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Are you ready to start reporting street problems using your smartphone? Install one of the apps listed below. 

The City of Chicago launched its public Open 311 application interface in October allowing residents to quickly make a report, online or with a smartphone, bypassing the lengthy process of calling. App developers are now able to build programs that interact with the City of Chicago’s 311 database, created in 1997, via the Open 311 application interface to provide a faster and richer user experience. While such a process could have been established years ago, we’re happy to have it in Chicago now.

Currently only 14 service request types are available (see list below), which were said to be among the most commonly requested services. The application interface (known to programmers as “API”) was developed in part by Code for America fellows who researched the 311 implementation here and interviewed myriad users (alderman, city employees, operators, neighbors) in February and were coding all the way up until the last week of October. The undertaking has led to a great outcome, shaking up the tedious process of asking for a city service.

Rob Brackett, one of the four Code for America fellows to work on this project in Chicago, came to a recent Hack Night event at 1871, a tech hub at the Merchandise Mart, to showcase the city’s and fellows’ progress (slideshow). Two city staffers – Kevin Hauswirth (social media director in the Mayor’s Office) and Ryan Briones (IT director at the Department of Innovation and Technology, DoIT) – attended to join the discussion with civic coders and designers about the future of 311 and the Open 311 API. We – the public, really – were invited to contribute our own code updates for the city’s Open 311 website on the social coding website called GitHub.

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My service request as submitted to the city’s new 311 website (it currently accepts 14 service types). 

The opening up of the 311 database to private developers marks off one action item in the Department of Transportation’s Chicago Forward Action Agenda: “Partner with DoIT to explore ways for smartphone users to submit service requests with a mobile application (such as SeeClickFix) and utilize the phone’s camera in a way that works with and enhances the existing 311 system.” The Action Agenda was released when it was already known this would soon be accomplished.

Service request types and apps

Instead of waiting 4 minutes on the phone to reach a 311 operator, and then waiting 2 more minutes on hold after you say you want to check on the status of a request, the city has a new website to make reports (for one of the 14 service request types) and check on the status (only for one of the 14 service request types). Chicagoans can also use one of the three apps developed by private organizations.

  • Building Violation
  • Restaurant Complaint
  • Abandoned Vehicle
  • Graffiti Removal
  • Rodent Baiting / Rat Complaint
  • Sanitation Code Violation
  • Tree Debris
  • Alley Light Out
  • Pavement Cave-In Survey
  • Pothole in Street
  • Street Cut Complaints
  • Street Light 1 / Out
  • Street Lights All / Out
  • Traffic Signal Out

Make a request now. You can also make a request for one of these service types using a free, third-party app:

  • SeeClickFix – Think of this website as an EveryBlock for making service requests and tracking others in your area. You can set up a “watch zone” to be notified when a service request is made there. I consider it the best app for interacting with 311. SeeClickFix has iOS, Android, and Blackberry apps. Like EveryBlock’s badge system, active members achieve rankings.
  • Chicago Works – This iOS app was created in 2011 by 47th ward Alderman Ameya Pawar and 2pens Media when he was elected (in order to submit service requests, about anything, to his office). It was updated a few months ago to take advantage of Open 311. One shortcoming is that you cannot change the problem location. It shows reports recently submitted by other users.
  • Fix 311 – This iOS and Android app allows you to submit service requests and keeps track of them for you.
  • GeoReporter – Works in all cities that follow the standard Open 311 endpoint, which as of December 29 includes Chicago.

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A screenshot of the Chicago Works home screen on an iPhone. See all photos for this article.

An example request

I submitted online a service request for a pothole on October 8, 2012; view my request. Pothole is probably not the best way to describe it. “Bumpy pile of asphalt in the bike lane” is more accurate. I submitted the report along with a photo and waited. On Thursday I checked online and saw that the request was closed October 25. The website didn’t say what had happened to my request only that it was closed. I made a special trip on Friday to the site to see what had happened. The entire site was rebuilt with concrete. I am led to believe, based on the asphalt and the concrete replacement, that there was water main work done here and it was planned all along to replace the asphalt with concrete. Aside from this, there are better ways to temporarily cover work in the bike lane.

