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?

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!

Blockboard puts the whole neighborhood in your hands

BlockboardBlockboard is the latest start-up building a location-based mobile application that aims to give you a hyperlocal view into everything happening in your neighborhood. The iPhone app is currently available in ‘alpha’ for San Francisco’s Mission District residents (request an invite) and will expand into other neighborhoods in the coming months.

The company is led by tech veterans Stephen Hood (, Dave Baggeroer (Stanford Institute of Design), Josh Whiting (Craigslist) and Ian Kallen (Technorati) and backed by well-known angel and venture capital investors, including Battery Ventures, Mitch Kapor, Founder Collective, Harrison Metal, Joshua Schachter, Josh Stylman and Tom McInerney.

Co-founder Stephen Hood shares insights into the new venture and its plans for the future:

Give us the elevator pitch

Blockboard is the app for your neighborhood. It’s a mobile bulletin board that uses your iPhone (and soon, your Android phone) to connect you with your neighbors. If it’s about your neighborhood, you can find it or post it on Blockboard.

For example, you can:

  • Ask a question of your neighbors (we’ll notify you when someone answers)
  • See and post interesting photos from around the neighborhood
  • Read the latest neighborhood news as reported both by the best local blogs and by your own neighbors
  • Report graffiti, litter, or other problems to the city (we’ll automatically submit it to San Francisco’s 311 system and follow-up on the status)
  • Use our neighborhood directory to get those impossible-to-find city phone numbers, find the nearest police station, or connect directly with your elected representatives.

We just launched a small pilot project a couple of weeks ago for the Mission District here in San Francisco, and will be adding more neighborhoods soon.

Why does this matter?

In this age of social networking, we now spend so much time talking to people who are far away that we’ve forgotten how to talk to the person next door. Many of us simply don’t know our neighbors any more. We are living together, and yet alone.

While we may not always want to be friends with our neighbors, we have a lot to gain in having a connection. We all face real issues everyday in the communities where we live. Some are big, like safety, government, and sustainability. Some are smaller, like figuring out what’s going on in my neighborhood tonight or trying to get a streetlight fixed. How are we going to solve these problems on our own?

At Blockboard we believe that technology – and smartphones in particular – can help reconnect neighbors and empower them to improve their neighborhoods, and that’s our goal in a nutshell.

What’s your strategy for expanding to different neighborhoods and cities?

We’ve purposely started with a single neighborhood (the Mission) so that we can build something that is very relevant and useful to the people who live there. Our next step will be to expand to a wider variety of neighborhoods in San Francisco. We expect that Blockboard will evolve a little differently for every neighborhood and city it services, and we’ve built our technology to allow for that. Once we’ve reached a certain level of usage in San Francisco we will begin to look at other cities… but first things first!

What are your plans for revenue?

Our only focus right now is making sure that Blockboard is useful to people and makes a positive impact in San Francisco. If we build the product we’re envisioning we’re confident that we can monetize it in a way that also benefits the communities it serves.

Twelve months from now, what does Blockboard look like? How are we using it?

In twelve months we expect that Blockboard will be active in every neighborhood of San Francisco and will be used in ways we probably can’t even imagine right now. It’s our hope that each neighborhood will make Blockboard “their own” and will use it to address their own unique needs and challenges.

Connect with Blockboard on Twitter.