When you’re out in Seattle and you see a problem — maybe some unsightly graffiti, a trash can overflowing with litter or a nasty pothole — what do you do?
Most of us probably just shrug and move on with our day. But thousands of Seattleites take action and alert local government using the city’s Find It, Fix It smartphone app.
I was curious how folks were using the app, so I asked the city for its data. I received more than 230,000 requests for service submitted from Jan. 1, 2020, to Nov. 15, 2021. Most of these — 77% — were submitted through Find It, Fix It, while an additional 16% came via other apps (Citizen’s web and PremierOne Citizen Service Request). The rest were submitted by telephone and email — there were even a handful of letters included.
By the end of 2022, the city of Seattle will have spent $333,000 on the Find It, Fix It app and other related technologies.
Once a request for service is submitted, it is funneled to the appropriate city department.
While there were roughly 230,000 submissions in a nearly two-year period, the data only has around 48,000 distinct names (plus around 22,000 anonymous submissions), meaning a lot of individuals filed multiple requests for service.
The numbers show that most of Seattle’s roughly 750,000 people don’t use Find It, Fix It and other associated methods for filing complaints. But those who do tend to use it frequently.
“It’s a great app,” said Michael Dockery, who is the most prolific user of the app so far this decade. He’s recorded more than 2,300 requests for service since 2020.
Nearly all his complaints are about graffiti — “I hate it,” he said. “It’s making the city look horrible.”
Dockery lives in North Queen Anne, near some areas he says are graffiti hot spots, such as the Ballard Bridge and West Dravus and West Nickerson streets. But he’s reported graffiti in other neighborhoods, too. He feels the problem has gotten a lot worse in the past couple of years.
Dockery says response time varies tremendously depending on which city agency is handling the request. While all graffiti complaints are initially channeled to Seattle Public Utilities, requests can then be rerouted to other departments, depending on the location of the graffiti.
James Roberson, who is Find It, Fix It’s No. 2 superuser, has had a similar experience.
“The city isn’t consistent with its response rate,” he said.
Roberson has used the app more than 1,500 times since January 2020. He, too, mostly reports graffiti. Roberson lives in Rainier Beach and is a team supervisor for the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, a community advocacy group. Most of the graffiti he reports is in his South Seattle neighborhood.
“For me, it’s about making sure my community is beautified,” Roberson said. “The whole city was inundated with graffiti the last couple of years because young people had a lot more time on their hands … but even with COVID, if you’ve got graffiti, why wouldn’t you clean it up?”
When users submit a request for service with Find It, Fix It, they have to choose one of 15 categories to describe the issue. Graffiti is one of those choices, and it ranked fourth for the number of service requests — more than 31,000 in the nearly two-year period.
Users of the app can also include a photograph with their submission, and most do. There were more than 160,000 photos in the data I analyzed.
The top category, based on the number of requests for service, was illegal dumping. This was mainly used to report places strewn with garbage, like a bus stop overflowing with litter, or furniture or mattresses left on the sidewalk. There are also many reports of needles and other refuse in parks.
While there are a bunch of categories where few or none of the requests deal with issues around homelessness, such as potholes, signs and signals, streetlights, dead animals, and others, many requests for service do relate to homelessness.
There isn’t a category dedicated to reporting homeless encampments, but the city does list the Find It, Fix It app on its website as a way to report illegal camping.
In fact, a June 2018 article in The Atlantic magazine deemed Find It, Fix It “an app for ejecting the homeless.”
And the next month, false claims from as far away as Australia flooded the app after an anonymous poster campaign encouraging residents to report encampments went viral online. The city, as well as several community groups, said they were not behind the posters.
The data I analyzed does show that a lot of requests for service focus on homelessness.
The bulk of these seem to go into the app’s “illegal dumping” and “general inquiry” categories, which rank first and second by the number of requests for service, in that order. I searched the comments and description fields in the data for mentions of keywords like “homeless,” “tents,” “camping” and so on. I found around 15,000 examples submitted as general inquiries and 6,000 in the illegal dumping category. The “parking” category ranks third by number of requests for service, and I found more than 3,000 comments explicitly mentioning issues around homelessness.
That adds up to roughly 24,000 homelessness-related complaints from those three categories, which is slightly more than 10% of the total number of requests for service. That said, it’s likely that many more requests for service touch on issues around homelessness without explicitly mentioning it.
When a user submits a request for service through Find It, Fix It, the app automatically enters the location using the smartphone’s GPS. I used the address data to find the top 10 locations where requests for service were logged.
Four of these were city parks where encampments have consistently been the topic of controversies. More than 100 individuals registered complaints about Ballard Commons Park, and most of the requests for service involved tents, drug use and litter.
Other parks among the top 10 were Capitol Hill’s small Williams Place Park, Green Lake Park and Gilman Playground in Ballard.
The other top locations were on streets or at intersections, and here, too, issues around homelessness were the primary complaint. More than 100 individuals requested service at the corner of Mercer and First Avenue North, near the entrance to Metropolitan Market in Lower Queen Anne. These were mostly about tent encampments blocking the sidewalk, litter and needles.
I also looked at per capita number of request for service by ZIP code, to see which areas were using Find It, Fix It a lot, and which weren’t.
The top ZIP code by far was 98134, which is in the industrial and commercial area south of Pioneer Square and north of Georgetown. It’s not primarily a residential area, but the total number of complaints — nearly 5,000 — was comparable to other more populated parts of the city. It’s likely that many of these are registered by people who work or shop in this neighborhood.
About 1,700 requests for service in this ZIP code were in the general inquiry or illegal dumping categories, and these are largely related to homeless encampments. There were also more than 1,000 complaints about graffiti, around 700 about abandoned vehicles and other parking-related issues, and around 500 about potholes.
Ballard’s 98107 had the second-highest per capita requests for service.
Among ZIP codes located wholly within Seattle, 98136 had the fewest per capita request for service. This is primarily a residential area that stretches along the West Seattle waterfront, and includes neighborhoods such as Seaview, Gatewood, Fauntleroy and Arroyo Heights.
The ZIP code with the second-fewest per capita requests for service is more of a surprise: Belltown/Denny Triangle’s 98121, a highly urban area in downtown Seattle.
Because the various types of requests for service are handled differently, response times vary.
For example, the data includes more than 3,000 complaints about Seattle’s network of rentable e-bikes and e-scooters. Many of these complaints are about improperly parked bikes and scooters that may be obstructing sidewalks.
The Find It, Fix It app sends these complaints directly to the bike or scooter company. If the vehicle poses an obstruction hazard, then it must be moved within two hours (or within four hours if reported between midnight and 6 a.m.). If it’s not an obstruction hazard, then it must be moved within 24 hours. A recent analysis by the city found 92% were removed on time.
Another example: Complaints about potholes are routed to the Seattle Department of Transportation, and they automatically generate a work order. When crews are dispatched to the area, they repair all potholes they find in that area, regardless of if each was reported on the Find It, Fix It app.
An analysis by the city found that 84% of pothole service requests were completed within three business days.