1: Ben Berkowitz. CEO of SeeClickFix.com
Ben runs SeeClickFix.com which is based in New Haven, CT. A communications platform that lets you report neighborhood issues and see them get fixed. The service makes communities better through transparency, collaboration, and cooperation. Connecting citizens to their local governments.
In this episode we talk about how people can use technology to become more human. The difference between "Gentrification" and "Rejuvenation" when it comes to rebuilding cities. How relationships are similar to startups and what it takes to save abandoned towns.
I giggle a lot. We talk a lot about Pokemon Go, especially it's positive effects on communities. We even tie in quantum theory with in-app gamification. Figuring out that gamification leads to time acceleration both in apps and in real life.
To gamify the podcast, count all the times I say "That's amazing."
Yulia: [00:00:38] I'm sitting down today with Ben Berkowitz, who is the founder and CEO of SeeClickFix.com. He's also a friend of mine.
Ben: [00:00:38] True story.
Yulia: [00:00:38] True story. And we decided to hang out and do this talk. Tell me a little bit about SeeClickFix.
Ben: [00:00:38] Sure. So SeeClickFix is a service request platform for citizens to document things that are broken in the public space. What's unique about SeeClickFix is that we can route your issue. The thing you are concerned about in your neighborhood to any government official or anyone who is concerned about the problem and the public space as well and we can do that anywhere in the world. And we have done that. Most places in the world. It was born here in New Haven out of my own personal frustration. I was trying to communicate with city hall about a piece of graffiti on a neighbor's building. It was true vandalism and it was offensive. It was not Banksy or Shepard Fairey or the next Banksy or Shepard Fairey or it's just vandalism that needed to be removed from the building. And while leaving voicemails endless voicemails for city hall, I had this idea that maybe there was another way to solve this communication problem I was having and so that's kind of how SeeClickFix was born.
Yulia: [00:01:35] Did the graffiti ever get removed?.
Ben: [00:01:37] It did. The graffiti got removed. And three months after we launched SeeClickFix a guy went down our street and scribbled his name, his tag on 15 different buildings. I went out and posted every single issue and, on SeeClickFix site, you know documented the graffiti and within a few hours officials representing the city had come out and started to clean up the graffiti. So not only did that get graffiti removed but many more graffiti got removed.
Yulia: [00:02:14] That's amazing. You launched in 3 months it sounds like. So you just worked in agile, you got the MVP up and running.
Ben: [00:02:14] Yep. I don't think those were terms back then but that is true. Yeah.
Yulia: [00:02:18] But that's what you did. What was the biggest challenge during the launch?
Ben: [00:02:22] I think technically we had the wind in our sails because we were working off the Google Maps API. We all had engineering and design experience and we generally understood what the problem was and had a good idea of what the solution looked like. We were very conscious to make sure that the solution was something that anyone anywhere in the world could use. The largest technical hurdle and kind of the unique thing that we still do today is we wanted to make sure that we weren't just creating another place on the Internet where people could gripe but we wanted to create a constructive place where problems were being solved. And so actually creating an alerting system that worked based on geospatial boundaries was actually pretty challenging. Figuring out the right algorithm initially and then the right software to use to route the issues was complex. We had a prototype for documenting issues within a few hours but it took us a couple of months to get to the point of being able to send an email to a city official to say hey there is a pothole at this address, right?
Yulia: [00:03:25] How many cities are you in exactly. Because I know you guys are kind of global, right?
Ben: [00:03:25] Yeah. So platforms been used everywhere. I mean tens of thousands of communities. We are the official digital interface and system of record for about 300 towns and cities. Most of them are domestic but some are international. So anybody can report a problem on SeeClickFix anybody can receive an alert based on that area that they're following. But there is a whole group of cities and this is how we keep our business afloat, that they pay us a recurring software license to use the tool for internal communication for workflow for responding back to the citizens in a structured way for receiving the data in a structured way for being able to generate reports on the data to be able to say hey how quickly are we closing pothole requests in the month of June. Right. And so all of those tools that the government are using to make this their primary interface are the things that are supporting our business and theres 300 of those clients.
Yulia: [00:04:22] There is a lot of inefficiencies in government and theres a lot of inefficiencies in community. And you've kind of bridged the two gaps.
