Street issues, 311, and apps: tying them all together – part 1


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.

11 thoughts on “Street issues, 311, and apps: tying them all together – part 1”

  1. This is all kinds of awesome news! The current online system seems like it gets results faster than calling 311, but the interface is beyond horrible. 

    It is a bit distressing that the city is importing programmers when there are people here in Chicago looking for work.

    1. The #1 problem I see with the online system is that it doesn’t provide you the tracking number (SR number). I’m trying to get this confirmed, but I suspect that requests submitted via the online system are taken from the “online requests” database and copied manually to the actual 311 database.

      I don’t think the City is paying for this itself, but I will have to confirm that. Also, Code for America accepts applications from programmers anywhere.

    2. I’m one of the Code for America (CfA) fellows that will be serving in Chicago in 2012. I haven’t actually started yet (orientation isn’t till January), so the following are _my_ observations, not CfA’s:

      At the fellow level, we’ll be building and deploying tools that serve and improve the City of Chicago, its residents and community stakeholders. That’s what I’ll personally be doing (as part of a 3 person team) over my 10 month fellowship (Jan – Nov, 2012).

      At the higher mission level, CfA is trying to model for the city modern, agile, open, accessible, and engaged development processes. In that sense, the goal is not to displace local programmers but rather to help lay the groundwork for the city to work better with local developers and create momentum for changing the slow/risk-averse procedural hurdles of hiring and vendor processes that discourage the city from engaging the local talent they need.

      I’ll know much more about things in January, and will also be in Chicago in February—interviewing city employees, residents, community organizations and development shops—but if you have more questions I’ll do my best to answer them.

  2. Being able to enter and track requests online is a good step forward, but it is only part of the story.
    What is missing from this story so far, is an explanation of how the city will use these requests to improve the service to its citizens.Will the city create a process around prioritizing requests? For example, how will the city establish the urgency? Users are known to overestimate the urgency of their request (I speak from experience here, having worked in an IT support function). What if over time (or seaonally) the nature of requests changes? Can they shift focus from fixing potholes to fixing broken sidewalks if changes in demand require that?

    I am worried that this new API will increase the amount of service requests without the ability to work on these requests.

    1. John addressed your question about responding to service requests briefly in his answer to, “Will Open311 change how service is received?”

      I will definitely be following this topic further – the Code for America fellows will arrive in January or February. Maybe I’ll sit in on a meeting. I could also find out if DC or Boston (two other cities that have Open311) have changed the way they response to service requests, or if they’ve recorded an increase in the rate of incoming service requests after the system was implemented. 

      Did you see part two? A developer created an app that prioritizes potholes (assigns a score) based on how many people report it or how many people “+1” it.

      1. The “+1” approach is interesting, but I think a proper prioritization model would include objective criteria, like the location of the pothole, the size, what kind of street it is (residential, commercial strip, artery, etc.).
        Otherwise we might end up with all the prioritized requests located in areas where residents are comfortable with entering information on-line and +1-ing their issues. A good system will adjust for that by laying out clear critera.

        I realize that this may not be a trivial task, so maybe “+1″ing potholes might be an imperfect but decent alternative.

        1. Spothole does ask the user to describe the pothole size. This may play into the prioritization/ranking algorithm.

          Your points about people comfortable with entering information online is very salient: not everyone has access, and not everyone is aware of this. 311 as a place to call is probably the most universally accessible service. 

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