Call center

Open311 reduces dependence on call centers

The Open311 initiative is an effort initiated by a handful of cities several years ago to develop standardized protocols for bringing location-based information to existing municipal non-emergency service systems.

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The result is an open model for that has enabled development of third-party applications as an alternative to calling a city’s traditional 311 call center.

Call centers with human operators can be expensive to staff and often do not operate 'round the clock. “E-mail is expensive to respond to, and it’s not integrated” into existing systems, said David Moody, vice president of product marketing for KANA Software, and formerly CTO of Lagan Technologies before its acquisition by KANA.

Citizens expect to be able to use personal devices to access government services such as 311, and the devices, which can provide photos and accurate geographical coordinates, offer a potential to streamline service delivery for the city if the information can be integrated into existing systems.

“Primarily, Open311 refers to a standardized protocol for location-based collaborative issue-tracking,” according to “By offering free web API access to an existing 311 service, Open311 is an evolution of the phone-based 311 systems that many cities in North America offer.” was established by the non-profit OpenPlans organization and is managed by Civic Commons, an organization supporting open technology for government. By making the Open311 API available to developers, interoperable tools can be developed by third parties and easily integrated into existing systems.

As described by, the applications can allow anyone using a mobile device or a computer to enter information about a problem at a given location. By incorporating functionality of mobile devices, this information can include GPS coordinates and photos. Depending on the location and app being used, the report can be routed to the proper city and department to address the problem.

Unlike a traditional 311 report usually made by phone, the information is available for anyone to see online and it allows anyone to contribute more information. This collaboration through an open model makes it easier to gather and organize more information about problems and provides transparency and accountability in municipalities.

With an open source API as the foundation for the system, options are opened up both for cities and for citizens. “When a developer creates a new application to work with San Francisco’s 311 system, it should also work for Washington, D.C.,’s system, but people shouldn’t be forced to use any one application,” the organization says.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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