Ben: [00:04:28] Absolutely.
Yulia: [00:04:28] You know, you figured out a need. Which is what your initial need was. And that's how good companies are born. Because you have a problem and you figure out a solution. What advice do you have for people who are launching a startup. And if they're thinking globally, what can you share?
Ben: [00:04:41] Sure. I think you touched on something interesting there which is that we found ourselves at the intersection of government and local media and citizen need and built a new platform for those folks to communicate with each other on equal grounds. I think when you're creating something new as an outsider the opportunity is to create something at the boundaries of a specific industry where that industry touches other industries or a larger group of consumers than they had typically interacted with. And so I think you know when you're looking for opportunities or for startups looking for opportunities at the intersections of things that might not typically be related or where people have typically not seen eye to eye and trying to find ways to get people to talk on even terms is a big one.
Yulia: [00:05:26] What's the biggest problem that you helped solve?
Ben: [00:05:29] I think about what's happened here in New Haven, and that it's hard not to think about just the aggregate of more than 20000 citizens who have commented on an issue or a report an issue and think about what that adds up to. Right we've seen correlations with drops in crime overall as the platform has been introduced into the city but then you know I can also point to individual anecdotes. The 9th square itself where our offices is very different in the surrounding neighborhood because of the feedback that citizens have given in SeeClickFix. You know very much like down to very granular things like the directionality of a streetlight pointing into someone's bedroom, right? Something that like could be incredibly frustrating for a few people but like is it newsworthy? No but may it cause you to leave the neighborhood? Yeah, it could. And up to things like people figuring out where the best location for a dog park is mediating on how to light up a highway overpass that had never been lit up previously because of jurisdiction issues with Amtrak. I mean all sorts of things that really grate on like your ability to enjoy a city have been removed or is solved in a way that has made New Haven more frictionless for citizens to move around and enjoy the public space right. And you know graffiti is probably one of the smaller issues least reported issues on the site. The most reported issue is illegal dumping. That's a huge environmental problem. It creates serious blight it makes people feel like their governments not listening their neighbors don't care. And you know there's been hundreds of thousands of people who have reported illegal dumping on the site. In total nearly three million issues have been reported on the site. Eighty five percent of them have been fixed, right? So every one of those issues has been seen by more than that individual who reported it. And it's had, you know, a really impactful effect on the population who's watching how their government and their neighbors are really responding to the concerns of individuals at block level.
Yulia: [00:07:29] My brain is initially going into, oh my god it'd be so interesting to see the data for each town. Exactly what their problems are all across America.
Ben: [00:07:36] Well, so a lot of people agree with you. We agree with you and that's why when we started we decided that the data would be open we would not sell the data. Obviously the personally identifiable information is not open but the data about the requests themselves is fully open it's accessible through an API. And many academics as well as other software companies with business interests have leveraged the data to generate insights about is one neighborhood engaging more than another neighborhood is one neighborhood being engaged with differently by a city department or another. All this kind of questions that people have wondered about the equity of government or the inclusion, digital inclusion of different communities like all those things can be answered pretty fairly, If you look at like the data that's pulled from SeeClickFix in a town like New Haven or a town like Oakland or a town like Detroit where you have real income disparities, race disparity. and so it's fascinating and it's been really interesting to watch what people are curious about and how they answer it with the data.
Yulia: [00:08:49] That's why I really love New Haven. It's such a cultural melting pot. We both grew up here as kids. We both used to hang out in New Haven before it was gentrified, dare I use that word? I just came here because they had the. I'd just be here hanging out for the music. And it's really amazing to see everything grow. There are tons of little cities like this all around America. Whether its Detroit, whether its Atlanta. There's a lot of little pockets of rejuvenation. Like Bridgeport. I look at Bridgeport all the time and I see all these factories and I go why.
Ben: [00:09:05] And I think rejuvenation is a better word than gentrification in the case of where it's urban infill as opposed to people being pushed out.
Yulia: [00:09:11] Right. So that's why I've always liked New Haven because there's a chance for a lot of people to come together and really meet. Which doesn't happen a lot. And there are a lot of very very diverse communities. And it's also maybe college towns too, right? Around college towns you have a chance for new ideas and you have people who are a little bit more open to it? I think if I grew up somewhere else I wouldn't have the world view that I did if i didn't live in New Haven?
