Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

The Next Big Thing: Open311 Inquiry API

Earlier this month, Philip Ashlock of OpenPlans published a nice Open311 “wish list” for the new year.

There is a lot of exciting stuff on this list, and Phil’s thoughts are sure to be the basis for lots of innovative and interesting work in 2012.

311 Contact Center

When people think about the “Open311 standard” they typically think of the GeoReport V2 specification. This is the spec that details the interface for submitting non-emergency service requests to municipalities.

Reporting potholes, graffiti, garbage on the streets, etc. is often what people envision when they think of municipal 311 service. But this is only part (actually, a relatively small part) of the types of contacts that 311 centers receive.

For most 311 centers, the majority of contacts involve not the reporting of an incident, but an inquiry – a question about government services or a request for information.

Information, not service

Consider the 311 service center in Philadelphia. In early 2010, the Pew Charitable Trust conducted an in depth review of the first year of operation of Philly311. Looking at the makeup of calls to the 311 service center shows that the overwhelming majority were calls for information, not to request a service.

On average in 2009, seven in ten callers to Phillly311 were looking for basic or general information. On average, 19 percent
needed to be transferred to another department or line, a rate that Philly311 likes to keep low. Another 9 percent were asking
for a service, requiring an agent to submit a formal request to another city department.

Over seventy percent of calls on average to the Philly311 center were to ask a question, not to report an issue.

Assuming that this experience is similar to 311 operations in other municipalities, the biggest benefits of automation and innovation derived from a 311 API lie in addressing requests for information, not submitting service requests.

To this point, there is a nascent standard for querying data about government services and information – the 311 Inquiry API.

This developing standard was put forward by officials in New York City, who developed the first iteration of the specification. There is a new version currently in draft form.

Why it matters

The further development of a 311 Inquiry API and innovation built around it will be hugely important for municipalities running 311 contact centers, and even some that don’t.

There is a very real, mesurable cost associated with calls to 311 contact centers. The Pew report mentioned above reviewed the budget allocations and call volumes of 15 large U.S. cities that run 311 centers. It estimates the average cost per call to 311 centers over these 15 cities at $3.39 per call.

If self-service applications and utilities can be built on top of a 311 Inquiry API then it may be possible to drive down the volume of telephone calls to 311 contact centers. But even without a huge reduction in the number of calls, new self-service apps built on a 311 Inquiry API can lead to a better allocation of existing municipal resources.

There are inevitably people that will need to call a 311 center for information that are not able to self serve – either because of a lack of access to web or mobile apps for self service, or because of some other barrier (e.g., language).

These individuals are most appropriately handled by contact center agents, while other individuals – those with access to the web or mobile apps – are more appropriate for self service. This will ensure that the most expensive and valuable resources in a 311 contact center – i.e., agents – are allocated to those citizens who most need more intensive, hands-on help.

Contact center managers certainly don’t want agents answering inquiries from people who are able to self serve, or who are more easily able to obtain needed information from another source. This ties up an expensive, finite resource within a contact center with an individual who has other options in how they get their information.

I applaud the good folks at OpenPlans for all of the hard work they have done, and are doing, to encourage innovation in 311 services. If you havent read Phil’s Open311 wish list I highly recommend it.

On my own personal 311 wish list for 2012 is one thing – the further development and use of a 311 Inquiry API.

Fingers crossed that we’ll see more on this front in the next 12 months.

4 responses to “The Next Big Thing: Open311 Inquiry API”

  1. Mark, this triage strategy that you outline for 311 sounds a lot like what Richard Zorza has been advocating for the courts and civil legal aid for at least the past 10 years ( and probably longer). At its foundation is the idea that everyone should receive the service they need but in the cheapest way possible. In this, there is the acknowledgement that not every tool available will be right for every person, but rather than start with the assumption that everyone needs to be represented by an attorney for every legal problem, you save representation for the problems and people who need it. Otherwise money is wasted on cases where people could have represented themselves but didn’t and leaves people and cases that require representation without the help they need because resources don’t exist. I wonder how many other areas of government and human services could benefit from looking at the same type of model.

  2. Kate,

    Yeah that’d exactly what I mean. You set up a range of options for people to get the service they need and (hopefully) set the right incentives on those options so people are able to select the one that works best for them.

    What’s interesting is how technology can be used to set up these incentives. If we make it quick and frictionless to get information via a website or mobile app, people that can self serve that way will more likely do do.

    This will reserve more expensive resources (in terms of time and money) for those that can’t self serve.

  3. Mark, you’ve been pushing for an Open311 Inquiry API for quite a while now, and I’ll have to agree with you that it represents a vast opportunity for accelerating adoption of Open311. As you noted in citing the Pew Philadelphia 311 Report, the 311 Community overall typically experiences a 75% to 25% ratio of Inquiry and Referral calls to actual Services Requests.

    Recognizing this, 311 cities are indeed looking to channel the majority of these calls into self-service modes (IVR, web FAQs), leaving live-agent responses for real requests for service. Of course, this requires a robust yet easily searchable knowledgebase along with standardized key words.

    I believe an Open311 Inquiry API would be crucial in helping cities drive this self-service along with the necessary standardization.

  4. Given the ratio of inquiries to service requests, it is perplexing to me to see the in-balance in media coverage and (perhaps) effort towards Open Fix My ____’ apps that runs on the latest gadget.

    One nugget that I read that guides my line of thinking and action is…”if they have to call…” to get answers, “..then there is something wrong” (meaning…something better can be done to avoid this call in the first place).

    Further, service delivery tiers make it challenging to the citizen to know “who does what” .

    I would like to see a private sector solution that aggregates government knowledge-bases and packages localized answers to citizens in a way that they will consume…because “it is just there”.

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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