Basics of 311

I want to start this blog by highlighting a great article (though dated) about the basics of 311 data collection and how cities are moving from mere data collection to making that data actionable. (For more on that topic see this post by John Geraci of DIYCity.)

In “What a Hundred Million Calls to 311 Reveal About New York” by Steven Johnson, published in Wired Magazine and available online here, Johnson covers how New York is using 311 call lines to solve real problems. As an example, he tells the story of how city inspectors used the location of 311 callers to target the location of what was producing a strange syrupy smell in the New York City (it was a plant processing Fenugreek seeds).

Johnson springboards from that seemingly trivial story into stuff that has a big potential to influence the way cities operate. To me, the most exciting part is revealed by an annual contest held by New York City. As Johnson says it:

“New York has sponsored an annual competition called NYC BigApps, modeled after an earlier program in Washington, DC. Participants design and submit web or mobile apps that draw on information stored in the city’s Data Mine, which encompasses hundreds of machine-readable databases, including a sliver of 311 information. The first BigApps winners, announced in early 2010, were awarded cash prizes of up to $5,000 and a meal with the mayor. One winner, Taxihack, allowed users to post reviews of individual cabs and their drivers. The grand-prize winner, WayFinder NYC, superimposes directions to nearby subway stations over photos that users take on their Android phones.”

This method of drawing on the public (and encouraging competition) is both simple but groundbreaking. The potential to improve our cities is huge. Of course NYC is capable of sponsoring bigger rewards and attracting more talent than probably any other city government. But there is no reason why this model couldn’t be replicated, and, indeed, it already is being replicated (in some form) by other cities. For example, Chicago—which already has an established 311 system—announced this summer that it is trying to establish an App Contest.

Whatever the merits of App Contests, the broader point is that the more data a government collects and makes accessible to the public, the more individuals (and companies) are able to develop tools to improve city life and even government functioning. I plan to continue to follow App Contests through this blog, particularly Chicago’s.