SeeClickFix tackles identity crisis in Cary, but fix comes with a fee

akenney@newsobserver.comSeptember 19, 2013 

— SeeClickFix has made changes to its website after a report about the town of Cary’s troubles with the service.

However, the municipal problem-spotting company will only make the full fix available to governments that pay a subscription fee.

SeeClickFix is a place where people can post about potholes, eyesores and other perceived problems in communities across the country. It acts like a communications platform for municipal conversations, and it has become a go-to site for people with complaints about their neighborhood.

What’s less obvious to users is that SeeClickFix is a for-profit service. While the site encourages droves of people to post about their issues for free, it makes its money by charging governments for complaint-management solutions, and even for the ability to officially respond to issues on SeeClickFix.

The result: In some cases, users don’t know whether their government participates on the website, and they’re unsure about just who is whom.

Cary, for example, does not pay for SeeClickFix service. So, unlike Raleigh, it doesn’t get the access to “acknowledge” and respond to users’ posts.

This power vacuum has had an odd effect: An impostor pretending to be the town has commandeered several posts on the forum, claiming that the government doesn’t monitor the service and closing the discussion.

The town does monitor and respond to SeeClickFix issues, but its posts are almost indistinguishable from the impostor’s. Both appear as “guest posts.”

Upon hearing of the identity crisis, the company implemented a change to the website: Starting this month, some users appear as “verified officials.”

“To add more clarity to the entire process for everyone, we now publicly display the “status” of every user next to every comment on the site. If an official city representative contributes, you’ll now see ‘Verified Official’ next to each comment they make,” wrote Ben Clark, a company representative.

However – and this isn’t made obvious on the website – the “verified official” status is available only to members of governments who pay SeeClickFix. By contrast, Twitter and LinkedIn allow businesses and individuals a “verified” status for free.

“You’ve created this thing that a responsive government feels like it’s got to monitor, and now you’re going to charge them for the privilege of showing them as ‘official,’” said Susan Moran, public information officer for Cary, summarizing the argument against such an approach.

A government account would have cost a few hundred dollars for Cary. Still, Moran said, she’s not rankled – she sees SeeClickFix as a business that doesn’t owe the town anything.

Clark argues that SeeClickFix tries to make it clear just who is a government official on the site. He noted that impostors appear very rarely, and that users are often very aware of who uses the service and who represents the city.

The company also has improved its moderating system so that it’s easier to ban people who act in bad faith, Clark said.

Finally, the town of Cary does have the ability to post as a “registered user” instead of a guest. That doesn’t come with a verified status, but it provides some “social proof” of identity, he wrote.

Cary has not registered such an account – and its reasoning might point to the bigger question spawned by services like SeeClickFix. The town doesn’t actually want an official presence because staff don’t want to encourage people to post issues on the site.

“We are not staffed to monitor all of the myriad of sites that are out there,” and SeeClickFix doesn’t interface with Cary’s computer systems, Moran said.

More communications require more resources, she said, and “the problem becomes magnified exponentially with the ability of others to create, without our involvement, these ‘tools.’”

Cary Councilwoman Lori Bush has made the opposite argument, calling for the town to meet complaints where they are.

Clark, meanwhile, said his company will continue to research and respond to problems of identity.

“We haven’t yet found a silver bullet approach to how we might automate verification,” he wrote.

The recent update, he said, was only one step. And these questions are sure to arise again as more companies create more ways to communicate.

Kenney: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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