New technologies get residents involved in problem-solving

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By Amber Parcher
The Gazette
Thursday, March 25, 2010

When last month's snowstorms hit the region, Montgomery County phone lines and Web sites were buried in requests for help from residents stuck in their cold, dark homes.

County residents and officials are still handling the fallout. But residents now have a few new ways to notify Montgomery officials of potholes, stubborn snow piles or sputtering stoplights.

Residents can snap a picture with their smart phone and upload complaints to a private Web site, SeeClickFix, which directors of the county's regional centers say they often browse to spot problems.

Residents will be able to call the county's central call center, which officially launches next month and will be known as MC 311. The center will direct callers to the correct county government department to address their concerns.

The multimedia platforms are peeling back the layers of bureaucracy and promoting more straightforward dialogue between residents and officials, said Natalie Cantor, director of the Mid-County Regional Services Center.

"Anybody anywhere can look at SeeClickFix, and people's comments become available to the entire world," she said. "It keeps everybody on their toes and in contact with each other."

SeeClickFix, which is based in New Haven, Conn., was started after one of its founders, Ben Berkowitz, fruitlessly tried to report graffiti problems on his street to the city. He and a group of friends decided to try to empower citizens through the site by giving them an independent place to post complaints.

Wheaton resident Jeff Gates said he signed up his neighborhood on the Web site.

"I thought this might be a good way to alert the county," he said.

Several users have posted notifications for the Wheaton area on SeeClickFix, such as one from a Glenmont resident who said the county warned him that he had 24 hours to remove snow from his sidewalk that he claimed the county had dumped there in the first place. Several people commented that they faced the same problem.

Cantor said she surfs the Web site and will try to let the right county department know of potential problems.

Meanwhile, MC 311 will be an enormous benefit to residents and officials, she said.

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