The 411 on 311: Every Citizen a Sensor

311 is growing up fast. We caught glimpses of 311's powerful future last year in a Harvard report called "311: The Next Wave." 311 stood at the intersection...
by | August 4, 2009 AT 3:00 AM

311 is growing up fast.

We caught glimpses of 311's powerful future last year in a Harvard report called "311: The Next Wave." 311 stood at the intersection of individual need, community engagement, and government action. A host of personal digital devices was blazing new trails of connectedness. Networks promised new and more powerful collaboration.

"Engage the Web 2.0 world," the report urged. "Make every citizen a sensor. Treat 311 as the finger on the pulse of the city, and the electorate."

From its first days in 1996 as Baltimore's citizen call-in center, 311 has today emerged as the great democratizer: with a simple phone call any citizen can mobilize a city service. Many cities now tie 311 requests to work-orders and performance management - assuring not only that city work gets done, but gets done faster, better and cheaper.

Since our report, a number of new trends have emerged. Pressed for budgets, for example, some jurisdictions are simply rolling back 311 services. But elsewhere cities are smartly holding 311 steady, investing in capabilities which lessen operator workloads. Examples include self-service 311 websites, and "Reverse 311" notifications where a city might make outgoing calls with reminders of on-street parking or sanitation schedules.

New York City just announced a suite of such initiatives.

Service enhancements such as New York's can boost the efficiency of the 311 operation itself. That's vital, since 311 competes for budget with other city functions.

But the huge value gain from 311 is still missing - using 311 data and analytics to get citizens directly into the civic improvement game. The thought is that armed with 311 data and the power of existing networks, neighbors - many of whom are already networked -- can help themselves and government produce way more safety, health and well-being than either can produce alone.

Two developments may soon turn 311 into a vital platform for citizen engagement.

The Move to Social Media. San Francisco 311, for example, has opened a Twitter channel to its 311 center. Using to integrate Twitter into its 311 platform, San Francisco 311 (@sf311) can accept inbound tweeted requests for information and service, assign tweets to operators (avoiding two operators handling the same tweet), schedule non-emergency notifications via Twitter, make emergency notifications, and tweet "case closed" back to satisfied customers.

SF 311 Director Nancy Alfaro sees Twitter as potentially the channel of choice for many San Franciscans. "Twitter offers the social networking experience that people seem to like," she told me. Deputy Director Andy Maimoni likes it as "a great low-cost way to try out text access."

But the move has integration pains. Twitter is yet another application which city 311 operators have to handle in their displays. As a new communication channel, it's not yet a time or work saver. Nor are 311 tweets tied to the workload tracking system - meaning 311 operators have to input tweeted work requests manually, much as they would an emailed request.

At 300 requests for service or information via @sf311 in its first month, the initial wave has gone well - but Twitter is not yet a mainstay 311 channel. "At the moment Twitter is a 'nice-to-have'," Alfaro said. But with @sf311 San Francisco has put its toe in the water on using 311 to engage citizens where they network.

The Move to "Open 311". Meanwhile, in Washington DC, the Office of the Chief Technology Officer is at work on an open API for that city's 311 system.

Today, callers to 311 can track their own work request. But they can't see similar calls from the same neighborhood. "There are no ways to figure out what's going on around you," Dmitry Kachaev, Director of Research and Development, told me.

The latest "Community Edition" round of the fabled DC "Apps for Democracy" spurred developers to create interfaces which allow anyone to submit 311 requests online - without using a 311 telephone call or a dedicated 311 website. That's certainly revolutionary - sidestepping the 311 call center and the 311 website altogether.

But the real revolution is perhaps under the hood. With an open API for 311, and the right application interface, anyone can go online and view all the service requests for a block or street. This turns 311 requests into a potentially powerful citizen collaboration tool. "We want to encourage communities to get together online and help government to accomplish a variety of tasks," Kachaev said.

And they are encouraging socially friendly application interfaces to help make that happen. One finalist in DC's Apps For Democracy/Community Edition, for example, has developed an iPhone application that submits your 311 request to the city and posts it to your Facebook page. Your "friends" see that you've submitted a request - and you see that some of your friends from the neighborhood submitted issues, too.

"It could almost lead to competition with what neighborhood or which individual will submit more service requests to fix more issues in areas they live in or work," Kachaev says.

With cities under pressure to do more with less, 311 is poised to transform the service paradigm yet again. New devices, open platforms, new access are assuring a steady stream of innovation, bridging the world of "go-it-alone" government to "government-as-collaboration platform."

In the weeks ahead we'll look at other promising innovations with the 311 platform - making faster, better, cheaper a reality for a trusted, high value asset.

Zachary Tumin is the Associate Director for Programs in Technology, Networks and Governance at the Ash Institute of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is also the contributing editor, technology, for the Better, Faster, Cheaper site.

Zachary Tumin | Harvard Kennedy School of Government |