What if you could call your city public works department, located about 45 minutes from your home, request a recycling sticker, and have a city worker show up at your door 18 minutes later? That’s the power of Boston’s new City Worker App.
Piloted last year, the new mobile app integrates seamlessly with the city’s existing 311 system for non-emergency information calls and service requests. It takes all of the service requests made by citizens for potholes, graffiti, streetlight outages, and even recycling stickers, and routes them to the Android-based mobile device of the nearest work crew from the responsible department.
“Workers from our public works department, transportation department and parks department are using it to go out and resolve issues,” said Justin Holmes, director of constituent engagement for the City of Boston.
“No longer will a parks department employee who is inspecting trees in the city have to go back to his office multiple times to fill out paperwork or use a desktop computer to close out a report.”
Mobile 311 apps are introducing new efficiencies that few even thought about a few years ago.”
And what’s happening in Boston is not unique. It’s part of a wave of Open 311 technology development that is spreading through local governments from coast to coast and even internationally.
What started more than 30 years ago as a call-center based effort to reduce the number of non-emergency calls that were being made to 911, has quickly evolved to Web self-service applications and, more recently, to the world of cloud-based mobile applications.
“When self-service was introduced via the Web, less than 10% of users opted to shift,” said Steve Carter, director of public sector for KANA Software Inc., one of the world’s leading 311/customer relationship management (CRM) software vendors.
“Web 311 just never became popular. But the reality is that when mobile came along, particularly the iPhone, that was the first time you had people who might not have called 311 before realizing that snapping a photo, using the GPS to say where [the problem] is, and downloading this app to report something wrong at the bus stop or while walking to work, wasn’t such a heavy lift for them.”
Kana’s move to the Open 311 standard about a year ago has helped local governments eliminate the need to write custom code and modifications to move services to mobile apps. Those that have already deployed KANA’s Lagan software in their 311 call centers already have the infrastructure in place to move whatever they want to a mobile app in the cloud.
The cities of Minneapolis, Boston and San Francisco have all embraced cloud-based mobile 311 apps within the last 24 months. And while each has taken a slightly different path to mobility, they have experienced similar gains in efficiency and citizen engagement.
Minneapolis’ mobile 311 app is hosted in the cloud, but is closely integrated with the city’s back-end CRM system, which is also based on Lagan.
“So when somebody fills out a service request for a pothole or something like that, it goes directly to the resolving department and 311 doesn’t even have to touch it,” said Don Stickney, 311 director for the city of Minneapolis. “That’s where we’ve gained a lot of efficiencies on behalf of 311.”
Minneapolis launched the mobile app on July 18. Within about a week they had more than 2,500 downloads. And as of the morning of Breaking Gov’s interview with Stickney on August 15, the city had already received more than 950 service requests through the app alone.
“That’s the beauty of it,” said Nancy Alfaro, director of 311 for San Francisco. “Any member of the public submitting a request through their mobile device is going directly to the servicing agency.”
But David Moody, vice president of product marketing at KANA, sees the upswing to mobile as something larger than “channel shift” – people who normally call-in to 311 or use Web self-service suddenly deciding to use a mobile app. To the contrary, Moody sees governments reaching new demographics and expanding their citizen engagement.
“The starting point was always channel shift – getting people to use mobile devices rather than make a phone call,” said Moody. “The reality is that’s not what’s happening anymore. You’re actually opening up a new demographic. You’re not shifting channels, but you’re actually getting more people to contact you.”
And that was the goal of Boston all along when it launched the Boston Citizens Connect app in 2009, said Justin Holmes, director of constituent engagement for the City of Boston.
“We firmly believe that government is better when citizens are firmly engaged,” he said. “We suspected there was a population that was either unaware of our 24-hour call service or the process of dialing a 10-digit number was a barrier to their engagement. So by introducing the mobile app, what we’ve done is really engage a population in Boston that really was not engaged before.”
And when Holmes conducted the city’s first comprehensive review of 311 statistics late last year, he found a doubling of service requests coming into the city.
But the increase in volume doesn’t seem to be a problem for the cities Breaking Gov talked to. To the contrary, the mobile 311 apps are introducing new efficiencies that few even thought about a few years ago.
“On a mobile device you have a number of things available to you that you don’t have when you make a phone call,” said Moody. “One is GPS and another is photographs.”
They sound rather simple to experienced smart phone users, but the GPS and photo features embedded in today’s mobile devices are having a significant impact on how local government agencies work.
Photographs can help work crews better prepare for the job, ensuring that they bring the right equipment. GPS provides exact location data that saves time looking for the location of the reported problem and can help crews plan the most efficient route to the location.
“One of the things that we’ve learned is that a picture tells a thousand words,” said Stickney. “A lot of the questions that we would have to ask when a call comes to the call center are avoided when you get a picture of what the issue is.”
From iPhones to iPads
In San Francisco, Alfaro said the agencies responsible for responding to service requests are now beginning to leverage mobile 311 apps in a way only a few other cities, like Boston, has accomplished. – they’re equipping work crews in the field with tablet computers, enabling them to receive and close out service requests directly.
“One of the things that is evolving very quickly is the use of tablets and closing cases from the field using iPads,” said Minneapolis’ Stickney.
“As departments begin replacing some of the paper-based systems with tablets, we’ll have better real-time reporting of issues and customers will get notified right away. It really closes the loop for the customer.”