Minneapolis city services

City calls in open standards to clear away 311 pile-up

The city of Minneapolis has launched a mobile app for reporting non-emergency service issues that uses Open311 standards to automate tasks now handled in labor-intensive call centers.

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The free app from SeeClickFix lets users of iPhones, Android phones and BlackBerry devices report problems that otherwise would have to be called in to the city’s 311 call center or reported through a Web site.

The application not only can gather more information than other reporting methods, such as photos and location coordinates, but by working through a cloud service hosted by KANA Software, the information can be routed automatically to the department and crews responsible for responding.

311 is a short dialing code reserved for non-emergency municipal services, although not all cities offer the service. It is analogous to 911, which is used nationally for emergency services such as police, fire and ambulance.

The goal of the program, launched in July, was to provide more options for citizens without adding to the city’s workload in processing reports, said Minneapolis 311 Director Don Stickney. “The use of smart devices seems to be almost doubling on an annual basis" based on the number of mobile hits from smart devices on the city’s 311 website, Stickney said. “As we see our customers shifting channels, we wanted to open up for more mobility.”

But he did not want to simply add to the 2,400 311 calls the city already received each day. He wanted to handle the reports differently and bypass the call center. “We wanted the mobile app to do the 'me thing' the customer service rep does,” he said.

This is done by using richer data in a standardized format so that it can be integrated directly into the existing 311 service back end, bypassing the people at the front end. By using a cloud-based Open311 service from the vendor that already is providing the city’s 311 technology, Minneapolis was able to do that without large capital expenditures for hardware or software.

Overall, 311 is not an expensive service for Minneapolis, and might even be a money-saver. Startup costs for the initial system in 2004 was $6.3 million, which came from a combination of city and federal funds. Operation is intended to be “budget neutral,” with each city department funding its share of the costs through its existing budget. Because the system can help identify problems and address them early, some cities have reported that they have seen cost savings through 311.

“Minneapolis is a very sophisticated customer,” said David Moody, KANA’s vice president of product marketing.

It opted to work with SeeClickFix to develop a city-specific Open311 application, although non-specific apps also are available that will direct reports to the appropriate city office based on location of the problem being reported. The advantage of Open311 is that cities, citizens and vendors are not tied to proprietary tools to access these services. “It’s not about one mobile app for one city,” Moody said. “It supports multiple apps for multiple platforms.”

Although 311 calls do not have the urgency of 911 calls, they present their own challenges. “For anybody offering 311, they are taking responsibility for handling calls for every department in the city,” he said. There can be dozens of departments handling complaints about potholes, graffiti, parking violations and water leaks, and each complaint has to be assessed and routed to the right people in the right department.

This requires knowledge management that has been difficult to automate using regular customer relationship management tools, Moody said. “The devil is in the details.”

Not only are there more types of problems to resolve than in the typical CRM system, there are more departments handling them than in most corporate environments. And with 311 services, “it’s all about location,” Moody said. People, the main focus for CRM applications, are secondary in 311 service.

One of the players in the 311 niche market was Lagan Technologies, which was acquired by KANA in 2010. Lagan had been providing 311 services facilities for Minneapolis since 2006. The Lagan application resides on hardware in two data centers — a primary and a backup — run by Unisys Corp. Human beings have to answer the phones, ask questions and evaluate information submitted through the website to route requests.

For 18 months, KANA has been offering Open311 as an option for its customers, providing a cloud service with an application programming interface that third-party apps can use to access capabilities. The app accepts photos taken by the device as well as GPS coordinates if available and prompts the user for basic information about the problem being reported. The data is sent to the cloud, where the Open311 software queries the user for additional information needed to route the report. The cloud software is integrated with the city’s 311 back end so that the report can be sent to the proper department and crews with the proper priority without going through the call center.

Users also get a tracking number so they can follow the resolution of the problem, and lists of problems reported through Open311 can be accessed online so that citizens can follow the reports and their city’s responses.

Minneapolis wanted to take advantage of this capability when bringing mobile devices into its 311 system, 311 Director Stickney said. “We wanted to make sure whatever we did was compatible with Open311.”

Rather than use a generic app that could be adopted by any city, Minneapolis went to SeeClickFix in January to develop an app that could evolve to meet the city’s specific needs. “It took some effort to find it and make it work the way we wanted it too,” Stickney said. “It was a learning experience for everybody, but it worked out well.” The app was delivered on time and on budget for launching in July.

The current app is not a finished product and is expected to evolve. It currently addresses 10 types of common problems, and additional categories are expected to be added by winter to address seasonal problems such as snow and ice on roads and sidewalks. Future developments will depend on demand, Stickney said. “We are open to how the customers say they want to use this.”

Minneapolis is not the first city to use Open311. San Francisco and Washington, D.C., were among the earliest adopters, releasing APIs to developers in 2010. Washington announced the release of a SeeClickFix app in 2011, and a handful of tools are available for San Francisco, including several different apps for Androids, BlackBerrys, iPhones, Facebook and the HeyGov! Web portal.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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