photo by r. jeanette martin
Just before Rob Ford announced his new graffiti-reporting mobile app, he made the quiet, offhand announcement that he wouldn't be attending Toronto's Pride festivities.
In retrospect, it was a genius manoeuvre - or perhaps an extremely cynical one.
With his "downloadable app," Ford was attempting to:
• Get the narrative back to cleaning up the streets, an easy way to drum up support among his base;
• Be even tougher on graffiti - again, a grand slam for those who voted for him;
• Break through to a new level of efficiency, letting citizens do the legwork on reporting graffiti.
And, amid all the outraged reaction to his Pride boycott, the downloadable app mostly accomplished this.
First, look at the optics: he's not going to Pride, he mentions, while he single-handedly cleans the streets of grime. Small-government guys have to be high-fiving each other over stuff like this.
And then there's the reaction of those living downtown, that street art is a valuable part of the city. That's exactly the debate Ford wants, pitting clean streets against what he can call vandalism.
"Residents will be able to use their smartphone to take a picture of graffiti vandalism and send it directly to the city department on a downloadable app," said the mayor. "This is remarkable, folks. This is as efficient as it gets."
But here's what's wrong with that.
First of all, the app is actually two separate apps, confusingly, and neither is for graffiti. Nor is either of them new. And neither is all that remarkable.
Let's start with the free app, SeeClickFix. This was originally marketed as an app to spot potholes when it launched in New Haven, Connecticut, in 2008.
It was brought to Toronto by former councillor and mayoral candidate Joe Pantalone in 2010. He marketed it as a neighbourhood improvement tool.
"Imagine a neighbourhood in need of a playground," he said. "SeeClickFix helps raise awareness on this need and helps bring together corporations, volunteers and city services to help build that playground."
(Most of the complaints on SeeClickFix's Toronto page are from 2010, and many posted by City Of Toronto engineers.)
So Ford simply refashioned this old technology to suit his current hobby horse: much ado about four-year-old technology.
The other app, the iPhone-only, $1.99 per app TDOT 311, is worse.
It uses Google to pinpoint the location of the problem, and the built-in phone camera to take the photo. Then, of course, it uses 311 to submit it.
So, essentially it collects a bunch of free (well, 311 is paid for in taxes), already convenient services, loosely organizes them and charges for it. Though 30 cents goes to the public library, there's no indication what the other $1.69 pays for.
All in all, it was a stunt by the mayor. And, unfortunately for the public, one he pulled off rather successfully.