Sunday, December 01, 2019
Making it easy to snitch on neighbors
Technology can be a godsend. Many of us can now drive along toll roads without having to stop to pay. Residents of many cities can download an app to their phones to remind them of trash and recycling pickup days.
Still other apps can be used to identify open parking spaces and pay online. Checking in for a flight can be as simple as downloading a boarding pass and scanning it at the gate.
There are also many municipalities that have begun to use apps that allow residents to anonymously report potholes, illegally parked cars, untidy trash receptacles, overgrown weeds, unshoveled sidewalks after a snowstorm and other issues of concern. Rather than finding the right phone number, dialing in, being placed on hold and hoping to speak to someone, now reporting something to the city can be done quickly and anonymously.
When used well, such an app can help the resident and the city deal with such issues. But a reader we're calling Laine is concerned that such anonymous reporting apps seem to be an open invitation for neighbors to complain to the city before trying to do the neighborly thing and speak to someone.
Speaking to a neighbor about a pothole is certainly not going to solve anything, but if a car is blocking a driveway or rubbish is blowing around because of an unsecured trash receptacle and you know which neighbor's car or trash can is involved, Laine wonders if a more appropriate first response would be to ask the neighbor about it.
What worries Laine more, she writes, is that some neighbor seems to be using the app to report things they might have let slide in the past. Because she can see the reports on her city's website but not the name of the reporter, she has noticed that the number of reports about untidy trash or overgrown lawns with weeds spilling onto the sidewalks seem to be in abundance.
Just as email at work might increase the likelihood of not talking directly to a colleague or an online message board might elevate the level of venom in responses to a post, Laine believes apps to report issues to the city make it too easy for neighbors to avoid being neighborly.
Laine makes a good point. If you know your neighbors and there's no history of hostile behavior, the right thing is to approach a neighbor with issues you believe they can address.
Pointing out that other neighbors have been cited or fined for such things might even be seen as helpful. Granted, it might not feel comfortable to do this, but like Laine, I'd like a neighbor to alert me to my unsecure trash cans before receiving a citation from the city.
It's better to use such apps to report items that only the city can do something about such as filling potholes or towing away illegally parked cars whose owners are unknown. If the issue seems too small to ask a neighbor about, the right thing is to ask yourself why you want to report it to the city in the first place.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.