Cityflag: An app that makes city involvement cool

Fixing infrastructure isn't a top priority for most millenials, but a new app is trying to change that dynamic.

How a pothole spawned an app

From the depths of a pothole, an idea came to light



When Alberto Altamirano drove over a pothole in McAllen, Texas and heard the familiar thumping that accompanies a flat tire; he reacted the way most of us would – with anger.

After fixing the tire, the anger transformed into frustration. It had him wondering why that gaping hole was there to begin with.

Altamirano tried calling McAllen's 311 service to have the pothole remedied. But he said nothing came of his call.

Fast forward to 2014. That's when Altamirano -- a University of Texas at Austin grad -- and his friend Alberto Gomez, a professor from Tampico, Mexico, conceived the idea for a mobile application.

Ivan Benavides, another UT grad who later joined the two to found the app, said, "The idea came out of a frustration at a lack of infrastructure for citizens to get involved with their local government."

So the three of them, along with a few others in their office, created that infrastructure in the form of the app that they later called Cityflag

So you've downloaded the app. Now what?

How the app works

When Cityflag goes online, any user within a city that offers the app can download it from the Apple app store or Google Play. After opening Cityflag, an on-boarding video will then greet the user. Afterward, a user interface will appear with what Benavides refers to as a "Google Maps ordeal." The user sees a map of a city with a rainbow of flags littered across the geographic landscape.

As the user goes about their daily life, he or she may stumble across graffiti, a pothole or a problematic stop light in their neighborhood. The user then opens Cityflag and enters their location, which drops a pin on the geographic landscape. Now, the user snaps a photo of whatever the problem is, types in a description and hits submit.

"Boom – you have successfully reported an issue," Benavides said. At that dropped pin, a red flag appears.

The reported issue is sent to the appropriate department at the city's existing 311 service, transforming the red flag into a yellow flag. This means the city is working on the issue.

Once the department fixes the problem, the flag turns green.

An idea turns into green

Money, that is

Before the development and design, the group took the idea to two different competitions, where they earned more than $70,000.

Google, a partner in one of the competitions, put the group through a boot camp that offered them advice on how to create and operate the app, including marketing tips. As winners of the separate competition, they were also awarded space at a startup incubator in Mexico City to work on the app.

That's where Vera and several other developers currently work. For several months they have been ironing out the kinks of the app.

Once funds from their competitions kick in, they plan to finish the app.

When that happens, the founders plan to launch the app in Austin, San Antonio and Mexico City before next year.

In all three cities, members have already spoken with city leaders who are on board with the idea. Once the app finishes, an official deal with each city will be reached. The group is still working on their pitch, but they are considering renting out the service to cities. 

A collaboration, not a competition

Forming relationships with preexisting 311 services

Some cities have already made attempts at creating an app similar to Cityflag's. For example, Austin's 311 service already has an app called "Austin 3-1-1" that offers some of the things Cityflag offers.

But Benavides said it's "old school," outdated.

Cityflag's developers said the Austin 3-1-1 app is not user friendly or intuitive in the way they plan for their app to be.

But the founders of Cityflag don't want to compete with preexisting 311 services such as the Austin 3-1-1 app. Rather, they want to collaborate with them, Benavides said.

Austin 3-1-1 went live July of 2014. Since then, 10,296 Austinites have downloaded the app. According to Austin's 311 service, they usually receive about 200,000 service requests annually. Since July of 2014, about 6.5 percent of that number came from requests made through the Austin 3-1-1 app.

When Cityflag launches in Austin and San Antonio, Benavides said they hope to see 5,000 people using the app within the first couple of months. Due to the population size of Mexico City, their expectation for users there is higher.

Making city involvement cool

And giving people an incentive

Patty Mendoza, public information officer with Austin's 311 service, said they have received both positive and negative comments about the Austin 3-1-1 app.

Mendoza said the service does not have information on the demographics of their users. But she said that as they attempt to promote the app through community outreach events, they try to "promote to all citizens equally."

And that plays into what the founders of Cityflag are trying to sell to Austin leaders. Benavides said Austin's app markets to the wrong people. According to him, the people they should market toward are right under their noses.

"We're millenials. Everyone wants to do it on their phones right there at the touch of a button," Benavides said. "We do focus on millenials, but we encourage anyone from any age group to use the app. But we do believe that millenials will be the ones who engage and adopt the app easier and faster."

The first step in appealing to millenials is creating a highly intuitive user interface, similar to the one used by Uber.

Another part of the equation involves incentivizing users. Through Cityflag, the more issues a person reports and the more the city resolves those issues, that user will start to accumulate points. Accumulated points then translate into discounts at local businesses that partner with Cityflag.

"Currently if you get on 311, it's because you're a good Samaritan. But how many good Samaritans are there? There's only so many," Benavides said. "That's what we're trying to do – we're trying to change the dynamic."

In an attempt to transform more citizens into good Samaritans, the founders understand that there is a risk that people will attempt to submit trumped-up issues in order to reap the benefits.

That's why the developers will allow users to up-vote and down-vote issues.

In a completely separate part of the app, users can also vote for an issue by signing a petition. As a user, the app allows advocates for an issue to create a petition and spread it to fellow Cityflag users and to non-Cityflag users through email and social media. Non-Cityflag users who sign the petition do not have to download the app.

It's just another aspect of the app the founders hope will make involvement with local government cool and accessible for the public.

Once the app launches, the founders will wait for a vote of approval from Austinites, San Antonians and residents of Mexico City.



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