Pittsburgh beats Menino to iPhone idea

John Ruch

Web Exclusive

The city of Pittsburgh has beaten Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to his own plan for creating a cell phone program that lets residents send in photos of city problems.

Worse yet, Pittsburgh’s “iBurgh” program is being praised for connecting into that city’s 311 complaint system—the very system proposed for Boston use by mayoral candidate Michael Flaherty, whose ad campaign featuring Apple’s iPhone cell phone apparently spurred Menino’s idea.

Earlier this year, Flaherty released ads likening Menino to an outdated, “Miami Vice”-era cell phone and himself to a cutting-edge iPhone. A short time later, Menino announced the forthcoming program, or “app,” that will allow iPhone users to e-mail photos of potholes and other problems. Menino also announced to the Boston Globe that he intends to purchase an iPhone. (For the record, Flaherty doesn’t use an iPhone, either—he’s a BlackBerry guy.)

In the Boston area, Menino’s iPhone app idea was widely criticized as a campaign stunt by a mayor well-known for opposing even basic technology such as voicemail in favor of in-person contact. The Boston app reportedly had been in the works for some, but was not announced until after the Flaherty ads.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, writing last month in the Somerville News, called Menino’s iPhone app idea “cute.” But, he suggested, it is pointless without 311 and CitiStat, two tracking and performance management systems used by many cities, including Somerville, but that Menino has repeatedly rejected in favor of homegrown versions. Curtatone said Boston suffers from “Not Invented Here syndrome.”

Spokesperson Natasha Perez said Flaherty agrees with the Somerville mayor. “All you’re doing is creating another mechanism for [information] to go into a black hole,” she said of Menino’s iPhone app, calling it a “smokescreen” for the city’s lack of technological innovation.

But in Pittsburgh, a city that has recovered from the death of the steel mills to become a high-tech center, the minutiae of Boston’s campaign ads are unknown, and the iPhone app idea was taken as a technological challenge to keep up with the Joneses (or the Meninos).

Pittsburgh Councilman William Peduto announced that the city would beat Boston to creating the iPhone app as part of a new, transparent “e-democracy” for the city. And Pittsburgh indeed “won,” as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last week.

A Pittsburgh-area company produced iBurgh, which connects to 311 and includes Global Positioning System technology to pinpoint the location of the complaint. The Post-Gazette reported that iBurgh may be updated to including “streaming and searchable video of government meetings, and automatic updates on city initiatives close to where phone users live.”

While iBurgh is currently available only on the extremely expensive iPhone, it will soon be offered on several other types of cell phones.

Meanwhile, Boston’s version is said to be on its way soon, and reportedly may have more initial features than iBurgh. The Post-Gazette reported that Boston’s app is being made by a New Hampshire company, though Mayor’s Office spokesperson Nick Martin said he believes that is under contract with MIT.

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