City sees a lot more than potholes in mobile reporting apps
- By William Jackson
- Mar 29, 2013
The city of North Miami Beach’s online reporting application, Fix It NMB, is a cloud-based system that automatically routes complaints submitted through mobile applications, the Web, text or telephone to the proper city officials.
Assistant City Manager Mac Serda has been using the service to report problems almost daily since the city adopted it in April 2012. “I make it a point when I’m travelling to and from the office to try to take a different route every day and notify people of what I see,” he said. “This is a very streamlined way to do it.”
But Serda sees the real value of Fix It NMB not in the front end, which enables easy reporting by the public, but in the back end, which can analyze complaints and track responses.
“I’ve got reporting tools to let me show what was done in the budgeted time” allocated for a response, he said. “Our response is typically the same day, so there is a lot of quick work being done that is not recognized. I’m looking forward to being able to demonstrate our response and show that we are not a sluggish bureaucracy.”
Eventually, Serda wants to analyze Fix It data to help predict problems areas and allocate resources. “The goal is similar to a crime prevention focus. I want to be there before the problem and catch it. It’s the real-time capabilities that are going to drive this.”
Fix IT NMB was developed and is hosted by Public Stuff, a New York-based company that provides its services to about 200 U.S. cities. The platform was launched about two years ago to automate municipal 311 services, which provide a single point of contact in a city for non-emergency issues that do not merit a 911 call, such as potholes, graffiti and problems with city services. It replaces the traditional answering center, where an operator takes a call and then forwards the information to a department, with an online system that can take rich data from a variety of platforms and automatically route it to the proper department and generate a work order.
Complaints can be submitted from desktop or laptop computers through a Web portal, but mobile apps let the system take advantage of features in smart phones and tablets such as geo-tagging and photographs. Voice and text messages also can be routed through the system, which is housed in the Amazon cloud. Submissions are directed from the cloud to the appropriate city and routed to the appropriate department based on the city’s workflow and policies.
Because it is hosted in the cloud, the service can stay up and running during emergencies that disrupt the local infrastructure, as happened in Philadelphia during last years’ Hurricane Sandy, said Public Stuff CEO Lily Liu.
“It’s fully customizable by the city staff,” said Liu. “We’ll work with the city to customize it any way they want, or they can do it on their own.”
The company serves municipalities, not focusing on any particular size. Current customers run the gamut from populations in the thousands to the millions, although most of them tend to be mid-sized cities from 100,000 to 300,000 in population, Liu said.
North Miami Beach is well below that range, with a population of 41,253 in the 2010 census. The city has no 311 phone system, so there was no central reporting channel for problems prior to Fix It. Serda said he saw the platform demonstrated at a conference and did research on available systems, but settled on Public Stuff because it had the back-end reporting tools that no one else had. And because it is a hosted service, the city pays only for the tools it uses.
“There was zero capital cost,” Serda said. “Just some business planning.”
Today the city has a Fix It NMB Web portal that allows users to report problems and concerns from a browser and also to download mobile apps for iPhones, Android and BlackBerry devices. There also are options for toll-free phone calls and texting. The calls go to a Public Stuff answering center where they are recorded, transcribed and forwarded to the city department responsible for the issue.
Users of the Web and mobile apps select from 51 categories of issues, from abandoned homes to zoning violations, describe the problem and its location (the request can be automatically geo-tagged if sent from a GPS-enabled device), can add a photo, and hit “submit.” The request is sent to the Public Stuff cloud platform and routed into the city workflow. The submitter gets an e-mail confirmation that it has been received and a notice when the issue has been closed. The portal also lets visitors see the status of current open complaints.
Serda gets an e-mail report every Monday morning of complaints that are past due for resolution so that bottlenecks can be identified. As of March 26, North Miami Beach showed 42 open complaints, including a variety of code and zoning violations, illegal driveways, dumping, overgrown grass and one case of “extreme tree hat-racking” (the indiscriminate cutting of tree branches to stubs).
Although in use for a year, the city is only now preparing an outreach campaign to promote Fix It NMB to the public. To date it has been used primarily as an internal tool by city employees.
“We have a lot of eyes and ears out on the road,” Serda said. “The goal is to make more of an impact with the means to quickly report what they see. I want Public Stuff to direct them to where their attention needs to be.”
Although Serda welcomes citizen use of Fix It NMB, he believes the biggest benefits will continue to be in-house by identifying capabilities and needs, finding out who is overloaded and what areas need additional attention. “If we can harness that intelligence, it will be more powerful.”
William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.