County Holds Online Auctions

Michigan Radio recently ran an interesting story about a county in Michigan that is using an online auction to buy supplies. Taking bids for
government supplies is nothing new, but the technology involved here allows the county to get supplies from a much broader group of potential sellers than might otherwise be involved.

Here’s the scoop from an article by Lindsey Smith:

When Kent County needs office supplies, like printer paper, it opens an auction online. It lists a maximum price it’s willing to pay based on previous bills. Vendors offer to sell the county printer paper at that price or lower.

The auction runs in real time so businesses can name a lower price if they’re outbid. The auction may last an hour or so but if there are last minute bids the time will extend. After ten minutes go by with no new offers, the lowest bid gets the county’s business.

“It’s so simple but I mean getting to where we got it took like 3 and a half years to build the foundation,” Kent County Administrator/Controller Daryl Delabbio said. The program has saved Kent County more than $200,000 in 2 years. The county has used it to buy office supplies, paper towels, soap for the county jail, even a car.

Only about an hour seems like a pretty efficient system. That it took 3 years to develop may suggest the county needs a better method for developing new technologies. But they said they were trying to avoid the cost of paying a larger corporation for the service. Thankfully, the county is now hosting auctions for other cities for free. Here’s a link to the auction website.

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.