Open & Candid: Phil Ashlock on Open311

Open311 is meant to facilitate an international effort to build open interoperable systems that allow citizens to more directly interact with their cities. Primarily, Open311 refers to a standardized protocol for location-based collaborative issue-tracking.

Open311 is one of the platforms being developed here at OpenPlans that will enable smart, seamless and enjoyable interactions between citizens and their local governments.  By offering free web API access to an existing 311 service, Open311 is an evolution of the phone-based 311 systems that many cities in North America offer.  It will lower costs, bring innovations developed in one city to all cities and bring interoperabilty between all 311 systems using the spec. Open311 allows for faster and less expensive implementation for cities newly deploying 311 and for extant systems, brings quicker deployment of new features be to added on. Everyone – cities, citizens and developers – can then benefit from new innovations built from this common foundation.

Like an open 311 service request, we want to give you a update on Open311’s status.  Philip Ashlock ushered Open311’s development from an idea to a fully developed set of standardized api’s.  He now focuses on collaboration between the developer community and government agencies.  Phil sat down to talk about what Open311 has become and where it is going.

To the uninitiated, what is Open311?
The proper introduction to Open311 would be by explaining 311 a little bit – 311 is a service offered in many major cities to act as a sort of customer support line for the city. The 311 number refers to a phone number just like 911, in fact 311 was created to relieve the 911 call centers from an increasing amount of non-emergency calls they were handling. So 311 is often called a “non-emergency” call center.

The master.

Open311 refers to both a technical standard and an open model for how 311 services can be more transparent, participatory, and accessible, ideally so that 311 can become a little more of a public forum for what’s happening in a city. 

People call in to 311 to ask questions about city services or to report problems that are important, but not urgent enough to warrant a call to 911. This might be something like a streetlight that’s out, vandalized public property, a pothole, or things like that. Open311 is an effort to make these kinds of interactions more accessible on the web and to do it in a standard way just like the 311 phone number is consistently used in different cities. So far, Open311 has just focused on handling interactions where people report problems, the current standard for this is Open311 GeoReport v2, but we’re looking at other standards for other interactions.

So that a 311 system can be deployed beyond the standard call center type of model?
Yeah, the most common way we see that is with smartphone apps and new websites.  That Open311 is a technical standard means it can lead to a lot more interoperability and innovation within cities and between cities.  The great tools that are designed for people to report issues to 311 or to analyze what’s already been reported can be shared from one city to the next.  People can choose whatever app they prefer and know it’ll work with their city or any city they’re in – rather than every city having it’s own app that only works for that city.

How long has the Open311 standard been out there?
There have actually been a few iterations so far, the initial iteration, which we call Open311 GeoReport v1 was for the most part just implemented by San Francisco, though I believe Miami-Dade County worked with it too. The current standard is Open311 GeoReport v2 and it was finalized in March of 2011 – actually 3/11/11.

How many implementations are there right now?
It kind of depends on how you count them, and I hesitate to provide an exact number because not all of them are very well implemented, but I’d say about 35 different cities have a GeoReport v2 API that app and services can connect to.  This includes major cities like San Francisco, Boston, Toronto, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Houston, San Antonio, Minneapolis.

What’s the oldest system built on the standard in use today?
Yeah, that’s still kind of hard to say. As far as a particular city, I’d probably go with San Francisco if you’re looking for the “oldest system built on the standard”.

Can GeoReport interface with propriety 311 systems?
Yeah, it’s an open standard that can be implemented by anybody for anything. Some of the major 311 CRM vendors have been integrating the standard with their products, this includes Kana Lagan, Motorola, and Microsoft.

At the end-user level, what’s the fun stuff that a 311 system built using the Open311 spec supports?
SeeClickFix and ConnectedBits provide GeoReport v2 for a number of cities.  As far as a particular app SeeClickFix, which allows citizens to report problems to 311 via a smartphone and track its status.

Has there been a deployment from non-municipalities?
There’s one county that is planning to implement. The national government for the Dominican Republic manages a nationwide 311 system for their municipalities and they’ve committed to implement it nationwide.  There are some 311 systems or things similar to them that are managed by counties. The federal government in the US is also interested as well as the national government in the UK.

How would Open311 spec systems on a national level end up looking?
At the national level, I think it’ll start with some pilots and it’ll involve some things that are a little different than the current standard. In many ways the possible interactions will be basic e-gov kinds of things that are meant to have a status that can be tracked (though perhaps not publicly). Right now the GeoReport spec could be used for pretty general purpose things, though it’s been framed pretty exclusively around  reporting a problem in a location. The way it works could allow someone to fill out any kind of form for a particular government service, say applying for a permit, then they could track the status of that being granted.  There’s a lot of stuff like that at the federal level in the US.

My references to national stuff in the UK and the Dominican Republic are more about the national government being more involved with traditional 311 stuff at the local level.  It will become more of a core of things through collaboration with the Next Generation 911 program that the FCC is overseeing which reengineers how 911 works for digital devices.

So everything from an individual applying for a passport to a state agency applying for a federal grant?
Yes, but that’s a ways off though.

In short – is the Inquiry API meant for getting questions asked and answered and then GeoReport is used to follow up on those inquiries?
I also see a lot of potential with the Inquiry API – so that it’s not just a way for people to ask the city questions, but also a way for the city to ask residents questions and for neighbors to ask questions of one another and furthermore.  The Inquiry API is meant for asking questions about city services, like “how do I pay for a parking ticket”.   Most calls to 311 call centers are actually to ask questions rather than report problems. It’s probably about 70% of calls are questions and 30% are reporting problems. So one of the next areas of focus for Open311 is to have web standard that can also help answer the kinds of questions that go through 311.  NYC has actually already started on this. They’ve proposed and implemented a new standard which we’re calling the Open311 Inquiry API.

The GeoReport API is meant for reporting a problem like a pothole and then tracking the status of it. I hope that GeoReport can evolve to being something for not just reporting problems, but also reporting ideas and solutions.

What will the first application of Inquiry API be like?
Hmm, that makes me realize there isn’t really a go-to app that uses that right now. The Inquiry API was launched by the city in August of 2011 around the same time the city hosted a hackathon called Reinventing – at that hackathon there were a number of different implementations that plugged into the API and the city got a lot of feedback for improving it. 

Have you seen any barriers or difficulties from cities in adopting open311 versus a closed proprietary system?
In general, there haven’t been many barriers. Small cities have trouble affording or managing anything, but the open standard is leading to an ecosystem of open source and affordable systems that will be much easier for them to make use of.  The barriers to adopting Open311 aren’t really in the context of “versus a proprietary system,” they’re more about the city figuring out how to integrate the standard with their existing infrastructure or workflow.   In most cases, this isn’t a huge challenge because the spec was designed with people familiar with these systems, but some really large cities like NYC have a complicated infrastructure that’s not easy to integrate.

How big is the developer community that can implement and support the Open311 spec currently and how do you see it growing over the next 2? 5? years?
It’s a burgeoning community, so far there are 150 members of the mailing list. There are about 20 open source projects that are implementing the spec, plus there are a lot of developers that are working on developing or implementing the spec that might not be on the mailing list or working on an open source project, so those are much harder to track.

In the next 2 or 5 years I see it being integrated into more and more things so that it can really become ubiquitous. I’d love to see it become part of very common applications that everybody uses like google maps, twitter, foursquare, facebook, etc. There are some signs that it’ll start to be integrated with some of those things already which will mean it’ll be on just about every smartphone.