Monday, July 6, 2015

Open311: Civic Hack Seed Project For NE Wisconsin?

Should Appleton or any other city in NE Wisconsin consider offering its residents a 3-1-1 service?

In many US and Canadian cities, dialing 3-1-1 (which is also written as just 311, without the hyphens) provides access to non-emergency municipal services.

I Googled for 311 in Appleton, Milwaukee and Madison but it doesn’t look like any of them have a 311 system. When Google dug deeper for 311 municipal systems anywhere in Wisconsin, the search results appeared to say no cities in Wisconsin are using it, although the Wikipedia entry for 311 indicated Milwaukee had it at one time. As of June 2015 it appears 311 Chicago and 311 Minneapolis are the two closest systems if we want to connect with Midwest people currently involved in this type of civic hack.

The N-1-1 public service phone number system was launched by the FCC in 1992, and 311 was first used by Baltimore, MD, in 1996. Open311 appears to have started in 2009 and was first used in Washington, D.C. Civic hackers have gotten involved with various aspects of the 311 system, especially since the creation of the Open311 ecosystem. “Open311 is standardised way for computers to report problems (like potholes or fallen trees) to the computers run by the bodies that can fix them (like local governments or city departments).”

To understand more about Open311 and why Appleton or any other city in NE Wisconsin might want to consider using it, check out the mySociety post “Open311 – What is it, and why is it good news for both governments and citizens?
The challenge is this – how can a local government cheaply and efficiently cope with the fact that the public wants to request many services through a rapidly expanding plethora of different channels – phones, websites, email, apps, and Twitter? And how can it keep control of costs when new channels are being invented all the time? The good news is there’s an answer that can prevent each new channel leading to ever-greater costs – a free technology called Open311. The bad news is not many people know it exists, let alone how to use it, or how it works. 
...In the USA a number of cities have non-emergency government telephone helplines, accessible at the phone number 311. As a consequence ‘311’ has come to refer to more than just a phone line – it has come to mean the entire process of handling service requests from citizens around a whole range of non-emergency issues, from garbage to noisy neighbours. To the ears of some American public servants the name ‘Open311′ consequently conjures up an image of a better, nicer more ‘open’ way of handling such non-emergency requests from citizens...”
The video (2:42) below gives an intro to the Open311 system in Chicago.

Code for America talks about the municipal collaboration work Bloomington has done with Open311.
“...Open311 is also the backdrop against which municipal collaboration and app sharing can occur.  The City of Bloomington, Ind. is a leader in the development of open source tools around the Open311 standard. The city has developed a suite of lightweight but comprehensive Open311 products and is working with Google (through the Summer of Code program) to further develop this important suite of tools...The City of Bloomington’s work on Open311 is a great example of how governments can share solutions and build on the work of each other to use technology in ways that are smarter and more efficient...”
It would be a huge boost for the NE Wisconsin tech community if we launched an Open311 project and could get Google Summer of Code support for the project.

I’m guessing part of the reason no city in NE Wisconsin (no city in Wisconsin at all, as far as I know) has a 311 system is due to the size of the city and low volume of non-emergency calls received by these cities. If civic hackers work with an interested city in our region to roll out an Open311 pilot program, we might be able to overcome the lack of perceived need at an extremely reasonable cost. The article “Scaling Down 311: Data Analytics is Still a Work in Progress” says size shouldn’t matter.
“...For smaller jurisdictions, the desire to measure and manage performance based on data captured by CRM software is just as important as it is in the Big Apple. Mankato, Minnesota’s city managers have been analyzing the types of calls and requests the 311 center receives as they look for opportunities to improve internal processes and customer service...”
In some ways, an Open311 initiative would be a perfect seed project to plant, water and fertilize now so it’s ready for the next civic hacking event in our region.

If Mankato can do it, cities in NE Wisconsin can!


To learn more about Open311, start here:
Swedish public open source movement working from the bottom up “What Is Open311?
Highlights from the Open311 Ecosystem
A Guide to Open311
What a Hundred Million Calls to 311 Reveal About New York
Bring Open311 to Pittsburgh
Bloomington open source software
Open API, Open311, Open Innovation” 8 min. video about San Francisco’s Open311 system


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