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Cleaning up the neighborhood: A San Francisco case study

What if you could make litter, graffiti, and other problems in your neighborhood go away just by using your phone?

By GovFresh · August 25, 2011

What if you could make litter, graffiti, and other problems in your neighborhood go away just by using your phone?

As crazy as it sounds, it’s actually possible. One of the most popular uses of Blockboard is our “Cityfix” category, which lets neighbors use their iPhone to report issues that require the city’s attention. This includes everything from graffiti and litter to potholes and sewer problems. Blockboard users can report these issues in under a minute: you just snap a photo, indicate your location on a map and choose a category.

Blockboard packages up that information and automatically sends it to San Francisco’s 311 Customer Service Center (using their implementation of the Open311 standard). This puts the issue into the city’s tracking system, and that means a human being is likely to do something about it.

To get a clearer sense of how well the city’s process is actually working, we did an analysis of issues reported during our recent beta test in the Mission District.

Our findings paint an encouraging picture. Even in this era of limited budgets and manpower, the city manages to address most citizen-reported issues in a timely manner. There is just one notable hole, and the story behind it is an interesting one. But overall we think the city deserves credit for delivering on its commitments.

Resolution rates

Out of a sample of 100 city issues reported in the Mission over a two-month period using the Blockboard app, we found that 65 were resolved by the city, within an average of 3.6 days. As of this writing, 35 issues remained unresolved. On the surface a 65% resolution rate doesn’t sound great, but let’s dig a little deeper.

The following chart breaks down reported issues by category. While these categories do not precisely match those used by the city, we use them in Blockboard because we believe they are easier for citizens to understand and navigate.

As you can see, issues related to litter and trash are by far the most common, and the city resolves the vast majority of them (over 96%).

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies graffiti and vandalism. While these constitute the second most common set of issues reported by Blockboard users, they have a very poor resolution rate — just 12%. (Street issues — such as potholes — turn in a similarly poor showing, but there are far fewer of them in comparison.)

Time to resolution

The picture is also interesting when sliced by time. Here is the average time-to-resolution for each category:

Most categories of issues are resolved within 1-3 days — a fairly impressive track record in our opinion. But here again we find that graffiti and vandalism really stands out. With an average time-to-resolution of over 23 days, even the few issues that are lucky enough to be resolved take a while to get there.

So why is graffiti so problematic for the city?

A little research reveals that while the city can take immediate action by painting over graffiti on public or city property (for example, parking meters or city buildings) things get complicated when it comes to graffiti on private property. In such cases, the city’s graffiti abatement law (Article 23 of the San Francisco Public Works Code) determines what happens next.

Enacted in 2004 as part of a renewed campaign to discourage graffiti across the city, the law says that it is the owner’s responsibility to clean up graffiti on their property. Once the city has been notified, it sends out an inspector to confirm the report. The city then notifies the owner, who then has 30 days to “abate” the graffiti (i.e. paint over it). If the owner does not comply, additional warnings and then fines may apply. If the owner prefers, they can grant the city permission to take care of the problem on their behalf, but without this permission the city can’t take action until much later on.

This entire process can take a great deal of time and appears to be the cause of the low (and slow) resolution rates we’ve observed. We plan to track these issues over a longer time period in order to better understand the true rate of resolution.

If we set aside graffiti-related issues, the city’s resolution rate is 83%. Our analysis shows that the city is generally responsive to citizen complaints, within the scope of its legal abilities.


Finally, we’ll leave you with one more juicy piece of data. Below is a heatmap (created with OpenHeatMap) showing geographic clustering of issues reported in the Mission. You’ll notice some “hotspots” along Valencia between roughly 18th and 21st, as well as 22nd and Shotwell, and the area around 16th and Mission. It would be interesting to correlate this with other sources such as crime or demographics. If you’re reading this and have ideas, please free free to reach out!