Can open source make 311 relevant?

Can open source make 311 relevant?

Summary: Think of Open 311 as a last chance to interest cities in something the phone companies tossed over the side long ago.


The 311 service has been a "red headed stepchild" for American cities practically since it was launched in the mid-1990s as a phone service.

(Picture from Moonbattery, a conservative blog.)

The idea was to make 311 the 911 for non-emergency calls. A burning building call 911, a burning question call 311. But that charge was so broad that most cities did not know what to do with it.

Since it required Bell cooperation to implement, and did not deliver the Bells revenue, many cities (like Atlanta, where I live) ignored it. Many ignore it still.

The launch of Open311 as an open API by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (right) and Obama CIO Vivek Kundra will not change this right away.

Think of it instead as a last chance to interest cities in something the phone companies tossed over the side long ago.

There are several reasons for past 311 failures, some of which the open source API addresses, some of which it doesn't:

  • The choice of what to offer on it is often a political decision, and inertia rules cities as well as Washington.
  • It takes money to publicize and draw consumer interest to a 311 service.
  • Political boundaries. Should individual suburbs have their own 311 services, or should they get together and make it a county service? Politics again.
  • Implementation still takes money. An OpenAPI can help here by lowering costs and drawing interest through applications.

Mainly, 311 takes political leadership, and requires that someone invest political capital that might better be invested elsewhere.

In their press event Newsom and Kundra emphasized mobile apps. There's an app for city government. But believe it or not smart phone penetration isn't that enormous, especially in the poor neighborhoods that most need quick access to services.

Web interfaces are going to be important here. So may be the cooperation of schools and libraries, cooperation that may come with a price. The schools and libraries may want the bulk of the services without investing heavily in development.

The risk is that open source may be labeled, as Kundra himself has been, as a phony if things don't work out.

I'm personally more jazzed by the participation of  Newsom, because the San Francisco mayor is term-limited and looking for a place to land his career. There are ongoing reports he may run for Lt. Governor, maybe even for President.

But rather than run for anything at a time when being in public service is assumed to disqualify you for it, he might be better served seizing the opportunities Open311 affords. A foundation to run the .org, a company to run the .com, and the same charismatic gentleman on top of both. Government's answer to Dries Buytaert, with better clothes.

Sounds like a better political plan to me. He can gain standing without taking responsibility for running anything, since actual implementation remains in the hands of local governments. He can take credit for success without risking much blame for failure. And he can make money doing it.

So along with the question of open source making 311 relevant, could it also make Gavin Newsom relevant?

Topics: Open Source, Government, Government US, Mobility, Telcos

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  • Great service - but too expensive

    As a former Bell Solution architect that worked with city governments listening to their needs, the concept of 311 is very attractive.

    Few have rolled it out for several reasons;

    VOIP is a priority if a budget funding is available - primarily to replace centrex

    City's rarely have value add budget - even if there's a long term forecast that solutions like 311 <i><b>may</i></b> reduce their operating costs and increase efficiency. Because of the economy, budget analysis are rarely planned beyond a year. Most city budget cycles and forecast have been wrong in every large metro region over the past decade.

    Subscription service applications like those that would be put onto smart phones is not a cost model most cities can afford.

    And finally, the reality is 311 is not attractive when compared to existing web development of city products and services. Cities cannot afford both.

    311 systems for large metro cities is in the millions of dollars to deploy.
  • RE: Can open source make 311 relevant?

    There's this thing called, what is it? Oh yeah, the Internet. Your man Gore invented it or something.

    311, indeed.
  • RE: Can open source make 311 relevant?

    311 is "DOA", few if any would use it anyhow...
    we have too many instances of the 911 system
    being used to complain about fast-food drive-up
    mistakes, prank calls and general stupidity.

  • RE: Can open source make 311 relevant?


    Websites are far more effective. People don't need
    directions, they have GPS. Computers accessing websites
    can handle everything else.

    311 was never viable and never will be.
  • RE: Can open source make 311 relevant?

    works fine in nyc,when we use it, it works
  • Newsom planning run for Lt. Gov

    Kimberly Guilfoyle, Newsum's ex, recently stated he told her that he plans to file for Lt. Governor.
  • Message has been deleted.

  • RE: Can open source make 311 relevant?

    A foundation to run the .org, a company to run the .com, and the same charismatic gentleman on top of both. Governments answer to Dries Buytaert, with better clothes.<a href=""><font color="white"> k</font></a>