Launch Slideshow

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Citizens on patrol

Citizens on patrol

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    “Now that we have this tool, we're considering giving employees smartphones to report issues from the field more effectively,” says City of New Haven, Conn., Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts. “Take a picture, type in a few pieces of information, and you're done.” Photo: SeeClickFix

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    To report a problem in Baltimore, citizens use a 311 mobile app to send details and pictures to the city's public call center. Photo: Connected Bits

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    The public can check the status of reports and city response times through the Baltimore 311 mobile app, track their locations, and browse through photos. Photos: Connected Bits


Reporting app empowers the public – and raises service expectations.

As the first U.S. city to establish a 311 municipal hotline in 1996, Baltimore has earned a reputation for responding to public needs. Last year, the city raised the bar with its Baltimore 311 mobile application for Android smartphones and iPhones.

Now, in addition to calling the Baltimore 311 hotline or sending an email about potholes, graffiti, unsightly trash, and other concerns, citizens can use their mobile phones to report, photograph, and track reports on the spot — with the aptly named Spot Reporters application from Boston-based developer Connected Bits.

The service is part of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's initiative to “close the digital divide” by offering convenient ways for citizens to engage with the city. The mobile reporting tool also provides transparency; allowing users to track their reports and view others in real time. The benefits are twofold: the public can see how quickly the city is addressing issues, and also see the number and types of concerns others are reporting — which creates what Dave Mitchell, Connected Bits co-founder, calls a “virtuous cycle.”

CONNECTED BITS

CITY: Baltimore
POPULATION: Approximately 621,000
TECHNOLOGY: Spot Reporters mobile reporting software; Motorola Premier One customer relationship management system
LAUNCHED: September 2011
COST: $30,000 initial development; $6,000 annual support and maintenance

Once people see other citizens reporting community concerns, and that the city is responding, they are more likely to participate. “Opening communication with citizens and closing the loop is critical,” Mitchell says. “You have to build their trust that, if they report something, it will be fixed.”

Citizens receive a tracking number with each report, and another notice when the request has been addressed. For maximum transparency, Baltimore's mobile system also generates a message on Twitter each time a report is submitted, and again once it's resolved. This feature has sparked a new trend: collections of unique and amusing city photos in blogs and social media groups. Those who prefer to send anonymous reports (a small percentage — mostly people reporting neighbors' violations, says Mitchell) can mark them as “private,” and the incident will not appear on the public list or on Twitter.

Tangible and intangible results

Almost immediately after it launched, Baltimore's 311 app began generating nearly 100 mobile submissions a day. These boosted the city's reporting volume by 10% within the first two months, and have remained steady. The city estimates this number represents a group of citizens who would not have otherwise submitted reports, but are reaching out because it's more convenient. After seven months, the Baltimore 311 mobile app has close to 7,000 registered users, and has logged more than 14,000 mobile reports.

While they can't put an exact dollar value on the return on investment, city managers have a much better understanding of how to allocate resources to best address citizens' needs. “The most important benefit, aside from providing the public with a convenient access tool, is that we can deliver timely, relevant answers to questions and resolve issues more quickly,” says Robert Minor, Baltimore's acting CIO.

After the mobile app launched, the city received more than 4,000 reports of trash/unsightliness. By analyzing report locations, the city now deploys sanitation staff more effectively to specific problem areas, and has reduced complaints by almost half. Likewise, reports on signs, signals, and parking issues have gone down 40%.

Another benefit: timeliness. “All good city managers realize things left undone are going to cost more in the long run,” says Mitchell. The more they know about what issues need to be addressed, the better they can nip expensive problems in the bud. Although the city has the option to “hide” any inappropriate messages, Mitchell reports that most of Baltimore's interactions have been positive. “Cities are social media savvy,” he says. “If they're being criticized for something, they want to know about it, and have the opportunity to take care of it quickly.”

Behind the scenes

In December 2010, Connected Bits and Baltimore's Information Technology Department began a four-month process of integrating the Spot Reporters software with Baltimore's existing customer relationship management system (CRM). When someone submits a report with the Baltimore 311 mobile app, the Connected Bits server receives it and relays it to Baltimore's Motorola Premier One CRM system, where it's routed to the appropriate department for response.

Each report's location is captured by the GPS technology in the user's smartphone, then converted by the Connected Bits server and georeferenced using Esri's ArcGIS Web services, to be included in the report.

The information is also routed to Baltimore's Cityworks asset management system through the Motorola CRM, where it can be analyzed to track how much is being spent on specific services in response to citizens' complaints. Spot Reporters can also tie directly in to asset management systems, depending on a city's setup.

In addition to collaborating on the “nuts and bolts” of making the systems communicate, the team customized the reporting system to create a seamless interface for citizens. Baltimore's 311 mobile app is unique in that, instead of starting with just a few general report categories, designers included as many detailed topics as possible, such as categorizing graffiti by specific type (offensive, threatening, etc.) and size.

By asking citizens to be so specific, the city saves time investigating report details. The streamlined reporting system also allows city staff to process the increased volume of reports efficiently — without extra help. As opposed to an operator manually entering a caller's report into a database, the mobile system automatically submits all the important details, including a photo.

The mayor's office is already considering upgrades to the system, including more detailed messages when reports are completed (closed/repaired; closed/reported to state agency), and the ability to take and send photos back to citizens to show requests have been addressed. Baltimore's 311 server can also interoperate with other systems through the national Open 311 interface, opening up many new possibilities for useful mobile apps (see below).

WHY YOU SHOULD LOOK FOR A PLATFORM THAT USES OPEN311

In March 2010, the White House launched an application programming interface (API) standard for Open311, a national protocol for location-based collaborative issue-tracking.

An API allows applications to read and query live government data, and submit new information online. The protocol doesn't require a developer like SeeClickFix or Connected Bits to establish a proprietary connection with a customer; instead providing a Web interface that appears on the city's website. Independent developers can also tap into the system to create custom mobile apps for citizens, such as the Boston BikeLane app, which lets cyclists report cars parked in bike lanes. Visit http://open311.org/learn.

Visit http://311.baltimorecity.gov or www.connectedbits.com.


Web Extras

Baltimore 311 on Twitter
Check out some of the city's 16,000+ Tweets from concerned citizens.

Beauty in the blight: The accidental art of Baltimore 311 images
Steve Earley compiles especially compelling photos from public reports.

Citizens Connect in Boston

BostonCitizens: The Best of Citizens Connect
People share their favorite images from the city's Citizens Connect app (the chair-in-a-tree is worth a look).

"Good night, sweet possum."
When a Boston citizen reported a possum in her trashcan and posted a photo via Citizens Connect, neighbor Susan Landibar saw the message and decided to respond. Before city workers even had a chance to follow up, Landibar had solved the problem and answered the original report. Will citizen response be an unexpected benefit of mobile reporting apps?

Video - Jennifer Pahlka: Coding a better government
Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, explains how mobile apps create powerful connection between citizens, their neighbors, and their governments. (Hear more about the Boston possum beginning at the 5:55 mark.)

More helpful apps for citizens

Boston BikeLane lets cyclists report cars parked in bike lanes.

AdoptaHydrant - Claim responsibility for shoveling out a fire hydrant after it snows.

American City and County - Counties use smart phone technology to keep residents informed.