311

Gov 2.0 guide to 311 and Open311

311 History and Purpose

311 is an abbreviated dialing designation set up for use by municipal governments in both the U.S. and Canada. Dialing 311 in communities where it is implemented will typically direct a caller to a call center where an operator will provide information in response to a question, or open a service ticket in response to report of an issue. The difference between 311 and other abbreviated dialing designations (like 911) can be summed up by a promotional slogan for the service used in the City of Los Angeles:

“Burning building? Call 911. Burning question? Call 311.”

311 is operated in most large cities in the U.S. and several smaller jurisdictions as well. 311 is also a designated dialing code in Canada, and has been implemented in a number of cities in that country as well. A primary justification for 311 operations it to reduce the volume of non-emergency calls to 911, helping ensure that 911 operators are not burdened with calls that are not of an emergency nature. The first municipality to implement 311 was the City of Baltimore, Maryland (October, 1996). The largest 311 operation is that of New York City, which handles an average of 43,000 calls per day, and provides translation services in 170 different languages. On June 20, 2007, the NYC 311 service received its 50 millionth call.

311 on the Web

A key function of 311 services is to provide easy access to general information from municipal government. A March 2010 report on the City of Philadelphia’s 311 operation by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Philadelphia Research Initiative found that the overwhelming majority of callers to the service were looking for basic information:

“On average in 2009, seven in ten callers to Phillly311 were looking for basic or general information. On average, 19 percent needed to be transferred to another department or line, a rate that Philly311 likes to keep low. Another 9 percent were asking for a service, requiring an agent to submit a formal request to another city department.”

Because the web is an ideal medium for providing standard information in response to general information requests, most 311 operations include a web component with lists of frequently asked questions and information frequently requested by callers. This web presence for 311 helps offload callers from call center operators and provide options for more web savvy and connected citizens. Several 311 operations (including NYC and San Francisco) have worked to incorporate Twitter and other social media tools into their services.

The Rise of the 311 API

The first 311 API was deployed by the District of Columbia, which deployed the first version of its API in May of 2009 to coincide with its “Apps for Democracy: Community Edition” development contest to encourage the development of applications that use the API. The winner of the Apps for Democracy contest was a combination iPhone / Facebook application called SocialDC. DC is currently working with leaders of the Open311 initiative and officials in other cities like San Francisco to standardize the next version of its 311 API on the Open311 specification. In early 2010, the City/County of San Francisco became the second city to deploy a public API for interacting with its 311 system.

The Open311 Initiative

The Open311 initiative is an effort to create a uniform specification for 311 APIs. The goal is create a standard specification for a 311 API that would be deployed in multiple cities, allowing application developers to build applications that would work with any municipal API that conforms to the standard. The API deployed by San Francisco conforms to the Open311 standard, although the standard itself is likely to change as more municipalities and developers become involved in the Open311 initiative. The District of Columbia is working with the Open311 initiative and others to standardize its existing API to the Open311 specification. Other cities like Edmonton and Boston are set to deploy Open311 APIs in the near future.

311 and Open311 Video

More 311 and Open311 links

Kundra, SF officials promote Open311 API

Here’s video from yesterday’s Open311 press conference in San Francisco, including Vivek Kundra, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, SF CIO Chris Vein and O’Reilly Media’s Tim O’Reilly.

Kundra’s Open311 comments from the White House blog:

This is a great approach that ties together efforts in San Francisco, Boston, the District of Columbia, Portland, and Los Angeles to open more services to citizens, and to use data to drive progress in people’s lives. Too often, people grumble that their complaints about government – be it city, county, state, or federal – get swallowed by the bureaucracy. Open 311 is an answer to that problem, placing the role of service evaluator and service dispatcher in the power of citizens’ hands. Through this approach, new web applications can mash publicly available, real-time data from the cities to allow people to track the status of repairs or improvements, while also allowing them to make new requests for services. For instance, I can use the same application to report a broken parking meter when I’m home in the District of Columbia or traveling to cities like Portland, Los Angeles, Boston, or San Francisco. This is the perfect example of how government is simplifying access to citizen services. Open 311 is an innovation that will improve people’s lives and make better use of taxpayer dollars.

Video:

Developers for Glory

Although it may be simple to conflate the Apps for Democracy and Apps for America contests with the exciting new Apps for Army contest, they really couldn’t be more different. Together they represent an exciting experiment in what it takes to pull communities together around a problem. Though they all offer cash prizes to the winners, they each took a slightly different approach, with different results.

Cash incentives are somewhat controversial in open source circles. Most old-school advocates for open source development strongly prefer developers who are personally invested — famously, those that “scratch their own itch.” Developers who are paid a salary to work on software are also invested, but perhaps less zealously than those who are solving a problem they are afflicted with themselves. Developers who are working for glory and cash prizes, the model used by the “Apps for…”  competitions, is yet another class of developer, and despite the excellent submissions to the previous contests, there are valid concerns that the quality and sustainability of the code is not as good as it could be with a different set of incentives. Time will tell, of course.

If I’m a developer for glory, I may compete for the cash prize, or for altruistic reasons, but I’m also competing for the notoriety I’ll get if I win. If I don’t win, what will I do with the code I’ve developed? Even if I win, what are my incentives to continue working on the project? Put another way: how can we ensure that all of this good work and goodwill turns into viable, and active software projects once the contest is over?

