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Can an App Actually Fix a Broken Street Light?

Stevanie Wazna-Blank | August 19, 2013 | Story Tech World

You might not realize it in this starless, artificially bright city, but San Francisco is besieged with broken streetlights at the moment. The Examiner recently wrote about the increasing outages of PG&E-owned streetlights, which are "burning out at rapid pace"—a 442.2% increase over a four-year span.

Into the darkness steps the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which owns over 25,000 light fixtures in the city. The PUC has developed, in collaboration with 311, a free app that is intended to streamline the maintenance of city-owned lights. The app is called "StreetLightsSF" and is designed for on-the-spot reporting of broken street lights.

Nice idea, but does the thing work? To find out, I spent several nights wandering aimlessly around the city in search of outed, dim, or flickering street lights. When I found one—and there were several in the Mission where I live—I used the GPS on my smartphone to pinpoint the location. Then I dropped a pin on the map, locating the exact longitude and latitude of the street light, the nature of the malfunction (light dim, electrical wires exposed, light burnt out, etc.), and the type of pole (concrete, metal, wooden). Then, if the streetlight was owned by the city (which the app told me), StreetLightsSF sent the information to the city's 311 service. And if the city wasn't the owner of the light, it reported the malfunction to its owner. According to a 311 representative, "we have a system in place that contacts PG&E"—that other (and less responsible) owner of 40% of our lights.

Expecting the repairs to take a while, as with most city bureaucracy, I frequently checked the status of my requests. To my surprise, within a couple of weeks the status of my requests was "closed." The streetlights that I allegedly helped to fix were at 21st and Fair Oaks, 24th and Florida, and 24th and York. After calling and relaying the request ID# I was given by the app, I learned that the first two were city owned and that the bulbs were replaced, while the last was owned by PG&E.

As they say, trust but verify, so I went to see if the lights were indeed back on. They were. So if you've noticed that the Mission seems especially brighter the last few nights, you're welcome. Will PG&E follow suit with its own lights? Hard to say. But it appears true, at least in this case, that the public sector is out-innovating the private.

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