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Practical Tips for Cities Looking to Innovate with Open311

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In May 2009 the first version of the Open311 API was introduced in Washington, D.C. Since then,. the Open311 initiative spread to other large cities and the concept soon spurred the creation of Code for America which deployed teams of fellows to spread the word to many more cities the United States.

For the point of discussion, it should be said that, Open311 is not a product or a piece of software. It is a technical specification, an API protocol, and a standard designed to encourage government databases available to the public, to improve integration and reduce duplication between cities. According to Phil Ashtock of Open311.org, the Open311 API is designed to combat what I will call the "Big Four" deficiencies that cities have faced in this wild west of well-intentioned app development. These problems are as follows:

1. Open311 was intended to address the problem that governments can't easily manage or control all these different apps and communication channels.
2. For some of these apps, citizens do not have clear expectations set for whether governments can respond to or act on their requests.
3. Furthering this issue is that many apps aren't actually connected to the official government CRMs, so these communications efforts often go into a black hole.
4. Most apps aren't compatible with one another, so a city could have 30 apps that target similar issues, leaving the cities overwhelmed with data, and citizens overwhelmed with choice.

While the Open311 API has helped address the concerns of many of the nations' largest cities, the vast majority of local governments continue to face these same Big Four problems. These cities are in the frustrating position of continuing to have new apps come out of nowhere and placed on their doorsteps. Some governments have tried to address this by developing their own apps but have struggled to maintain and upgrade them in the face of continuing required upgrades for iPhones, Android, and the latest changes from Blackberry and Windows Mobile. This frustration is further compounded by the ever-increasing expectations of citizens for how apps should look and navigate. Once these internal and external apps are created, in many cases, the government does not have staff assigned to maintain the app or to keep up with necessary upgrades

Here are five ways that local governments looking to take advantage of Open311 can strike a balance between innovation and pragmatism:

Make government databases available to the public. Even with little or no instructions, people will surprise you with the data's positive uses that you may not have imagined.

1. Make government databases available to the public. Even with little or no instructions, people will surprise you with the data's positive uses that you may not have imagined.
2. Create an online forum for citizens to post ideas, prioritize and discuss issues. For inspiration, check out Miami-Dade County's myGovidea, or the City of Philadelphia's Change By Us forum.
3. To eliminate citizen confusion, designate an official government-wide app that allows for multiple uses including URL links, RSS feeds and ready available information.
4. Ensure that your app is linked to the city's internal CRM or work order management system to ensure that your government is able to respond to the call for action.
5. For on-going app maintenance and updates, make sure you have adequately trained staff available, or designate an organization or private firm to do it for you.

As an innovation, a technical specification and API protocol, Open311 is an excellent standard for making government databases available, and serves as an important milestone in the evolution of government-to-citizen communications. Governments must continue to work to meet the challenge of creating order out of potential chaos to reduce citizen confusion and continue to advance Open311 as a movement.