Apps for Democracy is instructive.  The contest encouraged developers to provide services on top of the “platform” of Washington, D.C.’s IT infrastructure. This platform includes 270 public data feeds and the city’s newly unveiled 311 API.  47 submissions were collected in 30 days, and the winner was an iPhone and Facebook application that enabled users to take snapshots of potholes, broken windows, and so forth, have them tagged with GPS coordinates, and submitted to the city’s 311 service. Very handy. Unfortunately, the ongoing care and feeding for the application doesn’t seem to be there. The Washington City Paper found in a January 25th, 2010 followup on the contest:

The “Touch City’s Heart” Social DC 311 Web site seems to have been abandoned—it hasn’t been updated for months—saying the “IPhone” app is still waiting for approval from Apple (Apple approved it long ago). Some members of the D.C. 311 team had never laid eyes on the Web site until City Desk asked about it. “I’ve never even heard of it,” said one 311 operator. It has only 27 active monthly users on its Facebook Fan page and 40 followers on Twitter.

I’ll also note that after some cursory research, the source code doesn’t seem to be disclosed to the public yet, which I understand was one of the intents of the contest. Now, to be fair, there seem to be bigger plans afoot:

The dismal following is not a sign of failure, Sivak says. The District intends to take Social DC 311 and revamp the current model into an app that’s “enterprise-ready and robust for a large volume of users,” Sivak says. “Think of this first step as a pilot.”

Fair enough, but I would think that one of the desired outcomes was an ongoing community of developers that are producing and maintaining applications like this — whether it’s for love, money, or fame. It would be a shame to see hard work like this die on the vine because we’ve lost the carrot of a cash prize.

The first Apps for America contest winner was Filibusted, a tool for outing Senate obstructionists. It measures obstruction by the Senator’s votes on cloture motions. You can find the source on GitHub, but there doesn’t seem to be much activity since the initial checkin. One bug was opened 8 months ago, and doesn’t appear to have been addressed. The last blog post was in December. At the same time, there’s not much to work on — the site has a single purpose, which it seems to fulfil even without much of a community around it. It doesn’t really need a large community, I’d guess, because it’s “done.”

The second Apps for America yielded DataMasher. This tools allows you to compare Federal data sets with each other. Once you have the data and visualization you like, you can share it with others on the site. The source code was released, per the terms of the contest, but doesn’t seem to have much of a community around it. In fact, the DataMasher website doesn’t seem to link to the code from their own site. That hasn’t made the application less popular, though — the community isn’t working on the code, it’s working on the datasets. There’s a steady stream of new mashups that other users rate and comment on. In all, a healthy community that relies on user-generated content to ensure it remains a useful tool.

The second Apps for America contest also produced the strikingly elegant govpulse.us. It’s a vastly improved interfact to the Federal Register developed by the gifted team at GravyCones. The code for this application is available to the public, and seems actively developed to this day. This is, I think, exactly what the organizers had in mind when they started this contest: the tool is popular, the development community is active, and the project continues to improve.

Which brings us to Apps for Army, which is a serious departure from the other contests. First, it’s available only to Army soldiers and civilian employees, nobody from the public — not even reservists. In fact, you need a DoD ID card to go to the official contest website. Second, it seems that only the first 100 teams can participate. From a community standpoint, the project is wading into very unfamiliar territory. Rather than gathering the collective wisdom an initiative of thousands of interested developers, they’ll be picking 100 volunteers, seemingly at random.

The Apps for Army contest further diminishes its potential reach by dictating the tools developers will use: the DISA RACE environment to host the project, and the forge.mil repository for code. Since these resources are being paid for by the Army’s CIO, who is sponsoring the contest, what will happen to the competitors once the competition’s over? There are, of course, excellent reasons for asking folks to use the existing DoD infrastructure, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen if the doors were flung open, and the bar was lowered for participation.

This isn’t to say that I’m less enthusiastic about these experiments. I’m very excited at the idea of encouraging employees — in the Army, or anywhere else — to solve their own problems. That’s a goodness in and of itself. We just can’t forget that software isn’t a product — it’s a process that requires nurturing. The best way to nurture is to build a community, and that requires transparency and a low barrier to entry for participants. The larger and more active the community, the more likely the software will be better. The more closed, prescriptive, and limited the project, I think, the less likely that it will be viable in the long-term.

So these “Apps for…” competitions are instructive. Each project is building its own kind of community, and I’m eager to see how these projects fare in the months and years ahead.

Get the 311 with SeeClickFix

SeeClickFix lets citizens report public works issues such as potholes, graffiti, and wayward trash directly from their iPhones, the SeeClickFix Website or other sites using its embeddable widget. Citizens can create watch lists to follow what’s being reported in a particular area, comment and vote up or down other issue reports and get ‘Civic Points’ for their participation. Governments can use the service as a 311 work order management system and media outlets can integrate the reporting widget and map into their Websites for enhanced reader interaction.

The service is free to use for reporting and monitoring issues. Upgrade versions include SeeClickFix Pro, available for $38 a month, SeeClickFix Plus, a mobile version that lets users customize the application with logo and theming, and SeeClickFix Connect that includes CRM integration.

Houston, Philadelphia, Tuscon, New Haven, City of Bainbridge Island and City of Manor are some of the municipalities using SeeClickFix. Participating news outlets include the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Miami Herald, Boston.com and Philadelphia Inquirer.

SeeClickFix demo:


Founder and CEO Ben Berkowitz’s Gov 2.0 Expo demo: