A Tale of Two Cities: How DC and San Francisco Are Handling Citywide 311

Without a doubt, I am a data whore. I love raw data. I love APIs. I love finding interesting ways to mashup data. With the new found craze in government for openness, led in no small part from the Federal level and work endorsed by the Obama Administration to work pushed forward by Sunlight Labs, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and others, I’d expect the openness to trickle down to state and local levels. And it is.

On one level, you have Washington, DC (where I live) who has been making impressive strides through OCTO (Office of the Chief Technology Officer) with the assistance of iStrategyLabs and the Apps for Democracy competition.

Washington, DC is in production of it’s Open 311 API, a RESTful data API that they are careful to note is in development. (We will be building a PHP library around this API shortly, so keep an eye for that announcement over at Emmense.com).

In using a REST API, DC is opening up the service sector of the DC City government for developers of all sorts to tap into and build applications around. All to meet the needs of city residents.

San Francisco, on the other hand, just announced that they are utilizing Twitter to allow residents to submit issues directly from their favorite web application. Simply by following @sf311 (and being refollowed), citizens are able to DM requests.

Personally, I am partial to DC’s approach but I applaud both cities for pushing the boundaries to bring city government closer to the people. Frankly, I’m a little concerned about San Francisco utilizing Twitter for this purpose, for the same reason that I am hesitant about any business making their business model about Twitter. Twitter has not proved, at least in my mind, that they have the business savvy to keep their service from going out of business. Likewise, they have not proved their technical ability to make a fail-less system. It’s a game of Russian roulette to base a business (or government service) around this application. San Francisco probably has failover plans and this is just another approach though, so arguably it’s not a significant risk.

However, the solution to the 311 problem becomes infinitely more scalable when utilizing a pure API and allowing the pure submission and retrieval of data. And the use of an API keeps responsibility in-house. Twitter is not paid for by taxpayer money, so there is no expectation of quality control. A government owned and maintained API, on the other hand, provides safeguards that make sense.

All that aside, it is clear that both DC and San Francisco recognize that the accessibility of governments to their citizens is an utmost important goal in 2009. They are taking laudable steps to break down the barriers and solve real problems with modern technologies. For that, I can find no fault.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

10 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities: How DC and San Francisco Are Handling Citywide 311

  1. I agree with the caution you raise around using Twitter as the basis for citizens to submit 311 requests in SF.

    I’d add to your comments by pointing out that the SF model looks to be just another front-end to a customer service rep manually parsing the content of the Tweet and updating a back end system to process the request (unless I’m missing something). While using a service like Twitter to submit 311 requests is probably a lot easier on citizens, its not clear that it has the cost saving potential of an API-based approach. People (in government, as in any other organization) are usually the most expensive resource.

    DC’s approach, on the other hand, should allow for a completely automated method for entering 311 requests into whatever back end system is used to process and act on 311 service requests.

    Seems like DC’s approach will have a much bigger cost savings impact than the SF approach. Just my two cents…

    BTW, if I can help on the PHP library for the DC 311 API, let me know.

  2. I certainly believe that every move in the direction of openness is important especially when coming on the heels of the closed minded Bush administration. I hope this trend continues and I hope everyone supports it!

  3. Could an open 311 enable resources to be used more efficiently? Using open 311 to find opportunities to use resources that would otherwise go wasted? For instance, the pothole example – if street repairers are working in a neighborhood and have some left over asphalt – could they stop and fill it up on their way home for the day?
    Is there a way to create a relationship between organizations like Wastematch and Open311?

  4. I agree with the risk of depending on Twitter. I’ve seen performance hiccups when their growth spurt was happening in Q1. Personally I predict that it will peter out as a popular communication platform as a result of its success. There will be too much clutter to be able to use it productively.

  5. It is good that they want to interact and create a closer government to our people. It will be interesting to see how this evolves. I really don’t understand how Twitter gained such an incredible following, maybe it’s because I don’t have much time to use it. I think it’s a neat site, but it’s interesting that it’s becoming so amazingly popular.

  6. I agree that the DC approach will probably be the best one. I find it interesting that the governments are making these efforts; I think they are to be commended!

  7. Politicians aren’t always on the cutting edge, to put it mildly. But despite technological hurdles that have long plagued government officials, Twitter is finally beginning to catch on in Washington, D.C.

  8. I’m having a hard time grasping the concept of this new approach because it seems so anti-government-business model (take a number, wait a long time, reject request for lack of proper forms or documents).

    Will this be the first time that Government actually welcomes and uses input from the citizens? Will users of 311 get an acknowledgment of their request, status reports and followup upon completion? I’ve not seen that in any of my communications with any Government office yet, from the county clerk to state highway department to passport office to Senator.

  9. I saw the need for 311 recently while driving just outside Washington, D.C. on Baltimore-Washington Parkway on afternoon during rush hour. Driving north, I saw a pitbull that looked a bit disoriented (it was hot) and either abandoned or stray. After making a call to my older sister, who has been in the dog walking business for years, I tried making calls in Prince Georges County and Washington, D.C. to human societies or animal control, and after a couple of fruitless attempts, I gave up. To have an effective 311 system for Prince Georges and one for Washington that I could access through my cell phone would have been great.

  10. It’s great to see progress being made on behalf of communication with citizens… I don’t think there is nearly enough of that going on in most world governments.

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