Ben: [00:09:32] Yeah. Absolutely. It sincerely affected my outlook in terms of I think being a highly empathetic person with people who don't look like me or necessarily come from the same background you know well it's not the melting pot of New York City subway car. And we could certainly do better to getting to that point. It is very well represented in terms of diversity. You know certainly we have our challenges with the university feeling like a bubble to many many of them. You know now that we have really truly wealthy neighborhoods feeling like a bubble to others as well there are neighborhoods that are better integrated than others.
Yulia: [00:10:09] Think about transportation, right. Transportation creates neighborhoods. Highways create neighbors. Bus lines create neighborhoods. It's the difference between the schools that you go to, to the neighborhoods that you live in. It's infrastructure to be able to tap into the EPI, right? And just see what problems each place has. That communities can take it into their own hands. To just like fix it. You know, startups all over the world. They can look at this data and go, Oh my God I can do so much good. I have all this information here. If I wanna launch a startup I will just look at the data. You know, I would go to the biggest city, with the biggest number of people, and go what are their needs?
Ben: [00:10:31] There's probably some problems you could crowdfund there.
Yulia: [00:10:42] That's obviously where my brain is going. Like. Oh my Gosh. It just makes me light up inside because it's so exciting but you need people to take the initiative and actualize themselves.
Ben: [00:10:49] It's the data and it's it's also like the being deliberate about the algorithms that you have built right. To get like minded people together on like minded causes who might have otherwise not gotten together and might have otherwise not solved this problem right. That's the power of the Internet at the local level. It can break down barriers that years of politics and bureaucracy and infrastructure have created between humans and it can destroy those things in you know one shared conversation and connect people in really meaningful deeper ways that can really further the future of that community the resilience of the community the success of that community as it relates back to the collective aspirations of the people who really live there right like at block level not like what the people on the other side of town think of how your neighborhood should be. But you and your specific neighbors what you think it should be you now have the power to do that. Because the Internet will connect you to those folks and we'll give you a megaphone that you never had previously.
Yulia: [00:11:58] Well that's what I really like about your startup, too. Well, your business. It's not really a startup anymore it's fully fledged and running. The fact that it brings people out of their homes and into the actual space. A lot of apps and a lot of websites just focus on people staying at home and not really connecting with their neighbors. and i think its so important to use technology to become more human. to just like not go out there like chasing pokemon - which is great. you know, you can. but what happens if there was a pokemon that actually connected you to other humans? Like, maybe go out and find another human you can talk to!
Ben: [00:12:25] Well that was one of the wonderful things about the beginning of the pokémon experience is that like a lot of people that did not look like each other we're all doing the same weird thing out in the public space. And it was kind of grounding and everyone could kind of laugh at each other. And you know it's equalizing in a way right it's a little bit of a social reset which I thought was incredibly valuable. I downloaded pokémon because our friend Alex made some offhanded comment on my Facebook wall about people Pokemon'ing while SeeClickFix'ing and then the other woman chimed in that she had just used SeeClickFix and she was talking about that experience and I said OK. And then a journalist asked me about it and I said OK better download Pokemon I am totally fully hooked. I'm going to have to cancel it from my phone pretty soon. But you know I've looked at our database for the word pokémon now and day one nothing came up. Now there are tons of issues citing Pokemon and they range from like things like you know the obvious one like there's this person in my neighborhood who's hunting pokémon and she's driving dangerously right. Ok. Fair. I'm glad that's a good use of the platform. To now that this space is being used by folks because it's a pokestop we should really think about cleaning it up right. Like all of a sudden we care about this monument again right. Or the people who are hunting these digital creatures are actually disrupting this part of the public space right and which is the overlap between this digital fiction and what's happening in the public space has like all technology the ability to be really positive or really negative right. And so like being socially entrepreneurially minded about your algorithms back to you know thinking about algorithms like you can choose to make them divide people or to reinforce existing boundaries or you can use them to break down the boundaries and you know by all accounts pokemon for the most part broken down some boundaries I don't see it going the other way. So that's that's been an interesting one.
