The City Maps Unshoveled Sidewalks

The City Maps Unshoveled Sidewalks

In which I am put out of the unshoveled sidewalk mapping business

  • Posted on: 18 February 2014
  • By: stannenb

They've put me out of business.

Three winters ago, I got into the business of mapping unshoveled sidewalks. I was just getting my feet under me as a citizen journalist, writing about the Public Works Department when a winter of snow started. I discovered, almost by accident, that Cambridge had an online website to report unshoveled sidewalks. Chatting with a NeighborMedia colleague about it, he joked that, in all likelihood, nothing came of a report. Having just taken a day long seminar from Boston University's New England Center for Investigative Reporting, I realized that the complaints were public records, I could request them, and see what happened when a report was made.

Thus started an odyssey which I was able to turn into a run of presentations at technical conferences. The website was so terrible that it functioned as a visual joke. And the City's response was humorous. Paying a public records fee in an envelopes of cash in the back of a public meeting? A City Council resolution asking for the data that impeded, rather than facilitated, my access? I turned a technical presentation about Google Fusion Tables into something funny.

When Cambridge created its iReport app, my run continued. When you can make a joke whose punch line is "They didn't pass the lat/long, they reversed geocoded against a bad database" you've found gold. Trust me, to mobile app developers, it's very funny,

It's another one if those winters, and I was asking myself whether I should start looking at those records again. Then, almost by accident, I discovered that Cambridge had usurped my role as unshoveled sidewalk mapper. There, on the Cambridge web site are maps of complaints about icy streets and sidewalks.

The internet has done what it does: it's disintermediated the middle man, letting the City speak directly to its residents.

But, being Cambridge, there are still things that cause a raised eyebrow. Like the online reporting tool that started this quest, it's unannounced and difficult to find. I have an unhealthy interest in this topic and I had no idea. There are no links from the City's "snow" page, nor from its reminder that property owners are required to clear sidewalks. You find it only if you happen to go to Cambridge's "iReport" page. Why would anyone who already has a the City's mobile app with which to report problems go to that page? (And, parenthetically, how many people actually know that Cambridge has a mobile app?)

The maps report only "open" requests, ones to which the City hasn't yet responded. For sidewalks, the process is that there's a complaint, someone from the City inspects and, if warranted, issues a citation. The sidewalk may or may not be cleared, the fine might or might not get paid. When does a report go from "open" to "closed"? Is it when the sidewalk is cleared - the only thing the reporter likely cares about - or at some other point in the process? From a government accountability perspective, the most interesting data are those about how well the City is responding. By listing only open requests, the City fails to provide information on how quickly it's closing tickets.

And the iReport app? It still has problems. An attempt to report an icy sidewalk in Central Square resulted, repeatedly, in this:

Maybe I'm not entirely out of business after all.

You can find the City's iReport page with links to its maps here.

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