E-Mail Makes a Comeback

As a communication medium, I think e-mail is making a comeback.

Don’t call it a comeback; I’ve been here for years.
– Ladies Love Cool James

I realize this seem patently ridiculous to anyone working furiously towards a state of inbox zero, or that struggles to maintain a reasonable number of unread e-mails in their account.

Let me explain.

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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.

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What Does A Civic Startup Look Like?

In my last post, I made reference to some of the qualities of civic startups – the special and important things about these kinds of small, agile companies that set them apart from other startups.

I think clarifying what civic startups are (and what they are not), as well as what we expect them to achieve is important.

Let me be clear, I have great respect for anyone who creates a startup. I have many friends in the technology community who either have, are or will work for a startup company. I do not mean to suggest that civic startups are, generally speaking, “better” than other kinds of startups.

What I mean to emphasize is that civic startups have particular qualities that make them attractive to both governments and citizens. Both parties have an interest in seeing these kinds of startups succeed because both will realize benefits when they do.

Let me explain.

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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.