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.

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