This past summer, the City of Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department partnered with startup CityInsight to deploy an app that helps residents monitor and pay their water bills. Water shutoffs due to unpaid bills are a regular occurrence in Detroit. CityInsight founder, Abess Makki, attributes this in part to the fact that there was no uncomplicated way for customers to track their water usage and bill in real-time. The app allows customers to achieve water conservation and financial goals while also helping the city to reduce costs and increase revenues by collecting utility payments faster through the app interface.
CityInsight is unlike the apps that were generated by programmers in the contests described by Anthony Townsend in his chapter “Reinventing City Hall” (Smart Cities). Makki is not a programmer and was motivated to solve a specific customer-focused problem. This is the core reason for the app’s success. The app’s development was also not haphazard. CityInsight was developed with the support of DTX Launch Detroit, an accelerator program for Detroit technology startups. While app contests generally create prototypes that are often abandoned, tech incubators focus on creating a full-fledged service and a sustainable business model.
Cities that are looking to address public service delivery through technology and apps should consider how they incentivize innovation and development. Perhaps investing in tech incubator programs rather than app contests is a more sustainable model for creating valuable, customer-centric apps.
Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for A New Utopia. Anthony M. Townsend. (W.W. Norton & Co., 2013)