Ben Berkowitz’s Formula: Spot a Problem, Map It, Fix It

BY William Harless  January 11, 2013 at 11:30 AM EDT


So much about Ben Berkowitz is unassuming. “If u need to contact me immediately, please do not hesitate to call my cell phone,” he ends his e-mails. When one calls his office to set up an interview, he’s the one who picks up the phone with a simple “hello?”

But SeeClickFix, the software company 33-year-old Berkowitz co-founded five years ago, is all about the unassuming — small things such as pot holes, graffiti, unlit overpasses, stop signs, and sewage drains — that when left unattended, become a big deal if they allow things like crime to flourish.

The website works like this: Enter your city, and you can report any sort of neighborhood problem using a map. A mass of complaints at the same point indicates a trouble spot and alerts other city residents, news outlets and local governments of the situation. SeeClickFix posts updates on Twitter.

“For me this whole website started because I was trying to report graffiti on a neighbor’s building,” Berkowitz said. “It wasn’t attractive graffiti, and it was in a place that was not a public space.”

He reported the graffiti to the New Haven government but he said nothing happened. “I got the idea that my neighbors were reporting similar things, but there was no accountability and no collaborative discussion,” said Berkowitz.

Now, many public works departments and news offices around the country have made the SeeClickFix widget a part of their websites. There’s also a customizable SeeClickFix mobile application in which users can snap a photo of a pothole, for example, and register it in their city’s 311 service system.

One recent Sunday afternoon, the Washington, D.C., SeeClickFix website showed complaints of a broken streetlight, an out-of-state parking violation, and a request for a second stop sign at a dangerous intersection. The city had quickly acknowledged the entries.

Local newspapers and television stations are using SeeClickFix maps to cull story ideas. Media outlets in New Haven, Oakland, Philadelphia and Boston were among the first to sign up, said Berkowitz.

John Carter, a television news anchor and reporter for WBTV in Charlotte, N.C., said the two SeeClickFix segments his news station airs each week have become especially popular. Viewers report neighborhood problems, such as high grass or broken sidewalks, on the WBTV website, and the anchors follow up on air.

“It’s very interactive, and I think it allows people out there to feel like they’re somewhat empowered … and that someone’s responding,” Carter said. “This is a segment on television that really makes a dramatic, concrete difference in peoples’ lives.”

Photo by Ian Christmann

Ads on the SeeClick Fix widget generate money for the company, and about 80 municipalities pay for the service. Houston; Raleigh, N.C.; Minneapolis; Hartford, Conn.; Oakland, Calif.; and Richmond, Va., are among its customers.

Berkowitz also received about $1.5 million in venture funding from California philanthropic investment firm Omidyar Network and from San-Francisco-based O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures. He has 12 employees now working for the company.

Economic development offices in at least 10 cities, including Huntsville, Ala., and New Haven, Conn. (where SeeClickFix is headquartered), have used the software to try figure out what kinds of new businesses residents would like.

Last year, the Huntsville city government published a report about its SeeClickFix findings. The engineering town appears to want a Trader Joe’s and another Kroger grocery store.

When smaller problems such as potholes and graffiti are fixed, neighborhoods can move on to issues of more social significance, according to Berkowitz. “In cases like New Haven, we’ve seen grocery stores come in where citizens are requesting grocery stores; we’ve seen busing companies come in because people have requested bus lines.” Berkowitz said he is now working with his neighborhood association to start a farmers’ market.

Berkowitz recently gave a presentation at the White House at the request of its Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. SeeClickFix also is working to expand internationally, working with cities in Canada and Australia, and testing projects in Singapore and Saudi Arabia.

Back in New Haven, residents identified an underpass that divided two neighborhoods of different income levels as problematic, said Berkowitz. In addition to the underpass being dirty and dark, noted Berkowitz, one SeeClickFix commenter said it signified “a psychological breakdown between neighborhoods.”

After the New Haven Register sponsored a poll identifying the underpass as in need of a makeover, Berkowitz and a co-worker started an effort to turn it into a community mural. Residents from both neighborhoods took turns photographing each other and pasting the photos on the wall. “It’s like you’re inside a museum all of a sudden,” rather than an underpass, Berkowitz said.

“We’re taking something that is potentially really mundane, and engaging people because they do really care about it,” he added.

Slide show by David Pelcyger. The NewsHour’s Agents for Change series highlights individuals helping communities solve problems, build businesses and create jobs. We’ll feature 10 of these social entrepreneurs just starting to make their mark, and invite your recommendations for others — tweet us @NewsHourWorld and use hashtag #AgentsforChange. Or you can post them in the below comments section.