This post was written more than four years ago. The world changes fast, and the information, conclusions, or attributions may or may not still be accurate. Check the sources and links, and email me if you have any questions.

Potholes, broken street lights, and graffiti are all I ever hear about in the discussion surrounding what civic technology and open data can do to make local government work better. Report-a-problem apps certainly aren’t a bad thing—community members surely get warm fuzzy feelings when they report something and see it get fixed—but is it actually making local government work better?

In many cities, community members might get a cool app that makes it easier to report problems, but in the background, that app is simply generating an email that gets sent to a city employee, who enters it into the same broken system the city has been using for years.

We do need investment and innovation into user experience and making government interactions better, but we need it at the center, too: data, analytics, workflows, and procurement; the real nuts and bolts of local government.

The City of Boston created Street Bump, a mobile app that uses your phone’s GPS and accelerometer to automatically detect, map and report potholes. Totally awesome — but all it does is send an e-mail to a government employee to insert into a dispatch program. The City of Portland created their Citizen Reports iOS app that uses the GPS and takes a report, and promises updates back to the user. But almost two years after the release of that app, it has mediocre ratings in the App Store, and I’ll quote this user on the effectiveness:

“This idea may work if the city actually used it to fix problems rather than a method to generate statistics for future budget debates.”

Municipal government desperately wants to create more livable cities, but they’re served by poor tools, technologies, and processes.

Giving community members a more convenient and accessible way to report problems is universally good, but I hypothesize that without working on internal databases and processes, convenience and accessibility results in more complaints, more public employee time spent moving data from place to place, and less effective government.

Civic technology innovation should happen inwards-out: start with the data, the processes, the pain points, and the bureaucracy, and work out toward community members. That doesn’t preclude awesome user experience and engagement, it only guarantees it in the end.