Friday, May 20, 2011

The City of Richmond Recognizes a Pothole Problem, Asks Citizens to Help Them Fix It

Listen to the full audio here.

The local news team at WRIR LP 97.3 FM has been following reports on the road conditions in Richmond specifically in regards to potholes in the area. This issue was brought to the forefront of concern following heavy snow in early 2010. Since that time there have been marked improvements but the issue remains a concern and our investigating team set out to determine what it really takes to fill a pothole.

We wanted to test a theory - is reporting a problem half the battle? Meaning if our local government doesn't know about a specific pothole, how is to be fixed; and secondly what are the results of asking citizens to report and monitor issues.

We reported potholes throughout the Richmond area using The potholes varied in size, location, proximity to one another, and assorted traffic patterns. With each entry we received an email confirming our submission.

We were also informed of certain "acknowledged" potholes via email within a few days of submission.

We hit the streets to revisit an "acknowledged" pothole and found a traffic cone positioned next to the pothole which measured approximately 8 inches in depth. A few days, and a rainstorm later, we returned to find the pothole had yet to be filled, however the cone had been placed inside of the pothole that was completely filled with water, disguising its magnitude.

We wanted to learn more about what happens between submission and the point at which the pothole is fixed and the issue is marked as "closed."

Ben Berkowitz, CEO and co-founder of, explained using the system for reporting potholes and said the site is a platform for citizens to report anything in a public space that is broken or damaged and needs to be fixed.

He said, "I would open the SeeClickFix app, which is a free app that can be installed on your phone, I would take a photo of the problem, and I would get my GPS location, or I would map the location using the application, then I would give a quick summary and a description, so it might be 'pothole and it's four feet wide and in the right lane' in the description field, and then I hit submit."

He said items posted on the website are sent by email to local governments and other agencies within a given community that are involved with fixing problems. He said each issue reported is submitted as open, and once the individual or party responsible for that area is notified they are able to participate in an open forum conversation where community members can also give a problem more clout by voting up an issue.

In terms of priority I think that governments typically respond, no matter how many votes there are,” he said. “Votes definitely help to avoid duplicate issues in the government, and they help neighbors connect with each other around problems."

He said he was inspired to create the site after having troubles with graffiti in his own neighborhood (not in Virginia), after calling city hall and leaving many messages he felt like those types of concerns should be publicly documented.

"Your government may fix a pothole, or your neighbor may clean up graffiti on a building, or help improve a park," he said. "So there is an ecosystem of people who are helping and augmenting government improve the public space not just by reporting but also by solving problems.”

He said media partners play an important role in fixing issues by spreading the word about and by embedding a widget on local news sites which helps encourage citizens to use the tool.

"There's always been this somewhat adverse relationship between local media and local government when it comes to pointing out problems,” he said. “But this is a way for local media to hold government accountable while government is holding themselves accountable in a constructive way where government can actually act on the individual concerns.”

Berkowitz said Richmond is unique because the city's 311 call takers input issues they take over the phone into SeeClickFix and manage the complaints though their tracking system.

"The Mayor had an open government and mobile initiative that he thought SeeClickFix would be a really good fit for, so they reached out to us," he said. "Richmond is using one of our pro tools called SeeClickFix plus and what that means is when you open the iPhone or Android application in Richmond the city's logo shows up on the application, and the different service request types that they want reported will be reported to them."

Sharon North, Public Information Manager for the City of Richmond's Department of Public Works, said Mayor Jones enacted a program called MPACT Mayors Participation Action Communication Team.

“You can enter just about anything you want on a SeeClickFix, we see a lot of is a straddle between three departments, public utilities, public works, and police," she said. "From the public works standpoint we see a lot with potholes, with people wanting bulk and brush pick-ups, or if trees need to be trimmed back with urban forestry.”

She said many of the areas listed for reporting are related to public works issues, and when public works crews see a pothole they report it just like a citizen would.

"The Department of Public Works is one of the city’s largest departments," she said. "Everything from the civil infrastructure, civil engineering, all the way down to solid waste collection, there’s urban forestry, roadway maintenance, street cleaning, vacuum leaf collection, pothole repair which is a part of roadway, major capital improvements like major paving projects, transportation engineering which is street lights, traffic lights, pavement markings, grounds maintenance, the lawns on city properties and city parks."

North said ideally the department would be able to fill every pothole the moment it’s reported, but at this particular point on average it's anywhere from ten to nineteen days.

“With potholes particularly they are prioritized based upon safety, safety is a primary concern for just about everything that we do in the Department of Public Works," she said. "Next we look at location and size of the pothole.”

The WRIR News Team discovered most of the potholes reported were fixed just outside of the average range. We also noted that the larger and more dangerous potholes were given priority. They were flagged as problematic, marked with traffic cones, and filled at a faster rate than the less damaging potholes reported. SeeClickFix is a user-friendly tool that allowed us to take part in the process and prompted us to dig a little deeper in understanding the procedure involved in turning a pesky pothole into a thing of the past.

-Sarah A. Freiseis

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