The wonderful thing about Johannesburg is the state of the roads. Miles and miles of smooth, unblemished tarmac and never a traffic light. Or was that Copenhagen? I get the two confused.

Coleraine Drive collapses in March, image from MyJoburg.com
Coleraine Drive collapses in March, image from MyJoburg.com

If you are getting exhausted by out of action junctions and are impoverished by continually crashing into potholes, Microsoft and the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA) think they have just the app for you.

It’s called Find&Fix and it’s been developed by SA company Intervate (which was purchased by T-Systems back in February) and gives drivers a way to report infrastructure issues within a couple of taps on their smartphone.

The app covers potholes, faulty traffic signals, storm water drains, manhole covers and more. You simply snap a photo and share GPS co-ordinates directly from your phone, and works on all Windows Phone, Android and an iOS version is in the works. There’s no BlackBerry support planned, and merely clever phones like the Nokia Asha series are no good either. Find&Fix will not be available for tablets either – it’s a phone only program at the moment.

JRA says that Find&Fix will help to improve their services by speeding up reporting of problems, accurately tagging their location and cutting down on the amount of time spent sifting through multiple reports of the same problem and therefore bringing all kinds of efficiencies to the way repair teams are dispatched.

Internally, JRA is divided into seven regional teams which, it says, often struggle to pinpoint problems and work over each other. Improving accuracy in reporting will help it to manage resources.

Managing director of JRA, Skhumbuzo Macozoma, says that Find&Fix is part of a massive revamp of the agency’s internal IT systems designed to bring it into the 21st century. Under his watch, he says, the agency’s focus is on becoming an “engineering centre of excellence.” As part of a 10 year plan, the agency has focussed on auditing the city’s streets and focussing resources where they are of most use, rather than wasting money patching up roads which really need replacing.

“Everything else is there to support the engineering work we do,” Macozoma says.

Find&Fix also forms part of a strategy to get rid of nepotism in the JRA, according to Macozoma. “An ordinary citizen should be able to log a call in exactly the same way and with the same priority as a VIP,” he says.

JRA has also invested in expanding its customer facing side to social media as well as the call centre. Find&Fix also bypasses the traditional bureaucracy around issue reporting. Macozoma explains that traditionally, a call was logged at the call centre, passed to JRA, distributed to a regional team and eventually turned into a work order. Reports sent via the app will be immediately directed to the regional teams to await processing.

Macozoma says that JRA has also been turned around financially, going from heavily-indebted to cash-positive in just 18 months. He’s also managed to increase the overall JRA budget two and a half times already, and is set to double it again this year.

There are obvious concerns about driver safety – after all, operating a mobile phone while you’re driving is illegal in South Africa. Macozoma says that reporting is done in a single tap, and can be supplemented with photo evidence later.

The other potential issue is with connectivity problems when the app is under load. For example, in the recent storms thousands of people could have been submitting reports simultaneously. Intervate’s Lionel Moyal says that Find&Fix has been extensively tested using Microsoft’s Azure servers to scale quickly when required.

Of course, reporting problems is only one part of what’s needed to bring the city into the future. Equally important is communication back from JRA on how repairs are progressing and the ability of citizens to hold governmental organisations to account. If you report a problem and it vanishes into the system, what redress do you have when it doesn’t get addressed?

I’ve written before about the open source Open 311 system that operates in many US cities – its power lies in the ability to hold service providers to account. If unfixed problems are visible, it increases pressure on those responsible for fixing them.

Sadly, at the moment there are no plans to make all the data collected public. Some issues, however, will be flagged up in the app to highlight known problems in your immediate area.

“Our main objective was to simplify communication between JRA and road users,” says JRA IT manager Krushen Pillay, “And show the public how our service works… and share their experience of using the roads with others.”

Pillay says that future development of Find&Fix will include the ability to broadcast problems to users based on their position, so if your phone detects that you’re approaching a junction where the lights are out it will warn you.

According to Macozoma, the City of Joburg is watching the JRA’s work closely on this one, and has its own plans for a civic reporting app which it will launch soon.