Several years ago, Oakland resident Asiya Wadud started noticing fruit going to waste in the backyards of neighbors. She made a list of the addresses where trees needed harvesting and later expanded to a hand-drawn map and a blog called Forage Oakland. Her goal was to create a community of neighbors who got to know each other over a bartered basket of Santa Rosa plums or Fuju persimmons.
"It just began to grow organically from that," Wadud said. Then she hit a wall. She wanted to expand the project but didn't have enough people to do all the organizing and harvesting.
A friend connected her to Youth Radio's Mobile Action Lab, whose teenage interns helped develop ForageCity.com with assistance from UC Berkeley students and a private consultant. The online and mobile app lets users find and share food automatically. It's still in the early "beta" stage of development. And commercial apps produced by Silicon Valley companies like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram continue to dominate the tech scene for many users. But armed with low-cost phones and an Internet connection, people are using civic-minded apps like ForageCity to tackle everything from public safety to potholes.
The question is whether the technology will have the long-term effect that some foresee, or whether the "commons 2.0" and "participatory urbanism" will become
Instead of isolating us, people are using technology to build what "a new commons," said Code for America founder Jen Pahlka, an Oakland resident. The San Francisco-based nonprofit deploys programmers, web designers, and project managers to find tech fixes for civic problems in cash-strapped cities.
Pahlka describes the nonprofit as "Peace Corps for geeks."
Residents in New Orleans were struggling with blighted properties and had no idea that the city had been trying to create a database to keep neighbors informed.
A Code for Oakland fellow helped build an app that shows the blight status of a building, and a map, based on the address entered. "In the absence of information citizens will assume their city is doing nothing," Pahlka said during a July 21 hackathon that brought together programmers, designers and community activists to create civic apps.
In Boston, the "Adopt-a-Hydrant" map-based web app allows individuals, small businesses, and community organizations to take responsibility for shoveling out specific hydrants during snowstorms. Other cities want to adapt the idea for Adopt-a-Storm Drain, Adopt-a-Siren and Adopt-a-Tree.
A private company created the subscription-based neighborhood network NextDoor, which helped residents in Oakland's Grass Valley district to prevent a break-in by putting out a warning on the site. Dozens of communities around the nation are using similar apps to connect neighbors online, share recommendations, barter and plan block parties. One Boston homeowner rid himself of a possum sleeping or possibly deceased in the bottom of his garbage can by describing his dilemma on Boston's Citizens Connect social network site. The man's neighbor walked over and turned the can on the side. The possum waddled away.
The low cost, inclusive nature of today's technology has "changed the landscape," said Coye Cheshire, an associate professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information, where he studies social interactions online and off.
The most successful apps allow users to see the impact they are having in their community, Cheshire said. The developers, he added, try to understand users' motivations in both the short term -- why contribute -- and the long-term -- what do we gain as a community from our contributions and how does it align with our values and ideology?
The apps have also gotten traction because they fill the gaps left by government services and budget cuts. Those cash-strapped cities see the potential for cost savings. Palo Alto, Oakland, San Francisco and a dozen others have begun releasing government data to encourage the development of civic apps and the concept of the "connected community" -- as Palo Alto City Manager James Keene phrased it when the city announced its open data initiative on July 31. Oakland launched a volunteer Code for America effort called Open Oakland Brigade in¿ June and has released an open-source data portal software, called CKAN, which makes it easy to publish, share and find data.
The potential for civic apps is enormous, said Alex Howard, who writes for O'Reilly Media about how technology is being used to help citizens, cities, and governments solve large-scale problems.
But many network effects will only take place with broad, mainstream adoption and a shared standard for open data.
"The Internet is a mirror," he said, "you see the best of us there and you see the worst."