Mobile users get the full 311 menu with city's new app

The nation's first municipal 311 non-emergency call center now lets citizens report problems and request services through a mobile app that supports images and GPS data.

Baltimore established the nation’s first municipal 311 call center in 1996, a year before the Federal Communications Commission allocated the three-digit calling code nationally for non-emergency government services.

“311 is probably one of our most critical services,” said city CIO Rico Singleton. “It’s a one-stop call center. We do about a million calls a year.”

In September, the city expanded the service through a mobile app that lets citizens use their smart phones to report problems and request services, incorporating data such as photos and GPS coordinates into the existing 311 workflow to provide city administrators and workers with additional information.


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“The photos have probably been the most valuable piece of information,” Singleton said of the new service. By being able to see in advance the problem being addressed, “we can dispatch the right type of tools to start with.”

The system, built on the Spot Reporters framework from Connected Bits with Android and iPhone apps, also helps to take some of the pressure off of the 311 call center, which handles about 3,000 calls a day. Budget cuts have forced the call center to cut its staffing from 24 hours a day to the hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The mobile app does not cut the number of requests coming into the center, and in fact probably will increase them, but requests coming from the online app can take less time and effort to assess and to send to the proper department.

The 311 code is the national recognized alternative to 911 for non-emergency services. When Baltimore established its 311 call center in 1996, it initially was for non-emergency calls to police. It since has expanded to support all government services, giving citizens a single point of contact for reporting problems of any type. A Motorola customer relationship management (CRM) system allows the call center staff to route requests to the appropriate department for scheduling and dispatching.

The call center also has a Web presence, but it has not been widely used.

“We don’t get as many Web service requests as telephone calls,” Singleton said. “Baltimore has a big digital divide,” and many lower-income citizens are more likely to spend money on a smart phone before a computer and broadband connection. So in 2010 the city began looking for a way to extend the service to mobile devices without depending on the website.

“A mobile device is different,” said Dave Mitchell, co-founder of Connected Bits LLC. The website has to be optimized for the smaller screen, and the mobile browser often does not easily support smart-phone functionality such as using GPS coordinates or capturing photos. “You need to have an additional app” to take advantage of all the features.

Having to install the application is not a hindrance to using the service, Mitchell said. “Everybody has apps,” and the added ease of working in a smart-phone application rather than through a browser “makes all the difference in the world. It’s a different paradigm.”

CRM-311 integration

Experience in integrating a 311 application with an existing CRM was a key factor in Baltimore’s choice of the Spot Reporter platform, Singleton said.

“Connected Bits stood out because they were the only company that had a city production integration done,” he said. That city was Boston, one of the early adopters of the technology. The back-end software acts like middleware with the CRM. “It was fairly simple and didn’t disrupt our existing processes.”

When a service request is submitted from an application, it hits the call center’s server and goes into the CRM workflow like a phone call or a Web submission. “Once we get it, our process is exactly the same,” Singleton said. “The request pops up in the responder’s queue.” The responder determines which city agency should deal with the problem and sends it out. The agency is responsible for scheduling responses and dispatching staff to deal with requests.

The submitter gets a ticket number for the request and is able to track the response, and can opt to receive a notification when it has been completed. Baltimore also has an option to make the request public via Twitter, and the city updates the response to those requests through a Twitter feed so the public can keep track of response times.

Integrating the back end with the CRM system began in December 2010 and took about four months. The only unexpected hurdle was when Motorola upgraded the system in the spring of 2011. “It caused our mobile apps to break,” Singleton said. “Some of the programming logic changed.” But Connected Bits was able to quickly fix its software to adapt to the upgrade.

Front-end development

Developing the front-end application that runs on the smart phone went more quickly, although Baltimore had some unique needs.

“We knocked out the first prototype in two or three weeks,” Mitchell said. But, “Baltimore was a little different for us.” Most cities emphasize simplicity in the application, making as few demands on the user as possible. “Baltimore did it differently.” Assuming that users were used to working online and going through lists, the city’s app takes as much information as possible about the nature of the problem being reported and its location, and which city agency or service should deal with it. It also allows users to attach photos of the problem with Global Positioning System information that can provide more detailed location than a street address or a description.

This information cuts down on the time needed to process the request on the back end, taking a burden off the city. In Boston’s system, 40 to 50 percent of requests fall into the nonspecific “other” category. In Baltimore, only about 11 percent fall into “other” because of the more detailed information available, Mitchell said.

Graffiti, or instance, is handled differently depending on its content (whether it is indecent, threatening or merely irritating), its location (city property or private property), its size, and the surface it is on. A photo with a GPS location can determine quickly who is responsible for it, how urgent it is, and what materials will be needed to fix it.

GPS also is useful, but it is not always easy for the user to acquire. Accuracy depends on the type of device being used and how long the user is at the site to acquire the data. When reporting a pothole from a moving vehicle, for example, it can be difficult to attach accurate coordinates. But most of the locations that have been submitted with requests “have been dead-on accurate,” Singleton said. “That’s a big help.”

The apps were launched in August 2011 with a press conference, and they have been promoted through social media, civic organizations and agency outreach programs. Through September, the first full month of operation, about 2,000 had been downloaded, about 60 percent of them for the iPhone. That same month, 1,875 requests were received from the apps, about 70 percent from iPhones and 30 percent from Android. The most common category of complaint is trash in streets and alleys, Singleton said.

At a rate of 3,000 calls a day, requests received from mobile apps in September amounted to only about 2 percent of the call center’s volume, and it is too early to say whether the new option is cutting into the number of phone calls or adding to the total number of requests being received.

Singleton said he believes the app is “taking some call volume down, which is helpful.”

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