Gravesend doesn’t have too many claims to fame, aside perhaps from being the place where Pocohontas is buried and the former home of Bond girl Gemma Arterton. It never makes the national headlines – unless it’s for recording record high temperatures in a heatwave. And before any Gravesendians out there start to protest, I think I’m allowed to say that as I was brought up in the town.
So imagine my delight when I saw my old home had scored a UK first by launching an application to report anti-social behaviour on a smartphone. The local authority, Gravesham borough council, announced it was joining New York, Boston, LA and San Francisco in making the ‘City Sourced’ application available to residents.
The app, the council said, would allow townspeople to send in instant reports of graffiti, flytipping or housing repairs, and would allow the authority to streamline its response. Its American supporters are even more effusive: the app, they say, represents the future for residents interacting with government. ‘It’s like having a city official in your pocket,’ said one satisfied LA resident.
Gravesham is the first in the country to use City Sourced but it’s not the only UK authority to engage with new technology in this sort of way. Brighton led the way last year with an app showing local bus times, followed by another one which lists council services and local entertainment. Trafford has an app which allows residents to find their nearest library or leisure centre, or to see what’s on at the weekend as well as to report litter or a missed bin collection. Preston even has one offering residents – and visitors – a ‘blue plaque’ trail of notable local sights.
These initiatives are not always popular in these tough economic times. Critics have accused authorities of wasting money developing applications for perhaps a few hundred iPhone or Blackberry users in their patch. I think the critics are missing the point.
Visiting Gravesend to see my mother on the day after Gravesham’s “Download Day”, I couldn’t resist having a go. I’d already downloaded the Gravesham 24 app and it didn’t take too long for me to find some graffiti that could do with being cleaned up. One quick snap on the camera phone, choose your anti-social behaviour category and press send. The GPS on your iPhone or Blackberry automatically shows the location of the problem and your report whizzes through to a terminal at the council offices to be prioritised and dealt with. You can also use the app to check how action on your complaint is progressing. Filing my report felt strangely satisfying. I might not have have had a council official in my pocket, but I could see why Gravesham had called the app empowering.
We hear a lot about how to promote real engagement between citizens and government. We’re going to hear a lot more about it as the coalition attempts to roll out its big society ambitions. But if the big society is to be about more than just getting volunteers to provide services on the cheap, then it has to have real, effective community engagement at its core.
Too often people feel that there is nothing they can do about the problems in their community. Offering them the chance to interact with government, in however small a way, has to be a good thing. There’s little point asking citizens to do more for you, if you don’t in turn give them fresh routes to get you to do your bit.