Snapcrap — Why I built an app to report poop on the streets of San Francisco
This is the story of how I moved to San Francisco after college and discovered that the city I had once fantasized about living in wasn’t the urban utopia I had imagined
Arriving in San Francisco
I moved to San Francisco in May of 2017. I was fresh out of college and had spent the previous 6 months desperately searching for a job in the Bay Area so that I could finally fulfill my dream of moving to California, the greatest state in the country. I can’t believe I actually thought that at the time.
It took me about 1 day to realize that this place was in major trouble. Take a quick walk through most neighborhoods and you’ll notice the human and animal waste, needles, trash, and other refuse that litters the streets and sidewalks. Don’t believe me? Just check out these photos.
Since I was living in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city (6th and Howard in SOMA), I immediately became accustomed to seeing these things on my commute to and from work each day.
My friends and housemates were constantly talking about the filth and brainstorming ways that it could be fixed. We sort of became obsessed with the problem. One night we were all drinking beers and discussing app ideas when someone came up with the idea for a camera app that would allow citizens to report what they saw to the city.
San Francisco already has an app for this called SF311, which offers citizens the ability to report issues like abandoned vehicles, graffiti, potholes, dirty streets, etc to the city’s Public Works office. The problem with the 311 app though is that it just takes way too much work to actually file a ticket — sometimes a minute or more. Even the most concerned citizen is probably not going to invest this much time in reporting a pile of crap on the sidewalk.
After realizing the workflow could be reduced to just two clicks, the idea for Snapcrap was born. Unfortunately we were all too busy with our day jobs and other side projects to actually build the app.
Fast forward almost a year and a half…
I continued to see human waste on the streets every single day and it seemed that the problem was only getting worse. While most of the city’s residents have just become numb to this routine, the germaphobe in me couldn’t let it go. I desperately needed Snapcrap and I suspected other people did as well — it was time to give the city the app it deserved.
Snapcrap is a mobile app that allows residents of San Francisco to request street and sidewalk cleaning from the city’s Public Works department by submitting a photo of something gross (usually crap) and sharing its location. Users can then track their tickets through the app to see if they have been resolved.
The first version of the app was released in October and it quickly took off. I knew that SF311 had 15K followers on Twitter, so I decided I would just make a Snapcrap Twitter account and go follow as many people as I could. The response was incredible. Within 24 hours the local media had heard about the app and requested an interview with me. That interview aired on NBC Bay Area evening news and the rest is history. Other media outlets saw the story and Snapcrap ended up being written about around the globe. Some of the most notable publications that covered the story were LA Times, NY Times, Vice, Fox News, and NY Post. Joe Rogan even mentioned it on one of his podcast episodes (quite possibly the greatest day of my life). In the last 3 months the app has been downloaded 10,000 times and continues to get a couple hundred downloads a week.
You can download it here:
Why it worked
To be completely honest, I never thought the app would go viral the way it did. I remember thinking that if a few hundred people downloaded it I would be shocked. Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on what happened, I think there’s a few key factors that led to its success.
- Timing. Despite being the tech capital of the world, and home to some of the richest people ever, the city by the bay is also at the center of the nation’s homelessness crisis and has some of the worst street conditions you can find in a developed nation. The media was already obsessed with this dichotomy, so the fact that someone felt the city needed an app for reporting poop was just the icing on the cake.
- Clever marketing. As much as I dislike social media, there’s no denying the power it can provide in getting your product out there. Without spending a dollar, I was able to connect directly with the people who would be the users of my app. I could see that they were already using my “competitor” so I literally just had to create a Twitter account and go follow them there.
- Controversy. People are interested in things that are controversial and can make for a good conversation. This is why the most popular people on Twitter are the ones who have the strongest opinions and say the most ridiculous shit. If you were living in the Bay Area and heard about my app, there was no way you weren’t going to mention it to your friends.
- Simplicity. I would say everyone already knows this, but clearly it isn’t true. The SF311 app makes you add a comment when you submit a ticket for feces on the street… I’m literally sending you a picture of poop on the street, all you need is the photo and a location, not my commentary on the situation.
Here’s what v1 of the app looked like. You literally just pressed the camera button and hit send. Done in less than 5 seconds.
Pissing off Snapchat
Shortly after the app started receiving a lot of press, I received an email from an outside council lawyer that represents Snap Inc., the maker of Snapchat. Apparently they believed that my app too closely resembled their’s and they wanted me to make some changes. After a lot of back and forth I agreed to change the color and the logo, but not the name. Here’s what the app looks like now:
Despite making these changes and completely eliminating the possibility of anyone confusing the two apps, they are still demanding that I change name. Very lame.