Residents to neighborhood nuisances: smile for the digital camera?
April 14, 2008

The City announced last week that it's launched an implementation of ComNET -- gov-speak for Computerized Neighborhood Environment Tracking -- this year, the first such program in N.C.

ComNET was developed by the Center of Municipal Government Performance in New York City; the program provides loaner handheld PDAs with integrated digital cameras to neighborhood groups. Once trained on the devices, residents can walk through their blocks, taking digital pics of potholes, abandoned vehicles and houses, and whathaveyou. Once uploaded to the ComNET system back at City Hall, "priority" items are tracked by City departments and "non-priority" ones by Durham One Call.
It's an intriguing idea. Certainly there's likely to be some (not entirely unfounded) grousing that City departments should be able to pick out potholes by, say, driving over them in their work vehicles every day. (Tip to Solid Waste: They hurt worse when you drive at high speeds.) On the flip side, residents themselves are the most likely to know the persistent, thorny issues they see every day when walking their dogs or driving to work.

There's no word on whether the City will place extra priority on items that come in from ComNET relative to other reports and plans. For instance, I could probably fill up the City's servers with photos of broken, twisted and just plain deadly sidewalks on some of the streets in my neighborhood; on the flip side, the City has a pedestrian plan that will, theoretically, provide replacement and new sidewalks on a priorities list that was established by the workgroup and outside consultants.
Interestingly, according to the folks who developed it in NYC, part of the standard methodology is to have residents conduct follow-up walkaround surveys with the ComNET devices -- to check and see just how much of the problematic potholes and forest-like front yards have been remedied by the City.

Assuming Durham follows-through on the follow-through visit, ComNET could help provide real data about a perception, real or unfounded, that haunts local government in many cities: just how responsive the city is to actually fixing problems once they're reported.

If you're part of a neighborhood association, be sure to sign up with the City for training and perform your first walkthrough. And be sure to ask how quickly you get to walk the streets with the handheld device a second time.