Adel Ebeid,  chief innovation officer of Philadelphia

Cloud-based 311 keeps Philly services agile

When Philadelphia’s original Open311 system kept the city from engaging with residents as it would like, officials decided to replace it.

The new system, announced last week, takes the city from an on-premise solution, implemented in 2008, to a commercial cloud-based one. And that frees the city’s Office of Innovation of Technology to manage information technology rather than build it and manage assets and processes, according to Adel Ebeid, the office’s chief innovation officer.

“We’ve learned the lesson over the years that when we customize the application, [it] is almost legacy status almost from the day we roll it out, so we placed a higher emphasis on configuration as opposed to customization,” Ebeid said. “We really value the intersection of mobile, social and cloud, and that’s one of the reasons the platform was appealing to us.”

The resulting system, built on Salesforce’s cloud computing platform and implemented by Unisys, removes any manual intervention for government workers as they track requests for services such as pothole repairs, graffiti removal or traffic light fixes from start to end.

“Anything that infuses a more intelligent way of doing work is always welcome by city workers,” Ebeid said.

City residents can submit their complaints by calling 311, filling out a form online or using a new mobile app, which lets them submit photos, video and audio files.

Regardless of the point of entry, all requests are maintained in a single repository and routed to individual departments responsible for handling the problem. There, the new system ties into the departments’ independent systems for processing work orders. Once the problem has been resolved, the Philly 311 system receives that information and syncs it with the repository.

Another way that users can ask the city for help is through its Neighborhood Community portal, which lets residents see other nearby requests and organize events to address the concerns. It includes a vote-up feature that lets residents who share similar concerns push their issue to the top of the queue. For instance, if several people on one block are complaining about an abandoned car, rather than each person filling out a form, they can add their votes to the initial report to give it a higher ranking.

“The sooner we can be alerted to what needs attention in the city, the sooner we can allocate the right level of resources so we can respond to it quickly,” Ebeid said. “When people are complaining about the same thing, that calls for a quicker response.”

“So clearly we are expecting to see a reduction in the time it takes to resolve an issue,” he added. “Any time you reduce the cycle, you also proportionately reduce the cost to respond and address an issue. We also want to improve the entire community engagement experience. We don’t want customers to call 911 for everything that is wrong.”

Overall, the new approach is a welcome one, he said.

“Public officials get better insight into community sentiment and how we are doing,” Ebeid said. “It aligns very well with our strategic direction to place as many services out in the cloud as possible so that we could really leverage the 24-by-7 infrastructure support, not necessarily be responsible for the replacement cycle.”

Philadelphia’s new open 311 initiative is part of a larger strategic initiative to revamp the city’s information technology infrastructure. Another big project Ebeid and his team are working on, for instance, is a revamp of the city’s main website,, using open source code and community input. They’re running a prototype of the new site alongside the existing one while it’s in alpha testing. He expects that phase to be complete this spring or summer.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.


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