A new app launched at Syracuse’s Juneteenth festival has a goal of better connecting residents to their city and their government. ‘Hello Syracuse!’ is part of a growing trend in cities across the country of local governments increasingly utilizing technology to communicate directly with constituents.
If you download and open the ‘Hello Syracuse!’ app, you’ll see warm blues and yellows along with a list of activities to do in the area. There’s a “How it Works” page in the menu and it lays out the instructions. Hello Syracuse wants you to get out and explore the city, and you earn points for each activity you complete on its list. It also has push notifications so users can be informed about city events and public safety alerts. It’s designed and managed by the Trauma Response Team.
“We wanted to create a brand, a name for this that didn’t reference trauma,” said Peruta. “It didn’t use any dark colors, heavy fonts. So it was all very intentional to use bright colors.”
Adam Peruta is the owner of Zivics, the company who developed the app. Zivics partnered with the City of Syracuse through the Start Up In Residence. Peruta says the app is targeted toward disadvantaged communities in Syracuse. Push notifications do alert residents of violence in the community, but also encourage them to take part in city activities.
“People that live with trauma in their life don’t see things through the same lens that we see things through,” said Peruta. “So motivating people to go out and interact in their community or go to this event or activity, it’s really, really challenging.”
‘Hello Syracuse!’ is the first app of its kind in the area that aims to increase civic engagement in historically under-served communities. And while The idea of using some tech platform as a space to bring people together may be new in Syracuse, the concept of using tech to better communication between residents and local government has been around since the mid-90s.
Syracuse University iSchool Professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley says it’s transitioned from email lists to message boards on city websites and now to mobile apps. But Stromer-Galley says the question of if these e-government techniques work is still up in the air.
“It’s an interesting question. It’s hard to research,” said Stromer-Galley. “There’s some work that’s been done research wise in Michigan. They’re researching whether or not it seems to actually increase the public’s sense of trust or connection, or feeling of connection to the city. And evidence is really mixed.”
Despite this, Stromer-Galley says she can see how mobile apps could evolve into the next generation of technology that a city uses to communicate with its residents.
“There’s actually kind of an interesting challenge coming for municipalities to get public announcements out the public,” said Stromer-Galley. “It used to be radio, that would be the thing. And then radio and then television both as ways they could quickly disseminate news and information that would be important for the public to know. Now with people so fragmented in terms of how they’re getting information, it is actually getting harder I think in some ways from municipalities to make sure that the people who need to know, know.”
The combination of government and technology isn’t going anywhere. Stromer-Galley says federal and local dollars are going to fund digital-focused projects in municipalities of all sizes. But in a city like Syracuse where nearly half of the residents don’t have high speed internet at home, transitioning to a heavy use of technology for civic purposes risks leaving already disadvantaged communities behind.
Adam Peruta says that issue was on their mind when developing ‘Hello Syracuse!’, so they made alerts accessible through texts.
“Somebody doesn’t have a smart phone, what if somebody doesn’t have internet,” said Peruta. “Which is very viable. So we needed to come up with a way to get notifications to people without the use of a smartphone or internet. So you can also subscribe to the notifications just through SMS.”
The app has been around just a few months, we’re not yet able to tell if its reaching the communities but they have plans for growth. The Trauma Response Team hopes to eventually be able to send out notifications about free counseling and other services in the wake of violent events, hoping the app becomes a reliable way to better connect Syracuse with its residents.