Yulia: [00:14:35] That's amazing. I love that. Since we're talking about technology, What is your wildest dream for it to do?
Ben: [00:14:37] So my wildest dream is that every person anywhere in the world has used the site or has felt they knew about the site and they knew that they could use it to do something that would connect them to their neighbors and their government in a way that the ultimate result would be that they would not want to leave their neighborhood right. That the place that they were starting to get frustrated with or just want to make better was now the place they're going to call home. Right. I think you know we can do that for many people if you own a home or you live in a residential neighborhood or downtown like urban neighborhood. The public space is a big piece of that right. If you're on a university campus like your home for that amount of time as your campus, SeeClickFix is starting to break out of just the public space and into spaces that you occupy that need to be improved that are maybe shared by less individuals and so while we initially thought it had to be limited to the public space it's really just about having an application that connect you - can connect you to the other people who can help you improve the physical environment around you.
Yulia: [00:15:46] What is public space anymore, right? what is private space?
Ben: [00:15:46] Yeah right. It's more about shared space.
Yulia: [00:15:51] And then like technically, we're on earth when you really start going down to the granular. We all have this experience. We all contribute to it. And we all have some power to make it better. And I think that's why maybe places like Detroit. It's an industrial town. The business moves and people just give up. And that's why Bridgeport happened. They move on. They just go onto the new thing, whatever that is, you know? Silicon Valley whatever the next hot town is. I think there's something to be said in rejuvenation again. And looking back into your city and going, Wow. Okay so this happened. What do we do now? And how can we improve it? And how can we bring back new businesses here. How can we shift and grow instead of moving on and looking for the better thing in life, which I think a lot of people do, that's the next thing. Tinder culture. We should just be focusing on like, okay, let's just make this better and see how this goes.
Ben: [00:15:51] Yeah. Digging your heels in.
Yulia: [00:15:51] It's just reevaluating where you are and it's getting other people to see it too because you can't do it alone.
Ben: [00:15:51] Right.
Yulia: [00:15:51] You know it's like a relationship too. We're both gonna give up. One person can't be like, " well let's try" and the other person doesn't want to do it. But you both have to commit and it takes a whole town to rebuild itself.
Ben: [00:16:50] Yeah definitely. Definitely. Which is I mean from a business perspective obviously all businesses go through this but that's a huge challenge, right? It's a chicken and egg problem. You've got to bring both people to the table within a relatively similar time periods right or you get a kind of leaky leaky sieve.
Yulia: [00:17:19] Yeah and it has a time period, too. So you have to do it and you have to realize that you have to do it. So, I've got another question, right? How can everyone use your platform to improve their local community? What would you tell people to do ,right now?
Ben: [00:17:25] So if you walk outside wherever you are right now and you see something or experience something that you feel like emotionally I understand that it could be better. Download SeeClickFix. Take a photo of it. If it's photographable and describe the problem or the need for improvement and let's see what happens. Let's see if your government responds. They might. It's a good chance they will. Eighty five percent chance they will. And if they don't share it with your neighbors. Share it with your government and let them know what's going on.
Yulia: [00:17:59] Have you thought about game-ifying your platform? So you can get like, the government to react faster?
Ben: [00:18:03] So not for the sake of getting the government to respond faster the game of politics and elections handles that problem pretty well. And transparency just is a tool for enabling that. We do have civic points so you can earn civic points if you're you know a Pokémon warrior and you're into leveling up. You can level up on SeeClickFix the top level is Jane Jacobs. So you can be an urban warrior.
Yulia: [00:18:31] That's great. Pokemon ties in brand incentives, right? It lets you interact with the points in real world, right? That'd be kind of interesting too. If you get enough points you actually become a senator. If you actually get stuff done.
Ben: [00:18:42] Yes. So I will tell you one of our highest civic points users in New Haven is Doug Haslan and Doug was just a regular citizen then he became an alderman partially on the back of his civic points and now he's the director of traffic and parking for the city of New Haven so it can happen.
Yulia: [00:19:01] That's amazing. That's incredible.
Ben: [00:19:01] There is a correlation maybe not causality but there's definitely a correlation.
