A great story on WESA-FM's tech segment entitled Building Better Cities One Application at a Time got me thinking--what apps would I build to make Pittsburgh a better city? GrapeCity's in the heart of Pittsburgh's Shadyside neighborhood, and the story focused on Code for Pittsburgh, the city's Code for America group that helps pull government into the digital age.

If you had access to government data, how would you use it to make your city better?

I immediately thought of SmellPgh, an app developed by Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE lab. I helped beta test the app and it's very cool: a simple interface that allows me to report industrial pollution. It grabs the timestamp, my GPS location, and allows me to describe the smell. In a town that's still getting over a heavily industrial past, it's a useful way for us to collect data and continue improving our air quality. SmellPgh's interface SmellPgh's interface I began thinking of all the other times I wished I'd had a one-button method to report issues around town. I've already been impressed by how Pittsburgh Public Schools uses texting these days--I get texts for school holidays, delays, even parent-teacher conferences. if it's not on my phone, I don't remember it!

Crowd-Sourcing Our Civic Solutions

Here's my two-cent brainstorm. Most of my ideas, like SmellPgh, come down to simple reporting apps. It's always a challenge to find where and how to report issues to your city council folks, so a quick-and-easy app that does the emailing for me is a dream.

  • Litter report: from animal waste to a trashed street, I longed for this when I lived in San Francisco.
  • See a pothole? Hit the button and record the location and size.
  • I really want a voter assistant in Pennsylvania. In San Francisco, we always received a huge booklet explaining the pros and cons of every proposition on the ballot, along with introductions for each of the candidates. We'd all meet, talk it over, then fill out a mock ballot and bring it in for reference. PA's not that complicated, but it'd be nice to be able to have an easy-access app for my polling place location, what I need to prove I'm me, and a quick way to record my selections before I head into the station. I could also report any intimidation, issues, or rule concerns from the polling station. Call it the Poll Pal!

    Of course, for all I know, these might all exist, but I haven't caught wind of them. What app would you invent to improve your town?