Cell phone users are able to post
pictures of abandoned cars on local authority website

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London borough uses technology
to deal with residents’ grievances

By Andrew Brown*

25 February 2007: Next year will see the tenth anniversary of the increasingly ubiquitous camera phone. In South East London it, along with the introduction of the borough council ‘Love Lewisham’ website (www.lovelewisham.org), has transformed the way many residents report environmental problems and engage with the council. It may be the harbinger of a new ways of working between local government and the people it serves.

Local people are able to use camera phones to take a snapshot of the environmental issues that they notice – fly tipping, graffiti and abandoned cars – and send them to the council via SMS or email. The council then puts the picture up on the website and residents are then able to follow the progress of the case and receive feedback from council officers.

Local people avoid the frustration of dealing with a call centre and the council receives a photo it can use to assess the level of resource it should deploy. The system along with a proactive approach by the council has meant that more than three times as much graffiti is being removed in the half the time compared to few years ago.

And to close the communications loop the council can send out an sms text message or email when our issue has been dealt with and post a picture of once the problem has been cleaned up.

As apparently the UK has more cell phones than people and, by next year, half of all mobile handsets will have cameras, it looks like this is an idea whose time has come.

mySociety.org, the largely volunteer internet developers who are interested in civic engagement, are looking at the same issues and are building a tool to create an deeper relationship between concerned citizen and local government using online communication. Their neighbourhood-fix-it model requires considerable investment from citizen and authority, building relationships and trust over time and project-by-project. They both work best if the premise, that enough of us think it is part of our role as citizens to play our small part in looking after our neighbourhood, comes true.

The recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on civic engagement suggests that the pool of committed active citizens is likely to be quite small; they talk about one per cent. What they don’t explore is whether new technology will help those that do get involved to be more effective.

It could, but that may be in ways they haven’t anticipated. For example Lewisham bloggers and local internet discussion forums have picked up Love Lewisham which in turn has created a culture where senior council officers interact with residents on their blogs; becoming part of the conversation about where we live, rather than remote from what people are talking about.

Andrew Brown was Cabinet Member for Environment in a London Borough and now works as a consultant on mobile technology applications for local government.

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