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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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How Fire Hydrants Triggered A Revolution

When is a fire hydrant more than a mere hydrant? When it’s part of a nationwide viral experiment in local government that joins community volunteerism with telecommunications technology to maintain critical infrastructure, stretch limited resources and maybe save some lives.

“Adopt-a-Hydrant” is an “app” that runs in your web browser or smartphone and it shows the location of every hydrant. It was written by one of the rockstar software coders at Code for America, a not-for-profit foundation that puts top software writers, designers and managers at the disposal of innovation-oriented local governments. It’s a kind of Peace Corps for Geeks, and their work is posted and available to others.

Originally written for Boston and its 13,000 hydrants, Adopt-a-Hydrant allows residents, businesses and community organizations to promise that they’ll shovel out fire hydrants if it snows. If you adopt a hydrant, you can name it, too. The Boston Fire Department isn’t walking away from any responsibilities or giving up control; it is still responsible for the hydrants in every way. They aren’t selling or leasing public assets. They are harnessing motivated individuals to increase the chances that hydrants will be accessible when they’re needed. BFD can concentrate more of its time, money and personnel on fighting thousands of fires. Digging out a hydrant in an emergency can waste five to seven minutes.

The app was built and launched in Boston in early 2012. It was quickly picked up by other local governments, including Anchorage, Providence, Oakland and Syracuse. Even cities that aren’t in the snow belt have deployed the app, including Raleigh and Buenes Aires (some local systems weren’t built to quickly dig out thousands of hydrants).

But maybe the most impressive part is that cities are building on the basic source code to meet other critical needs, so you can adopt a sidewalk in Chicago or a tsunami warning siren in Honolulu. The base code only uses the word “hydrant” once. It can be replaced with anything. Soon, we will see programs to adopt a park, a playground, a tree. Seattle started asking residents to adopt its 80,000 storm drains in 2011.

In the last year, dozens of municipalities have created “adopt-a-hydrant” programs without the app technology. They score some points, but this doesn’t improve how things work. The app is a toe in the water of something bigger, a way to make government open, transparent, two-way and able to draw on the talent and innovation of members of the community in order to improve that community. This is what millions of people now expect from anyone they do business with in their lives.

Technology is empowering people at the same time that government, like almost every industry, is being hollowed out. We have so much that needs to be fixed and governments at all levels, for whatever reason or motivation, have no more money.

Boston’s Citizens Connect site empowers residents to be “eyes and ears” for the city government. Reports about potholes, graffiti, damaged signs and more photographed, mapped and posted. Sometimes people ask for advice on how to deal with a situation and other citizens tell them what to do. It isn’t just calling and being placed in a phone cue, eventually being filtered to someone in town hall who may or may not respond. It’s government connecting one citizen to another, building communities.

British Columbia’s GovTogetherBC is even further along, opening “consultations and dialogues” with the public on jobs plans, the development of coastal ferries and more than 80 other subjects.

There have already been experiments with “crowdsourcing” software that allows citizens to write complex legislation and develop budgets together. We’re just starting. Toes in the water.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net