VANCOUVER - Governments and software developers across Canada are experimenting with ways to digitally connect citizens with public officials.
Municipalities such as Kamloops, B.C., and Taber, Alta., have either developed their own apps or connected citizens through third-party programs to allow reporting of potholes, graffiti, broken trees and other problems.
Earlier this year, Toronto announced a plan to encourage software developers to create apps that route concerns to the city's 311 system through an emerging standard known as Open311. Currently, Toronto is the only city in Canada to use the Open311 standard.
So far, the city has approved three apps, including Rebuild Your Community, which operates an app and a website.
"The mobile component is key," says one of the co-founders, John Cowie.
"When you go out, walking your dog, on the bus, walking to a meeting downtown, you see things and right at that moment when you see something — a pothole, some graffiti — you can load up the app, take a picture, hit the GPS locator, type in a brief description. You can get it all done in less than a minute."
Each issue is given its own page, which displays contact info for the local city councillor, who receives a direct email with details of the report. Staff from the city's 311 service also automatically receive a report. A timer indicates how long the problem has been unresolved.
In British Columbia, a smartphone app encourages users to spot threatening weeds, snap a photo and send that information to the provincial government.
In some cases, the data is used for long-term weed planning as officials map out problem areas that need attention. For invasive plants, an alert is generated, which may prompt more immediate action.
The Invasive Species Council of British Columbia launched its Report-A-Weed smartphone app this past summer. The app includes a photo array of problem weeds, sorted by name or flower colour, and allows users to record detailed location data, photos and their own observations, which are all sent to the province's Report-A-Weed program.
The council's executive director, Gail Wallin, says a smartphone app was the natural progression from the group's invasive species hotline.
The app is part tool, part education, says Wallin, whose non-profit group works with other organizations and provincial and local governments to manage and reduce the spread of invasive species.
"The new way of doing things is to use smartphones to record data, to give accurate location of where that plant is, and it creates an immediate record," says Wallin.
"A lot of it is public awareness. You may not know what the newest flu coming into B.C. is, but people have been trained to wash their hands and cough into their elbows, so that's good behaviour. We want to get people in the same place with invasive plants, where they take responsible behaviour without realizing whether it's for knapweed or whatever."
Winnipeg-based Telenium Inc., is among the companies hoping to take advantage of the trend of governments outsourcing software development.
The company already has contracts with several provincial governments to operate their 511 traffic information phone lines, and it's hoping to move into local, mobile-based 311 service, too.
Its first foray into that is an app called iPothole.com, which allows users to report potholes on a map. So far, the app isn't formally used by any municipalities, but the company's Chris Friesen hopes that will change soon.
He says it makes sense for governments to give outside developers tools to make their own apps, such as through the use of Open311 or open-data initiatives.
"This is how they're trying to extend their budgetary resources," says Friesen.
"There are all sorts of great app developers out there, people who are interested in helping these cities and municipalities progress, so you go out to the public and say, 'We're opening our data.'"
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