iBurgh lets you complain to city by cell phone

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Pittsburgh has won the "space race" with Boston to adopt the first iPhone application for registering citizen complaints through a mobile phone.

An application called iBurgh became available via Apple's iTunes store Saturday that allows residents to snap iPhone photos of nuisances such as potholes and graffiti and send them to the city's 311 complaint system, embedded with Global Positioning System data pinpointing the problem's exact location. The free application, designed by YinzCam Inc. of Squirrel Hill, will forward the reports to city departments for review, just as the city's current 311 complaint phone line does.

The application is part of efforts announced last month by city Councilman William Peduto and the City Information Systems Department to make Pittsburgh a leader in "e-democracy." That came on the heels of an announcement from Boston's city hall that it was developing an iPhone app, which pushed Mr. Peduto to say that Pittsburgh should beat Beantown to the punch. The city succeeded.

The hope is that through iBurgh and similar technological innovations, it will be easier for citizens to interact with government, and for government to reach out to residents. Updates to iBurgh could include streaming and searchable video of government meetings, and automatic updates on city initiatives close to where phone users live. The city is pursuing partnerships with other local technology firms as well.

YinzCam gave the program to the city for free, with hopes of testing it here and marketing it to other cities.

"Right now we stand at a very interesting era where democracy can be transformed through technology, and Pittsburgh has an incredible opportunity to lead this new e-democracy," Mr. Peduto said.

As with so many things in Pittsburgh, there is a sports tie-in. The developers of YinzCam -- which is led by Priya Narasimhan, director of Carnegie Mellon's Mobility Research Center -- launched mobile-phone based applications at Penguins games last year.

The technology allowed "fans to cut their own replays and watch different angles on their mobile phones. Now we're moving on to give citizens that kind of control on their cell phones with their city government," Ms. Narasimhan said.

The application will work much like the city's current 311 line. Citizens can use the service to make photo-based complaints, which are then given a tracking number so callers can follow the city's response to them. Like 311 calls, the iBurgh complaints will be reviewed by the city's 311 team and passed on to the appropriate city department for action.

The technology also will generate maps for city officials that include photos of nuisances "geo-tagged" with their precise locations via GPS.

Boston is still testing its iPhone app and it should be available "very, very soon," said Christopher Loh, a spokesman for Mayor Thomas Menino, who helped come up with the idea for the service. Designed by a New Hampshire firm called Connected Bits and announced in early July, the Boston app is planned to be more advanced than iBurgh: Among other things, users may be able to access maps that store complaints and the status of their clean-up. (In iBurgh the map data is supplied only to city officials.)

Pittsburghers who do not have smart phones can still use regular phones or the city's Web site to log 311 complaints, noted Tujuana Stephenson, assistant director of CIS. The iBurgh application is "one more use of technology that makes it easier for our residents to contact us," she said.

The application is currently only available for use on iPhones, but will be expanded for use on most other smart phones soon, Ms. Narasimhan said. (The YinzCam service at Penguins games works on about 25 mobile phone platforms.)

Users of iPhones can find it through the "App Store" menu on their phones or via appshopper.com.

Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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