iBurgh app takes its place at last on iPhones

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Pittsburgh government has stumbled out of the gate in its race to be the national leader in technology-based "e-democracy."

In August, City Councilman William Peduto announced a first-of-its kind iPhone application for the mobile reporting of potholes, graffiti and other nuisances to city government. Called iBurgh, the app "will make Pittsburgh the nation's leader in bringing government to the people," he said at the time.

But due to some problems grafting the app onto city computer systems, it only became fully interactive on Wednesday.

The iBurgh app was meant to be a mobile complement the city's existing 311 service, where requests for non-emergency city services are filed over the phone or the Web, and it was launched quickly to beat Boston, which announced in July it was designing a similar iPhone application.

About 8,000 iPhone users have since downloaded the app -- which was designed by Yinz-Cam, a Squirrel Hill firm led by a Carnegie Mellon computer engineering professor -- and this month it was launched for the Droid, another hip phone that runs Google software. But for the entire fall, after iBurgh users sent complaints to the city, their requests were not being processed as expected to city departments.

"In a nutshell, the data was not coming through to 311," said Tajuana Stephenson, assistant director for the City Information Systems department.

Nor did iBurgh issue users a number (called a "service request ID" by the city) for tracking work on their complaints, which is one of the main benefits of the city's 311 system.

Debbie Chaklos of the South Side downloaded the free application after reading about it this summer. Early this month, she was growing tired of trash strewn outside her office in the Strip District. She sent a mobile complaint through iBurgh, but never received any response from the city.

"The fact I hadn't heard back was a concern," she said last week.

Another glitch: When iBurgh users send photos of nuisances to the city, they are supposed to be geo-tagged with the precise location of the report, using Global Positioning System data. That has not consistently worked -- when a Post-Gazette reporter tried to report a sinkhole Downtown last week, the report was geo-tagged to Fox Chapel.

The geo-tagging should work better in new versions of iBurgh, lead developer Priya Narasimhan said, including that on the Droid phone. "We're tinkering on [the geo-tagging] a lot and it's as tight as the iPhone will allow," she said.

YinzCam updated the iPhone app in late September -- some of it based on a survey of user feedback -- but had difficulty working in tandem with the city on the problems, partially due to the city's focus on the Sept. 24 and 25 G-20 summit. In early December YinzCam issued City Information Systems a workaround to get iBurgh's complaints into the 311 system, and after some testing, the city finally began issuing tracking numbers to iBurgh users via e-mail on Wednesday.

Dr. Narasimhan said that all the iBurgh complaint reports made this fall did make it to city departments, but acknowledged that users found it frustrating not to get feedback.

"At the end of the day, you have to have that ... for it to work," she said. "Otherwise you're lobbing [the complaints] into a vacuum."

The city logged 75 iBurgh complaints into 311 this fall, said city Management, Accountability, Performance & Strategy Manager Chuck Half. Last week eight iBurgh users were issued tracking numbers.

As for Boston, it did not release its free app -- called Citizens Connect -- until October. Upon its launch it issued tracking numbers, kept a list of each user's complaints and notified users via text when their cases were closed. It has been downloaded 2,000 times and led to 500 work requests, 80 percent of which have been closed, said Nigel Jacob, the adviser on emerging technology to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

Mr. Peduto noted that other Pittsburgh government tech upgrades -- including the webcasting of council meetings beginning Monday -- are ongoing and troubles such as those with the iPhone app come with being an innovator.

"Pittsburgh is one step ahead of what other cities are doing. There have been a couple bumps in the road. That's what happens when you go first," he said.

YinzCam is producing apps similar to iBurgh for other cities nationwide that should be announced later this month, Dr. Narasimhan said.


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


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