When Ben Berkowitz wanted some graffiti on his street cleaned up, he called the city. They put him on hold. As he sat there, he found himself thinking that his neighbors had probably called in with the same complaint, but he had no way of knowing.
A few years later, the New Haven, Conn., resident's app, SeeClickFix, lets residents in cities around the country file public requests for city services straight from their mobile phones, just one of hundreds of new apps that let citizens digitally engage with their local governments in new ways.
Across the country, geeks are using mountains of data that city officials are dumping on the Web to create everything from smartphone tree identifiers and street sweeper alarms to neighborhood crime notifiers and apps that sound the alarm when customers enter a restaurant that got low marks on a recent inspection.
The emergence of city apps comes as a result of the rise of the open data movement in U.S. cities, or what advocates like to call Government 2.0.
When politicians promise more government transparency, releasing dense spreadsheets with cryptic codes hardly seems like a solution. But backers say citizen number-crunchers can turn the reams of data once buried in the files of city agencies into useful information.
Jay Nath, who heads San Francisco's open data initiative, said the city has plenty of data but a scarcity of resources to do interesting things with it. By opening up its files, he said the city can take advantage of its "cognitive surplus," its abundance of creative, tech-savvy residents who can "make the data come to life."
"What you see is that applications are created in areas where people have concern and care," Nath said.
In San Francisco, as in many cities, those concerns as reflected in the apps center on transportation, crime, the environment and public space.
Apps like SeeClickFix interface with San Francisco's 311 complaint system. Residents can take a picture of graffiti or a broken street sign, upload it through the app and get a work order number from the city. Other users can second the complaint and follow the city's responses until the problem is fixed.
San Francisco nonprofit Gray Area Foundation for the Arts hosted the "Summer of Smart" this year in which more than 20 teams worked to build apps that make city data more useful and improve city services.
One of the winning apps, Public Art Spaces, matches artists with a city inventory of vacant spaces open for art projects. Another winner, Goodbuildings.info, uses government data and tenant feedback to score buildings based on how environmentally friendly they are. A third winner, an iPad app, is designed not so much for residents but to replace the antiquated system workers and managers of the city's light rail and bus system use to report problems.
Gray Area Foundation research director Jake Levitas says that opening up city data is a way to revitalize citizen participation in government. Instead of just going to meetings to voice an opinion, residents with the right skills can build actual city services using public data as a platform.
"It's not this top-down one-way street anymore," Levitas said. "Government isn't something that gets done to you."
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pushing open data as a key component of his effort to transform the city into Silicon Valley's chief rival.
The city is in its third year of sponsoring the NYC BigApps competition, in which programmers compete to build useful new apps based on city data.
At a recent weekend "hackathon," first prize went to "Can I Park Here?," an app that matches location information from a user's smartphone to a database of city parking regulations to cut through the clutter of confusing parking signs with the message "Don't park here!"
Another favorite from the competition, "Scene Near Me," tells users when they check in on Foursquare what famous movie scenes were filmed near their location.
Rachel Sterne, New York's first-ever chief digital officer, says that opening up data can also improve the city's ability to provide crucial services.
She points to Hurricane Irene in August, when the city's websites had difficulty handling the surge in traffic from residents looking for evacuation maps. Developers at WYNC, The New York Times, Google and elsewhere picked up the slack, using city data to build interactive maps that lifted some of the bandwidth burden.
"As far as I'm concerned, they were helping the city serve a critical function," Sterne said.
New York, San Francisco and other cities are now working together to develop data standards that will make it possible for apps to interact with data from any city. The idea, advocates of open data say, is to transform government from a centralized provider of services into a platform on which citizens can build their own tools to make government work better.
"We don't have a monopoly on great ideas," said Carole Post, New York City's commissioner of information technology. "We don't always know what the public needs or wants."
Marcus Wohlsen can be reached via Twitter: http://twitter.com/marcuswohlsen