Yulia: [00:19:09] Definitely a correlation. That's really cool.You started your company in three months. That's fast and furious. What advice would you give to people who are fundraising?
Ben: [00:19:13] What I would first say is that I feel like there is no typical situation for fundraising right. Like our situation was that we were approached by VCs before I really had an understanding of the industry or what the impact would be and said like deferred the conversations for some amount of time until I was ready and comfortable and understood that there was a need. What I think is repeatable and I can say is probably rhetoric and cliche at this point don't take money unless you actually need to take money and there's like you can do something with the money right. Because otherwise the money will not be used well, right?
Yulia: [00:19:58] And you lose a portion of your company.
Ben: [00:20:01] You do. You lose a portion of your company.
Yulia: [00:20:01] So you have to give out your company so it's a catch 22 where you know a lot of people go seek VC funds, but you end up losing a lot of control.
Ben: [00:20:10] You do. And I think early on control is really important. The focus should be more on control than on specific percentage ownership, right. At some point percentage ownership does change control. 50 percent specifically. But also you know board control is important and so there's there's a number of things that you have to be careful of. But control is not an issue if you are doing the right things and you are the best you and the board generally believe that and you believe that your board is going to go in the right direction and your investors are going to go in the right direction. Our initial investors were O'Reilley AlphaTtech Ventures which is very founder friendly and is funded by Tim O'Reilley who coined the term Gov 2 0 and one of the board members of Code for America and like truly believes in what we're doing. And the other Omenia Network you know which is a social enterprise focused on government transparency and participation. So like are any of them going to try to sell us out to become an ad network or some other thing that doesn't create good in the world. Probably not.
Yulia: [00:21:18] You're going to get bought out by Pokemon. You know it.
Ben: [00:21:19] Yeah that's okay. It's a bit of a digression but it was fascinating to me personally understand the need to pay in some of the clash of clans and samurai's showdown and any of these games and Candy Crush is the same so like where they have the thing that you are paying for it which is novel it has been novel the last couple of years and has made these companies multi-billion dollar companies is the acceleration of time. Right. Which is like this thing that we take for granted but is so obviously valuable on the Internet. And so they withhold playing or accelerating in the game based on time. But if you pay them money you can jump into the future, right. And like that's brilliant. I mean that's like I mean it's so it's so like hooked to our biological clocks literally and like you know everything about humans is geared towards the fact that we're running out of time and so like these games literally allow you to accelerate it. Genius. I don't know how to do that with SeeClickFix.
Yulia: [00:22:22] This is really interesting because that brings to mind accelerators where you sometimes have to pay. It's also with schools. If you want to get in, you know. You go to Stanford and you accelerate. So it's about money giving you access. That's what interests me with me with Fund Dreamer giving access to everybody who has good ideas and really democratizing access to time and innovation. Because there are a lot of people who have really amazing ideas, but if they didn't go to the right schools. If they didn't make the connections then they're just completely shut out. That's what I really like about SeeClickFix cause it gives everybody an opportunity to participate.
Ben: [00:22:44] Yeah for sure. We're creating a new network.
Yulia: [00:22:54] I think you're doing really cool stuff and I wanna let more people know that you're doing cool stuff so you can do more cool stuff. Because if everybody participated in their communities it would be amazing.
Ben: [00:23:04] Yeah. The world would be better. For sure
Yulia: [00:23:06] Yeah. Like we can build new schools. We can build new parks. And we can really take control of things that we want to see in the world. I'd love to see more schools. I'd like to see more parks. More public spaces. More farmer's market. Just more access. Like there are towns that I'm just so interested in because you can do so much. There's a lot of creative people wanting to do stuff. That's where you want to be.
Ben: [00:23:31] Yeah definitely. I mean, I think humans are incredible animals right. The more the built environment can reflect humans the better the built environment is right. And like that is effectively what we're trying to build with SeeClickFix.
Yulia: [00:23:49] And we have technology to remind us that we're human. And to connect all of us. We just want to be connected.We want to be part of a community. So I think technology makes us more human.
Ben: [00:23:49] Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Yulia: [00:23:49] Alright, Ben. Thank you so much for being on my podcast and have a wonderful day.
Ben: [00:23:49] Thank you.