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My request has been repaired, and was reported as such 17 days later. The Chicago Forward Action Agenda says “Patch potholes within 72 hours and develop an online “dashboard” that reports the progress in fixing potholes during peak repair season in winter/spring.”

Room for improvement 

The city’s implementation of Open 311 has the potential to improve relationships with citizens, speed up service fulfillment, and reduce costs of administering 311. Full implementation is ongoing and we look forward to being able to request more service types and knowing more about the work city crews put into fixing infrastructure.

As I noted in the previous section, the website doesn’t specify the nature of the work completed. In addition to detailing that, it should have a feature for the responding workers to post a photo in response to the report to show what work was completed – this would go a long way in improving the city’s level of transparency, a major tenet of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s campaign. One step further would allow the original reporter to submit a followup photo of the work.

The Department of Innovation and Technology is accepting feedback on which additional 311 service request types it should open up to apps. We’ve compiled a list of them on GridChicago.com/311, explained by their official use descriptions. All are related to sustainable transportation modes, like requesting bike racks, and reporting defective sidewalks and problematic street cuts (this is a more appropriate category than “pothole” for the service request I submitted).

Note that all of these service types can still be requested by calling 311, but that costs callers money and takes a lot of time when the same request can be made online in less time for less money. The first 1 minute and 45 seconds of every call to 311 is taken up by messages that advise the caller on possible other destinations for their call (for example, press a certain number to be connected to ComEd to report a power outage).

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  • Adam Herstein

    Taxi reporting is not an available request?

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      They are the 14 most requested service types. Or 14 of a group of most requested service types. Reporting taxi drivers isn’t exposed yet in the Open 311 application programming interface.

  • Scott Sanderson

    Was hoping to see car parked in a bike lane on there.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      You can’t report that to 311. Only 911. Police are only city staff who can respond to such an event.

  • http://zolk.com Kevin Zolkiewicz

    I just came across a potential issue with SeeClickFix’s Open 311 integration.

    Yesterday, I reported a single street light out at 5505 N. Clark: http://seeclickfix.com/issues/274227

    However, in the 311 Service Tracker, the address got changed to 5509 N. Clark, where the light works just fine: http://servicetracker.cityofchicago.org/requests/12-01868535

    I emailed SeeClickFix to let them know about the problem.

    Also of interest is that a few weeks ago I submitted an Open 311 request to report a pedestrian signal that wasn’t working properly (“don’t walk” phase wasn’t lighting up). The issue was marked as “Closed” a few days later, but the signal is still broken.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      1) That is a problem. Please keep me apprised of a response from SCF.

      2) Under what service type did you report the broken pedestrian signal?

      • http://zolk.com Kevin Zolkiewicz

        1) I’m waiting to hear back from SCF’s tech team. You’re probably right that it’s a difference with the geocoder, but in that case SCF can’t be trusted for service requests that require an exact address. The building at 5505 N Clark doesn’t span multiple addresses.

        2) Traffic Signal Out. One of the questions asks for the problem type, to which “Crosswalk signal out” is one of the answers.

        • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

          I forwarded this comment to DoIT, by the way. I didn’t realize that “Crosswalk signal out” was one of the selectable options in Traffic Signal Out. That’s good to know. I should probably update the table http://gridchicago.com/311/ to show that kind of information.

          • http://zolk.com Kevin Zolkiewicz

            I just finally heard back from SeeClickFix. They pass the City both an address as well as lat/long information. The City’s status site apparently calculates the address based on the lat/long, which could account for the discrepancy. The street light did get fixed, so someone figured it out in the end.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      This may not be an issue with SeeClickFix but the geocoder that powers the City’s 311 system. Do you know if 5505 is part of a range of addresses for a parcel?

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