With the brunt of Sandy now past, residents up and down the eastern seaboard are emerging from their homes to find communities in shambles, with power lines downed and tankers washed onshore. The sheer scale of the damage means a massive information problem for municipalities as they work to translate the deluge of reports from concerned citizens into actionable data for utilities and cleanup teams. It also means a boon for hyperlocal media, as residents turn to their neighborhood site for up-to-the-minute updates and news from their neighbors.
Enter SeeClickFix. The company manages an interactive platform through which residents can post complaints, and governments can respond without taxing overworked telephone channels. In the lead up to the storm, the New Haven-based company hooked up with the Huffington Post and NBC Washington to embed its interactive widget, which is already used by the Journal Register Company as well as smaller hyperlocal sites, into the sites’ storm tracking coverage.
Street Fight caught up with Ben Berkowitz, the co-founder and CEO of SeeClickFix, to find out what the company saw during the storm and why the crowd is critical during major events.
By the end of last week, it was increasingly clear that Sandy was no Irene. Talk a bit about what you did during the lead-up to the storm to prepare?
A few things have changed in our operation since [Hurricane Irene last summer] in that we’ve doubled our staff. But generally this time around, our government clients were well-prepared for their requests by Thursday or Friday. And media partners were really diligent as well. On Sunday, we had a Google Hangout with a handful of local journalists from the New Haven Independent, News Junkie, and got everyone framed up. By Monday, they were off to the races, so we were able to focus on our mid-size and regional papers like the JRC properties that line the east coast as well as our new partners like the Huffington Post and NBC Washington.
Did you generate any revenue from the new guys?
They were simply partnerships, so no revenue there. We offered to take the advertising off to get them up quickly, and we didn’t feel comfortable “monetizing the storm,” so to speak, in the same way that The New York Times and the Washington Post took down their paywalls. It’s quite amazing to see how quickly things can get done when people have the will and see the value.
Hurricanes (and elections) tend to drive big traffic for hyperlocal sites. Talk a little about what you saw on across SeeClickFix over the past 48 hours.
For starters, people tend to lay off the basic street and structure reporting during serious events like a Hurricane or Tornado. What they’re reporting becomes more severe like downed power lines down or other issues . The real benefit [during storms] is that if you look at the Twitter feeds from major municipalities last evening, the majority of central requests were “please do not call 911 if its not an immediate emergency.” [SeeClickFix] really does add a blow off valve for citizens to still be able to communicate between themselves and with their governments in a fashion that gives a little bit of a leeway in terms of a response. I think that’s reassuring to people because one of thing about being trapped in the storm is that you feel a little isolated. Seeing through the eyes of your neighbors alleviates that bit.
Even without much localization, I found myself returning to Twitter again and again last night. How did you see SeeClickFix blending into the mix of crowd-sourced communication tools during the storm?
It was really interesting to watch Twitter and See Click Fix, and even Facebook, which felt a bit more centered around imagery, throughout the storm. On Twitter or SeeClickFix, you could watch as power outages were sweeping up the East Coast, and then quickly see the power going out one-by-one in Lower Manhattan.
Although our user base is growing as we continue to add partners, we’re certainly not twitter. However, the scale of Twitter matched with the granularity of SeeClickFix — that would make an amazing dataset. We’re heading in that direction, but it cannot happen fast enough. A similar thing is happening with Facebook. Much of that data could be valuable to cities and neighbrors — more than “look at this crazy picture” – if we could grab all of it, but that’s tough given that Facebook doesn’t have an open API. Twitter could get closer, but its still not quite what we need. It was interesting to see Google do the storm map, but they weren’t pulling in crowd data. We did contact them to try and make what was happening on our platform happen on a Google scale, but who knows — maybe next time.
The Huffington Post is markedly less local than the media companies with which SeeClickFix typically partners. Did engagement differ with the widget from what you typically see with the more hyperlocally-oriented sites?
I haven’t done a dive into the last 24 hours, but this is the first we’ve worked with a publication that covers such a huge geography to report problems. At a glance, it looks like we had about 2000 visits via the Huffington Post so far [which is somewhat minimal. My gut is that a lot more content viewing happened on [The Huffington Post] than content creation.
Now that the storm has passed, what can we expect from the crowd over the days and years ahead?
[Tools that leverage the crowd] are increasingly become the default for normal users, and in so much, moving well beyond the early adopter. These things are becoming a normal way for citizens to communicate with governments, presenting a huge opportunity for journalists as a way to get a full picture of what’s going on on the ground, based on citizen communication. Over the next few days, we will likely see the reports will start to pick up as folks go outside and look around at the damage. That’s usually what happens.