June 16, 2012
Public Space Pests: Why We Want Them and How to Get Them

This Washington Post article profiles DC’s Terry Lynch. Lynch spends hours and hours a week examining DC’s public spaces and notifying the city about things that need to be fixed. He reports everything from dead trees to graffiti to broken traffic lights. Some would say Terry is a “pest” because of his extreme civic engagement. But, we might be better off with more people like Terry.

Terry is performing a valuable service for his city. He is filling an information gap that, if left unaddressed, would prevent cities from living up to their potential. If a city doesn’t know what is broken, how can it fix it? Over time, a lack of access to this kind of information could have a substantially negative impact on a city. Getting a reputation as a city that is unkept is not good for business. Along with helping ensure his city avoids such a reputation, Terry is helping for free. You could say he is a city worker without the pension, salary, or benefit - what some may call an ideal city worker. 

But, then again, Terry is a pest for a reason. He complains about seemingly inconsequential issues. With several hundred Terry’s, a city might be overwhelmed with irrelevant complaints, costing the city valuable time as it would have to sort through them all and decipher what warrants the attention of finite city resources. However, too much information shouldn’t be a reason to avoid Terry - cities can actually use this to their advantage in a major way.

Cities can use an app to provide citizens with a quick, easy way to report issues with public space - something like 311 on your phone. Furthermore the app could organize complaints for the city in terms of importance. For example, if 100 people complain about an issue, the issue could automatically be listed as a top priority for the city. Hence, a lot of civic engagement could be leveraged to ensure cities are allocating their resources efficiently. 

In addition to giving cities the capacity to handle a large quantity of complaints, the app could be used to induce people to be like Terry. The app could give people “civic engagement points” for complaints that people make and enter people with a certain number of points into a lottery or publicly acknowledge them (this idea could easily be extended to other areas of desirable civic engagement). Of course, with such an incentive, some people may make up complaints, but this could be deterred with fines for false complaints.