The ‘Adopt-a-Hydrant’ web application encourages Boston citizens to take care of one of the city’s thousands of fire hydrants. Similar apps in other cities are mobilizing communities to pull together and back up the public services.

Boston uses crowdsourcing to keep its fire hydrants serviceable

Set up in September 2009, Code for America (CfA) is a non-governmental organization based in San Francisco which aims to unite the online community to work on issues affecting the cities where they live and, by extension, to work in collaboration with local government. The organization has instituted three main programs. The first, the ‘Fellowship’ program, puts software designers and developers in touch with local governments; the second, the ‘Accelerator’ program, recruits ‘civic startups’ and “turbo-charges them with a national platform to raise awareness, business training and advice, and a broad network of potential investors and civic leaders.” Thirdly, the ‘Brigade’ program mobilizes local communities to work together on local projects. On the initiative of a former ‘Fellow’ under the CfA umbrella, a web application called “Adopt-a-Hydrant” has now been developed. Its purpose is to encourage the citizens of Boston to take individual responsibility for one of the 13,000 fire hydrants there.

Snowed-in hydrants a real public safety issue

Bad weather is a common occurrence in Boston. The city suffers very harsh winters, with very low temperatures and frequent snow storms. Public utility installations are often damaged, and fire hydrants often get buried in deep snowdrifts so that fire crews arriving to deal with an emergency are often unable to use – or even find – them. Regular clearance and maintenance of hydrants calls for hard, time-consuming work that can be costly when city maintenance teams are given the job and the Boston city authorities might well prefer to allocate this budget to other projects. This is where the “Adopt-a-Hydrant” app comes in, offering citizens the chance to do their part by volunteering to take care of one of the city’s 13,000 fire hydrants. The application is integrated into a map of the city of Boston. Any citizen, small business or organization can sign up. All you have to do is register on the site and assign yourself a fire hydrant in your neighborhood that has not yet been claimed by someone else.

Mobilizing a civic community on an individual basis

This is the kind of project that is often launched under CfA’s third program, the ‘Brigade’ program. It helps to channel the energies of individual people and the community as a whole into local projects and issues in a simple and very often extremely efficient way. Many other towns and cities are also using the program to help the local authorities mobilize inhabitants to deal with similar weather-related situations or any problem linked to unpredictable natural phenomena. Chicago has launched ‘Adopt-a-Sidewalk’, which encourages people to clear their pavements after a snowfall. In Honolulu, ‘Adopt-a-Siren’is designed to ensure regular maintenance of tsunami warning sirens. All these kinds of projects are dubbed ‘Gov-to-Gov re-use’ projects as once they are launched in open-source they can then be re-used from one local authority to the next for similar initiatives. In a slightly different vein, Open311is an open communication standard, pioneered in New York City, that enables citizens to interact with government and public services to report and monitor local non-emergency issues.