Time to Get Tough with 311 Vendors

Big news recently in the Open311 world.

Lagan – a technology company that provides solutions for local government, including 311 systems – has announced the launch of an integration toolkit to allow “local government customers worldwide to receive and action service requests via social networks, mobile applications and third-party websites.”

This is good news for governments that want to utilize different communication channels to accept and respond to non-emergency service requests, or that want to stand up an API for outside developers to use.

Lagan’s announcement is based on some pioneering work done in the City of San Francisco to do both of these things – San Francisco was one of the first (if not the first) city to use social networking services to take 311 service requests, and they were an early adopter and enthusiastic advocate of the Open311 initiative.

Hopefully, this action by Lagan will catch on with other vendors. It’s worth noting that, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts (which conducted a study of Philadelphia’s 311 system earlier this year, and compared it to 14 other large cities with 311 service) that over 30 percent of large municipalities with 311 service share a common vendor – Motorola. It would be nice if Motorola would follow Lagan’s lead on this issue.

Whether or not they do is an open question. Certainly they have a customer that is as pioneering in their support of Open311 and alternative channels for 311 service as Lagan does (Motorola is the vendor for the District of Columbia).

I continue to believe (and have argued the point with other Open311 advocates) that the best way to “encourage” vendors to support integration toolkits like Lagan’s in their products is to make it a requirement in bidding on 311 projects.

Let’s be realistic – if even one of the large cities that utilize Motorola’s 311 solution made it a requirement during a contract renewal or an open bid that any 311 solution considered must support integration of multiple communication channels or have a generic interface for implementing an externally facing API it would get done. No question about it.

This position is actually strengthened by Lagan’s recent announcement. They have removed any possibility of responding to such a requirement in a bid by saying that no vendor supports such functionality. There is now a vendor that does – Lagan.

It’s time for governments with 311 services to get tough with their vendors and insist that they support alternate channels for servicing 311 requests and for implementing external API’s.

Twitter, Facebook, Geotagging and 311

Several weeks back, I wrote a quick post about the new locational functionality being rolled out in Twitter. Now that this new functionality is being supported by more and more Twitter clients, I think its time for an object lesson in how Twitter’s new locational feature (and soon Facebook’s) can be used to engage citizens to submit 311 service requests.

Consider the following Tweet (sent using TweetDeck for iPhone):

311 Service Request Tweet

Here is the data behind this Tweet in XML format, courtesy of the Twitter API:

Does this Tweet contain enough information to start a 311 Service request (and by “start” I mean via some application logic that automatically parses 311 tweets and requires no human intervention)?

It has a hashtag describing the nature of the request (#pothole), a URL to a picture of the offending pothole (admittedly a pretty wimpy one) and it also has the lat/long of the location where I took the picture. All together, it took me about 15-20 seconds to take the photo, geotag the Tweet and compose the message.

The Twitter API provides some background information on me, in the event that the government handling this kind of a service request wants or needs it. If there was really a need for more, it wouldn’t be all that hard to build a Twitter BOT to interact with the person Tweeting the service request and get any additional information that was required.

One of the primary benefits for governments from deploying a 311 API, or working with companies like CitySourced or SeeClickFix is that it can help engage (and empower) citizens to report service requests. If it’s quick, easy and convenient to report 311 requests, people will do it and they are more likely to be satisfied with the experience (something that doesn’t always happen when citizens interact with government).

The new locational feature of Twitter (and soon of Facebook) will provide governments with a very effective way of empowering citizens to report 311 service requests.

It will be interesting to see how many of the them leverage this as part of their 311 services.

Command Line GeoTwitter

A few months back I wrote a quick post about tweeting from the command line. With the recent announcement that Twitter’s location feature is starting to go live, I decided to revisit this idea, with an eye toward adding locational information.

(I am, at heart, a cheapskate – I could have bought one of the existing Twitter clients that support locational Tweets but I really just want to play around with this new feature for now. The command line is free, baby!)

Twitter’s API methods now support adding geographic coordinates with a status update. Sending out a GeoTweet using the command line is easy (note, this example assumes you know the lat/long of the location you want to associate with your Tweet).

Open up your favorite editor and drop the following into it:

curl -s -u user:password -d status="$1" -d lat="$2" -d long="$3" http://twitter.com/statuses/update.xml > /dev/null

Save the file and make sure it is executable (chmod u+x fileName). You can execute this file at the command line like this:

$ ./fileName "Testing twitter geolocation feature" "+39.754571" "-75.571985"

When you examine the properties of this tweet, you will see that it now has geographic information associated with it:

<geo xmlns:georss="http://www.georss.org/georss">
  <georss :point>39.754571 -75.571985</georss>
</geo>

How cool is that!

As more Twitter applications (and the Twitter website itself) roll out support for this new feature, a host of new Gov 2.0 potential is going to be unlocked. I think this will have huge implications for services like 311, where location is critical to service requests.

Municipalities like New York City and San Francisco that have already incorporated Twitter into their 311 service will have a big head start in this regard.