municipalities in Massachusetts that have received grant money for a mobile phone application for reporting quality-of-life issues.

The grant is funded by the state’s Community Innovation Challenge Grant Program, which invests in technology innovations that can improve services and lower costs.

People who download the free Commonwealth Connect app will be able to fill out a simple form on their smartphone in order to relay information about problems to city authorities quickly and efficiently. They can even send along a photo of the problem if they like.

That, in turn, is expected to reduce response time for fixing those problems. The grant also covers the cost of setting up a system to manage the resulting work orders.

Thanks to the app, the person reporting a problem will get an estimated time frame for having it resolved, and will be able to follow the progress of the work via a tracking number that will be assigned to each report.

Narkewicz said Northampton will continue to take reports of potholes, roads in need of plowing and the like by telephone. But the app is expected to make the reporting process more efficient — and more accountable.

A similar app was introduced by the city of Boston in 2009, where it’s known as Citizens Connect. Alan Heatherley, the program manager for Commonwealth Connect, says the app has served to alert Boston officials to not just potholes and unplowed roads but also to issues like homeless encampments and graffiti. Twenty percent of the quality-of-life requests Boston receives now arrive via the mobile app, resulting in more than 35,000 improvements to date.

What if problems are reported but the work doesn’t get done promptly? Doesn’t that undermine faith in municipal services? Heatherley said an analysis of the Boston program shows that isn’t the case. What people really want, he said, is a time frame. They may not be happy to hear it will take two weeks to replace a missing stop sign, say, but at least they know that it’s in the pipeline, he said.

Under the terms of the grant, the city of Boston will provide technical and software support for the mobile app to the 35 Commonwealth Connect municipalities for the next three years.

The app will work in any community that supports it. If an individual downloads the Northampton version, for example, and then travels to Chicopee, another Commonwealth Connect community, he or she can report problems in that city as well through the same app.

In addition to the mobile app, cities can elect to offer a Web-based app that can be used on computers. It’s not known if Northampton will provide this option.

Fifty-eight communities applied for the Commonwealth Connect funding, including five in Hampshire County. Northampton was the only successful Hampshire County applicant.

But Heatherley said that the Connecticut software developer that is providing the app, SeeClickFix, is offering it to other municipalities for what he described as a “really good value” — $4,900 annually.

We think it makes sense for local cities and towns to observe how Commonwealth Connect plays out in Northampton.

If it proves successful in improving the quality of life for residents and visitors, and also makes city services more efficient, we think other communities should consider paying for the app out of pocket. It’s a small price to pay for what has the potential for a big quality-of-life payout.

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