Imagine photographing with your smartphone this metal plate that’s supposed to cover the sewer at Bloomingdale Avenue and Milwaukee Avenue and immediately uploading it to the City’s 311 system for fixing. That’s the power of Open311. (It’s finally being repaired.)
311 is a phone number and a service request management system that the City of Chicago operates to give information to citizens (about services the city provides) and collect information from them (about situations that need fixing).
311 was implemented in 1999. In 2011, 12 years later, it’s not yet possible to make a request online and receive a tracking number (called an SR number for “service request”). I know there are apps and platforms in other cities that allow for a more modern way to collect and submit requests for service. This year I read that Code for America would hire young programmers to come to Chicago and “convert” the old 311 to what’s called Open311.
I emailed John Tolva, Chicago’s “Chief Technology Officer” (a new position in the Mayor’s Office), about the plans to build Open311. This is part one of a two-part series. In the second part I talk to an app developer.
Photo of John Tolva speaking at City Camp London by Paul Clarke.
What is Open311?
Open311 is a set of technologies and standards for providing open, two-way communication around city service- and issue-tracking. More specifically, Open311 enables a web-based application programming interface (API) to [connect with] existing 311 systems. This permits applications to be built that interface directly with the city.
What is Code for America?
Code for America is a non-profit modeled on Teach for America that provides cities with web developers and designers for tackling core problems in our communities. The process of becoming a Code for America city is competitive and the chosen cities work together on similar issues.
What will Code For America fellows be producing for the City? And when?
The fellows arrive in late January for 6 weeks onsite. They will be working with the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT), the city infrastructure departments, the Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC), aldermen, and Motorola (the vendor for the existing 311 system) to implement Open311 for the city. They will also produce documentation for third-party application development and a sample application showing the benefits of open access to city service information.
How will Open311 be different than the current 311?
The current system is closed and proprietary. Open311 allows the city to more flexibly input and track service requests. It permits ward offices to do the same, in a filtered view of their own issues. Open311 also allows integration with existing service tracking systems like SeeClickFix, some of which are being used by aldermen. For constituents, Open311 will create an ecosystem of applications for easy submission and tracking of requests – in the same way that the CTA’s Bus Tracker and Train Tracker are data service platforms upon which dozens of applications have been built by the community.
How will that change the user’s experience?
Imagine a smartphone application that allowed you to photograph a pothole and with one click send it off to the city, tagged with its location automatically. Then imagine being able to track the progress of the completion of the request through all its stages. This is the kind of experience that can change with Open311.
[Tolva also mentioned that one could create a Facebook app that interacts with Open311. Another example is a “ward-specific dashboard”, almost like EveryBlock.]
That sounds like tracking a package with UPS. Will Open311 change how service is received?
Internally, Open311 enables greater visibility for all the city departments involved in service provision. We will be using Open311 to develop more seamless processes for service delivery. With transparent ways of measuring our performance we will have the data we need to make changes to improve service.
Lastly, how many calls and online requests for service does it receive?
311 takes in about 300,000 requests per month. Of those about 3% come in online currently.
I later asked Tolva for examples of cool apps and platforms that are being used around the country. Here’re his recommendations with my descriptions:
- SeeClickFix: allows you to report issues anywhere in the United States, but it’s only useful for Chicago if the City or Alderman monitors the site.
- Street Bump: will try to automatically map potholes in Boston using an accelerometer and GPS. Read about its shortcomings and testing period on Popular Science.
- Washington, D.C.’s online 311 system: citizens can track their service request, view a map, and see their history of requests (if you make an account)
- Citizen Connect (Boston): similar to D.C.’s online 311 but has apps for Android and iOS.
- TweetMy311: decommissioned and only worked in San Francisco. Used Twitter to link people to their Open311 system.
- FixMyStreet: a service request site for Britons.
- Usahidi and its cousin, Crowd Map. Usahidi “is a website that was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008”. Usahidi and Crowd Map allow anyone to make a map and generate reports about anything that has a location. For example, the Chicago Tribune created a CrowdMap for people to offer or find help during Snowmageddon 2011.