On a recent morning eating breakfast and getting ready for work in Sao Paulo, Brazil I was watching the local news. An interesting feature popped on the screen. The news channel was profiling a citizen movement in the city aimed at improving living conditions and citizen safety. Basically citizens were building man-made signs and leaving them in locations where theft, rape or other violent crimes had taken place. In doing so advising citizens of the potentially dangerous locations and commutes and taking citizen safety into their own hands where the police wasn’t up to the task. What a neat idea I thought. If only they also had such civic engagement for non-emergency problems around the city. Well it turns out they soon might. In the USA, there is an innovative company which has created a tool to help citizens engage local government and media to fix non-emergency problems around their communities. Things like graffiti, open potholes and uneven sidewalks, etc. SeeClickFix, which started in New Haven, CT, and since expanded into more than 10 American urban centers including Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia. Today it is the largest citizen reporting tool in the United States. It is doing so well that it was recently backed by Omidyar Network and O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures and is gaining interesting to expand abroad to places like Australia, Singapore and the UK (and I hope Brazil soon too). Read on to find out more.
WHAT IS THE BUSINESS ABOUT?
SeeClickFix is a website which allows citizens to report and monitor non-emergency community issues ranging from potholes and planted trees to garbage and graffiti. It empowers citizens, community groups, media organizations, and governments to work together and improve their neighborhoods. It works by allowing users post a complaint about problems that occur within a set of boundaries on a Google Map, like graffiti at a bus stop or potholes on a busy street, and the site communicates the problem to the appropriate government agency and marks the problem on the map. Users can comment on the issue or label it resolved. Government agencies can post on the site to respond to residents, and journalists can use the site to communicate with readers and see which issues are most pressing to people. Thus not only does it help to prioritize and resolve regular community problems, it also fosters interaction among government, news media and community residents.
HOW DID IT START?
The idea for the company started in 2008 when one of the co-founders reported graffiti on a neighbor’s building in New Haven, Connecticut and nothing happened. He realized their was no accountability in citizen reporting and that the web might be a powerful tool to empower citizens to take action. He recruited some of his friends and they soon had a model program up and running. The site went live in New Haven in March 2008 and then later incorporated as a business in September of the same year. The four founders paid for the start-up themselves and used any revenue to develop the site. They got additional funding by winning business plan competitions such as Pitch It prize but it wasn’t until last year that they received major funding. After New Haven the first key client city was the city of Philadelphia. Build on its own track record the company has grown city by city. Soon perhaps also country by country.
WHAT IS THE SOCIAL NEED IT ADDRESSES?
The site not only empowers citizens, community groups, media organizations and governments to take care of and improve their neighborhoods it also improves government efficiency in its ability to identify and prioritize basic community problems. Most importantly it creates civic engagement. Helping to reengage citizens into their communities and to believe that public services can work. Building the social capital that has slowly disappeared in so many cities around the world.
WHAT IS THE BUSINESS MODEL?
- The most basic value proposition it offers citizens is the opportunity to use their smart phones to report and track problems they see in their communities. As mentioned above it also allows government and media to prioritize and act on issues more efficiently.
- While the main beneficiaries are citizens (normal people like me and you). The actual clients/customers of the service are governments and media. This is the genius behind the model. They know that media need help channeling traffic to their sites and government needs a way to identify public service problems. Their service solves both problems in one swoop.
- Revenue Streams – There are two major sources of revenue. The first is from advertisements on the website for its users. The second is a premium version of the free tracking site/smart phone app sold primarily to government and media called SeeClickFix Pro. The $40 per user per month service adds branding, communication, work-flow management and analysis dashboard options useful to users who don’t simply want to report problems.
- Cost Structure – Primarily the IT infrastructure, office space and 12 employees
WHAT ARE SOME CONCERNS I SEE WITH THE MODEL?
- Ability to generate revenue – I am a little bit skeptical about the sites ability to generate the type of revenue that a VC firm would be interested in investing in. However the fact that they have VC financing suggest that they must be generating good revenue and believe they can grow it.
- Disproportionate use – As a tool for public good I would be concerned that an overactive minority might capture the service for their benefit to report problems that benefit them more than the overall public good
- Minor problems – I would also be concerned that some people would crowd the site with problems which really do not belong on such a service. Such as disliking the color of some public building or lost pets, etc.
- Otherwise I love the idea and sincerely hope it comes to Sao Paulo soon since I have quite a few potholes and uneven sidewalks I would like to report!
WHAT DO YOU THINK?