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?