Can Twitter help fix San Francisco's potholes?

Residents can now "tweet" the city about public problems, part of growing efforts to use online and social networking tools to get better customer service.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Hit a pothole while zigzagging down Lombard Street? Dodge a stray mattress on Market Street? Twitter can help. Or so says San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

This week San Francisco became the first city to officially link its 311 nonemergency line with Twitter.com, the popular social networking site that lets users post messages of 140 characters or less, called tweets.

It's a novel approach to public works, and joins a growing number of efforts to use social networking and other online tools to give customers better, faster, and more satisfactory results from governments and corporations.

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Mayor Newsom, who has been smitten with Twitter ever since his first tweet in December 2007 and even announced his gubernatorial bid on the site, has made San Francisco the first "Twitter city," as one Twitterer recently noted.

But this isn't the first effort to use tools such as Twitter to repair roads. That honor probably goes to SeeClickFix.com, a website that launched about a year ago utilizing Google maps to allow users to pinpoint problems and alert city officials around the country of public nuisances.

In May, SeeClickFix began allowing users to report municipal maladies through Twitter applications available for the iPhone, Blackberry, and other smart phones.

Twitter is just one more technological tool that allows citizens to better publicize problems, get the attention of government officials, and eventually get results, says SeeClickFix's Ben Berkowitz.

"We figured that for communities that were not getting a great response out of government, [SeeClickFix] would be a great platform to encourage citizens to start documenting these things," he says.

Indeed, social networking sites such as Facebook are beginning to create a "public channel" that can be used to pressure governments, companies, or utilities to address customer issues, writes Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist, on his blog, avc.com. He noted that Comcast has started its own Twitter page to address customer complaints.

"When someone posts on Twitter that their cable service isn't working and directs the message to Comcast Cares, many people see that…. And as Comcast Cares elevates the issue, gets it fixed, and reports back, everyone gets to see that too," he wrote.

One early complaint about San Francisco's Twitter experiment is that it's using private, direct messaging to deal with complaints and not posting them – whether they are about potholes or broken sprinklers – on its page for a broader public discussion.

"I think there are a lot of merits to having a public conversation," says Rachel Weidinger, a marketing consultant who lives in San Francisco's Mission District and is an avid Twitterer.

Ms. Weidinger was one of the first users to pose a question to the city through its new Twitter account. How could she get a bike rack for her city block? The city responded quickly with a link to the application for bicycle racks.

"Almost all of us have cellphones, and from anywhere in the city you can [text message] an issue and get a response. That's awesome," she says.

But, she says, she would like to see a more open discussion about issues around the city.

Another Twitterer, Evan Hamilton, shared his complaint. He tweeted: "[M]y tweets disappear into the ether ... nobody else sees them, they don't get reposted. Feels pretty lonely."

By contrast, the power of a site like SeeClickFix lies in building public pressure.

"SeeClickFix is clearly a pull system. If citizens are using the tool, government has to pay attention," says Mr. Berkowitz, who started the site out of frustration over an unaddressed graffiti problem in New Haven, Conn.

Today, SeeClickFix has about 14,000 registered users who have reported thousands of problems. And cities around the country are paying attention.

The Miami Herald has embedded SeeClickFix on its website, and small towns such as Ayer, Mass., are using it on their website.

In San Francisco, a similar site called ParkScan gives users the ability to post problems spotted in the city's parks and playgrounds – and ensure those complaints get to the right city department.

And despite Weidinger's criticism about San Francisco's Twitter page, she mostly commends the effort. "I'm so excited that our city is brave enough to try out this crazy thing," she says.

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