Street issues, 311, and apps: better communication with Open311 – part 2


A screenshot of the Spothole homepage. 

In part 1 of Street issues, 311, and apps: tying them all together I talked to Chicago’s Chief Technology Officer, John Tolva, who painted the picture of how we can interact with 311 and city services in the near future. Open311, among other things, is a platform to enable a connection between apps (web- and smartphone-based) and the service request system.

For part 2, I talked to Stefan Draht, a designer and programmer who created Spothole (with design contributions from Brett Schnacky). The app is ready for your vote in the Apps 4 Metro Chicago contest. It’s an intuitive and interactive way to report potholes in Chicago. I met Draht at Moving Design during the summer, for which he originally created the app; it’s now in version 2.0.

I asked him to tell me about the relationship between this app and 311: If something is reported on Spothole, does the City know about it? How would an Open 311 system affect Spothole’s operation?

Here’s what he said:

There is, currently, no particularly convenient way of passing the data from Spothole to the city. In its present form any information obtained exclusively though Spothole’s spotting feature must be fed to the city via the existing 311 system. This means calling, emailing, or using an uninspired web interface of questionable utility. Open311 would, hypothetically, make this process extremely efficient and would yield, for the city, greater quantities of data in a more timely manner.

In addition to the basic information the city currently collects, Spothole implements an algorithm for rating potholes, similar to the idea behind Google’s page ranking. This metric could be instrumental in helping the city to prioritize pothole repairs as well as aiding in the recognition of street damage patterns. At present I am unsure of how this data could be best delivered to the city and I’m optimistic that an Open 311 system could allow developers such as ourselves to nto only fill in existing data for the city but also suggest gaps in the data collected.

Overall, from an independent developer’s standpoint, the greatest deficiency I see in the current 311 system is the absence of efficient methods to share data with the city. The data portal at least provides a stopgap solution to accessing information already collected by the city, but the most useful tools for the city would be ones that reciprocate and contribute their data to the city [emphasis mine].

How the Spothole app works

Spothole allows users to easily, and interactively, mark new potholes on the map as well as “+1” existing potholes to indicate that they’ve also spotted it. The potholes are then rated based on a weighted algorithm in order to indicate relative severity. The database is periodically updated and cross-referenced with the city’s data to check for repairs and duplicates before submitting the data collected to the city’s 311 system.


The pothole data you see on the map is largely made of information culled from the City’s data portal. For an app to be eligible, it had to use a civic data sources. 

Other people who worked on this include:

I probably should have mentioned that I helped the project by getting in touch with the Chicago Information Officer, Brett Goldstein, and asking for him to upload to the City’s data portal pothole reports people called in to 311. A few days later and it was online for public consumption.

Updated December 12, 2011, to add “how it works”. Updated December 15, 2011, to add additional contributors.

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