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Do you ever think about how the city keeps track of potholes? How they know when street lights need to be fixed? Cities are extremely complex. So how do they manage it all?
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Do you ever think about how the city keeps track of potholes? How they know when street lights need to be fixed? Cities are extremely complex. So how do they manage it all?

I never stopped to really think about it. I just naively expected things to magically happen -- potholes filled, trash cans emptied, buses (somewhat) on time. If there was uneven pavement, I expected the city to not only know about it, but fix it in a timely manner.

I recently discovered that the reality of city maintenance takes a whole lot more time and is much more complex than the magic wand my mind imagined.

This year, I became a Code for America fellow where I received a crash course in municipal government -- and my blissful ignorance of city services ended. I learned that as citizens we can do our part to improve our cities and become active citizens. I learned about 311.

311, not to be confused with the band Three Eleven, is the number you call to report anything from potholes to sightings of pitbulls roaming your street. In general though, 311 is a hotline for any non-emergency service request, or even just for general information about the city. Akron's 311 site gives a good distinction of when to call 311 versus 911. One of my favorites is if it's a "Burning building? Call 9-1-1. Burning Question? Call 3-1-1."

In a number of cities throughout the U.S., you can submit these service requests through an online form, or a mobile application such as SeeClickFix. This allows citizens to interact directly with their city -- you enter an issue, and anyone in your city from hotline intake personnel to the city's mayor can view it. Kind of nifty right?

311 is nothing new. In fact, in some cities, it has been around since 1996. However, almost two decades later, there's still no easy way for everyday citizens or even city employees to see an overview of what's going on in their city. Open311 makes this possible. Open311 helps expose 311 data to city residents as well as allow the public to submit services requests through web and mobile applications. Having this information (or knowledge) accessible by all, will not only make cities more effective but also make city governments more accountable to the community. And, Open311 helps build a community that is better informed and engaged in its city.

With this in mind, my teammates and I decided to create a simple application to help visualize the state of the city based on 311 data. Thus the Daily Brief was born! The Daily Brief gives a snapshot of what is going on in your city, right now. By taking the data and displaying it on a map we can see what is going on in a neighborhood and in a city overall.

We can find trends and maybe one day prioritize those that are more serious. For example, if there is a request that street lights are out in a dangerous neighborhood then it could be prioritized to reduce the likelihood of crime there. Or, if there are a number of potholes on the same street, then it could mean there is a bigger problem with the street's structural integrity. In the future, predictive analysis can help cities run more effectively and save money.

We have currently deployed the Daily Brief in Baltimore, Bloomington, and Boston and we'll be rolling out to more cities in the next coming months. We just launched it last Thursday, and have more than 10 cities requesting to have it. It is nice to see that the Daily Brief, and Open311 is something that cities and citizens want. This gives me hope that with the right tools we can engage citizens to work together and better our communities.

Getting such useful data is not an easy feat, but thanks to Open311 we are making progress. Open311 provides a standard way for applications to read and write to the systems cities use to manage service requests. This means that developers can make applications to report issues directly to the city, and the city and its citizens can get a clear combined picture of what is happening. Open311 is a standard and applications that get built for one city can be easily reused by other cities.

Since reuse is extremely important and to save resources, money, and time, we -- in collaboration with the City of Chicago -- created a platform to showcase applications, like the Daily Brief, that cities supporting Open311 can use. To create a welcoming environment for people to experiment and see the potential of 311, we call it 311 Labs.

In the end we'd like to not just facilitate communication between cities to city resident but for the larger communities to lend one another a helping hand.

As Eric P. Liu, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy has said, "We're all better off, when we're all better off." So, join us as we push the boundaries of civic data - one service request at a time.

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