Three reasons why Open 311 improves communities

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A few weeks ago, I was honored to give an Ignite Talk at the Socrata Customer Summit. My talk was on the power of Open 311 data to improvecommunication and build stronger communities.

For SeeClickFix and our partners, we are firm, hard believers that better communication builds stronger community. And during the talk, I talked about one big, fat, and vitally important slice of what this belief can look like in practice: the value of open citizen services data.

By the end of the talk, I told them three powerful reasons to open up data around citizen services and 311 data: with a story attached to each:

  • Governments can solve more, better.
  • Government can help government solve more, better.
  • Citizens can help government solve more, better.

Here's my slide deck (video to come soon!):

Better Communication, Stronger Community : Socrata Customer Summit from Caroline Smith

Government can solve more, better.


Opening up 311 data allows governmentsto more clearly identify and promote your goals and priorities.

There can be two really hard things governments have to do: 1. Figure out and agree collectively what is a priority; and 2. Once they know what's their priority, collectively implement a strategy.By making citizen services data public, it becomes really clear, really quickly what issues are concerning citizens the most. And, therefore, it becomes easier for governments to come together, across departments, to focus and dedicate time and resources to solving those issues.

For example, in Detroit, MI, they had a massive problem with folks stealing from abandoned houses. They would steal many things fromthese houses, but a particularly harmful theft were the water meters in each house.Not only were these meters expensive but, once gone, water would flood the room, basement, surrounding yard, and into the street.By the time, the flooding came the City of Detroit's attention, it was too late: tremendous amounts of water would be wasted.

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Citizens began reporting stolen water meters/signs of flooding in abandoned houses.They were worried and would report for a number of reasons: 1. Flooding could potentially damage their property; and 2. They didn't want their city's valuable resources to be wasted. As the issues came in on SCF's public platform, it became very easy and apparent to Detroit that this was a top issue that needed addressing.And it was the transparency of this data, that allowed for collective agreement across departments in Detroit to put time, energy, & resources into solving this issue for themselves and for their citizens. Open data made Detroit make decisions more swiftly and easily ' better backed & more clear solutions.

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Government can help government solve more, better.

The 2nd reason to open up citizen services data is that it allows government to help government solve more, better.In other words, it helps make government accessible to government.

As it turns out, increasing accessibility within government internally can be really difficult. And this isn't good because there's a lot that can go missing, a lot of inefficiencies heightened when departments are limited in what they can learn or get from each other.By allowing departments to have access to other departments' citizen services data, it improves not only individual departments but the entire ecosystem of departments.

For example, in Burlington, VT, the city was facing a huge heroin epidemic. There was an increase in arrests, hospitalizations, and need for care. In addition,a symptom was the dangerous littering of used syringes.Burlington needed a way to locate and collect syringes in a safe, efficient way.

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Burlington collaborated with the Howard Center (work group tackling substance abuse issues) and Police Department to create service request in SeeClickFix called "Found syringe".Now citizens who were better able to find these syringes but unable to safely throw them away could take a picture and report the syringe.Burlington could forward and route these to the Health Department who could easily dispose of the syringes.

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In addition, Burlington, Howard Center, and the Police Department collaborated to use the data collected to better understand the nature of the epidemic. Where were these syringes being reported the most? Where were the hotspots? What neighborhoods were most affected? The data allowed the team to get a sense of problem areas to inform programming such as a dropbox system of posting dropbox posts where individuals could drop off used syringes.

Opening up data allowed departments within governments to connect to solve problems, allowing government to help government.

Citizens help government solve more, better.

The 3rd reason to open up citizen services data feels like it has the most fascinating and potentially unexpected results: by opening up citizen services CITIZENS can help government solve more, better.

What makes this distinct from the other two reasons is that the other two reasons were talking about how governments can do the most with what they have. This reason is about expanding the resources governments have by allowing citizens and outside groups to engage with government in productive ways by accessing citizen services data.

Two examplesin Raleigh, NC:

  • Raleigh Greenway:Raleigh has this expansive network of 3800 acre 115 mile greenways ' which are tricky to connect together and even more difficult to maintain. The City of Raleigh needed some way to make sense of these greenways & keep up with them with limited resources, budget, and staff time.Citizens of Raleigh built, using SeeClickFix API, an app called RGreenway. The app, in its most simple form, allows folks to get directions to the greenways and see pictures. But even more than that, by working with the City's open data portal and building off SeeClickFix API, it has allowed citizens to report issues such as fallen trees directly from the app and into Raleigh's workflow. They dont even have to switch or leave the app! This brings the Raleigh greenway closer to their goal of becoming America's Smartest Park.
  • Adopt-A-Bus Shelter: Raleigh has over 100 bus shelters that are a tremendous asset to the city.But similar to the greenways, they are difficult to maintain with a small staff. Aprogram was created that reported every single bus shelter to SeeClickFix. Then a separate app using SeeClickFix API was created that pulled this bus shelter data onto the app. Then, citizens could claim a bus shelter.claiming a bus shelter means claiming responsiblity for the shelter's monthly cleaning ' freeing up city staff time/budget, keeping bus shelters clean, and engaging citizens in their neighborhood.

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These two examples show how opening data allows osmosis between city efforts and citizen efforts.
Not only does open data allow governments to do more for their community or governments to help government do more for their community, but it can help citizens help government do more for their community.


Government can do a lot by opening up their data to help themselves do what they love to do better.But also it's impossible to expect government to do everything. In fact, that model might not even be desirable.
Government could be a platform that provides services that are foundational and provide inputs and channels to allow for tools to be built on top ' allowing for important, necessary, and interesting opportunities and projects to happen within governments and between citizens and governments.

And when there's that true connection between citizens nad governments there's better communication which builds stronger communities.