Citizens plotting problems


The City Scan project uses hand-held computers, digital cameras and GPS to allow citizens to pinpoint instances of problems such as graffiti, holes in road, etc. This data is then used to generate reports and maps that officials can use to decide how best to tackle problems. It's currently on trial in Connecticut, USA, and sounds good, although the front page declaring it aims to "encourage citizens to behave as customers" seems odd to me -- is being a citizen not good enough? I also hope it's not too tied in to Microsoft's proprietary technology.

It reminds me of a scheme in the UK which is being expanded after successful trials (sorry I can't find a link to this anywhere, despite having read/seen it at least twice). Villagers are given hand-held speed cameras to get information on vehicles speeding through their villages. This information is passed on to the police who issue a warning to the drivers. Is it a good thing to be passing these tasks on to citizens? It seems to be working but something about it, which I can't quite put my finger on, feels wrong.

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I think the key to your unease is in your question - 'Is it a good thing to be passing these tasks on to citizens'. It all depends on how the use of any new technology is defined, implicitly or explicitly.

There's no problem if it's made clear that this is just a way to speed up and make more complete and accurate the transfer of information that would otherwise have been done by phone/pen/paper, without otherwise altering the responsibilities of the relevant public service. I well remember years ago watching a lorry speeding the wrong way up the one-way street I lived in, and taking its number round to the police only to be told it would, in effect, be a disproportionate use of their and my time to take it any further. If new technologies allow, e.g., administrative reminders short of taking people to court for every potential offence, that may be an advantage. Similarly, if they take the drudgery out of getting exact locations and descriptions of damage to roads and street furniture, that can only be an advantage.

It would be a problem if the greater opportunity for ordinary people to take effective initiatives is allowed to slide into an informal, unexamined and unspecified shift of responsibility and obligation - if, in these examples, the police decided to give up patrolling or speed cameras, or if the council decided not to send out any street inspectors, merely because they were taking it for granted that the information they were getting this way were all the information necessary to do the job properly.

It's an interesting development and it's taken me a few days to get my head round why it bothered me, too.

In a word, it's impartiality.

If you're caught by a policeman with a speed camera, it's pretty unlikely that you'll know them. That anonynimity, together with the combination of their training and good moral character ensures that everyone is treated the same.

Now, if it's a neighbour whose got the gun and they have got a grudge against you, they might take every opportunity to try to catch you out. That won't feel very nice.

Now let's suppose it's your turn with the gun. Here comes a motorist driving recklessly fast! We'll 'ave him! Oh, dear, now he's closer you can see it's your plumber mate who's rushed over to sort out your burst pipe. How could you shop him? After all, he's doing you a favour - is this how you're going to repay him?

What chance, then, is there of impartiality when we're likely to know some of the potential 'victims'?

DATE: 12/15/2003 04:59:37 AM

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