From the Blog

Highlights from the Open311 Ecosystem

Open311 first began with an API for Washington D.C.’s 311 system, but it really become a community when the leadership of San Francisco and the support of organizations like OpenPlans, Code for America, and even the White House brought many cities, companies, and organizations together into a productive collaboration. Now it’s a rich ecosystem of cities, technology platforms, and forward thinking initiatives around the world that are building common infrastructure for people to better engage with their government and get connected to their community. Technical development and discussion around Open311 has continued on the mailing list, on GitHub, and in many other venues, but a lot of news about this burgeoning ecosystem has gone unnoticed. What follows is a long overdue collection of highlights that haven’t received enough attention.

Introductions & Explanations

With the talk about Open311 as an open standard or as common infrastructure, it can be hard for the uninitiated to understand what Open311 really is, especially if they’re not familiar with a traditional government contact center or having a standard phone number. Is Open311 a product? Nope. Is it a piece of software? An app? A service? Sort of. As a technical standard, it’s a protocol that many of those things can implement to create interoperable systems. For those who aren’t software engineers, the good people at MySociety have fortunately created two really helpful guides to help everyone understand Open311. See Open311 Introduced and Open311 Explained.

International Reach

We’ve seen continued adoption of Open311 in the U.S. including statewide programs like Commonwealth Connect in Massachusetts and ongoing growth supported by companies like SeeClickFix and Connected Bits. There are also great stories of cities bootstrapping one another like the Open311 enabled open source CRM developed by the city of Bloomington, Indiana that’s been redeployed in Columbus, Indiana and Peoria, Illinois. Yet some of the most significant recent growth has been outside the U.S.. Toronto, the largest Canadian city, implemented Open311 not too long before Chicago became the largest U.S. city. Around the same time, there were a number of cities in Germany and the UK that also began to implement Open311 with the support of platforms like Mark-a-Spot and FixMyStreet, but broader adoption really came through the work of the City of Helsinki and the European CitySDK program.

CitySDK was designed to establish standardized APIs for city services across Europe with a particular focus on three areas: Participation, Mobility, and Tourism. It was determined that the existing work around the Open311 standard could be used to achieve the mission of the Smart Participation domain and with the City of Helsinki leading as the flagship implementer, Open311 has been able to serve as a foundation for a major component of CitySDK. In addition to Helsinki, a number of other cities have begun to adopt Open311 through the CitySDK program including Lamia (Greece), Lisbon (Portugal), and Zaragoza (Spain). The full list of APIs in CitySDK cities can be queried through their Discovery Service.

CitySDK was set up as a pilot (Pilot Type B) with 6.8 million Euro in funding (3.4 million from the European Commission) from January 2012 to June 2014 within the ICT Policy Support Programme of the Competitiveness and Framework Programme and similar work continues to build on CitySDK under the banner of new initiatives. This includes the 6Aika project to pilot and scale innovative solutions across the six largest cities in Finland and the Open and Agile Smart Cities program of the Connected Smart Cities Network which is building interoperable systems across Europe and beyond.

The World Bank has also contributed to the adoption of Open311 around the world including a pilot in the Philippines and ongoing projects in Mozambique and Tanzania.

Even the U.S. Federal Government has begun to experiment with Open311 by using it as an open feedback mechanism for requesting data and reporting problems with data – one of the mandates of the U.S. Government’s open data policy.

An incomplete list of cities that implement Open311 is being managed on the Open311 Servers page. This page relies on everyone to help contribute and make sure their city is listed. People can make updates or additions by clicking the edit button at the top of the table and proposing the changes through GitHub. Currently the list is focused on cities that directly host Open311 through their own websites so it does not yet include the full list of Open311 cities available through services like SeeClickFix.

Procuring Infrastructure not Software

As an open standard, Open311 creates interoperability between applications used for service requests and related citizen interactions. By building platforms around open standards, cities can really create open infrastructure much like the internet and prevent the kind of vendor lock-in inherent in many software systems. One of the most meaningful signs that the Open311 ecosystem has matured is that this concept has made its way into the procurement process. Starting with the City of Boston’s project to deploy Open311 across the State of Massachusetts with Commonwealth Connect, we’ve seen several other cities incorporate Open311 into their procurement language. This includes San Francisco, Chicago, and most recently New York City.

Researching Impact

As Open311 becomes more and more established there have been more opportunities to study it. Here are two notable findings using Open311 data to understand its impact and how it affects people’s relationship with government.

A Harvard Business School study found that when citizens had more insight into problems being addressed, their attitudes towards government and government service delivery improved significantly.

A study published in the Public Administration Review showed that lower-income residents as well as young, college-aged individuals were more likely to use the Open311-enabled smartphone app than the traditional phone number or website.

On the Books

Open311 has also made it’s way into many notable books in the past few years. Perhaps the first publication with wide circulation that mentioned Open311 was the Wired Magazine piece by Steven Johnson, but Johnson later wrote a book called Future Perfect that covered Open311 as well. Former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom discusses Open311 in his book Citizenville as does Anthony Townsend in his book Smart Cities. More recently, Open311 was included in The Responsive City by Susan Crawford and Stephen Goldsmith.

We’re Not Done Yet

Hopefully this long overdue update provides a better view of the larger Open311 ecosystem, but we’re not done yet. Work continues to improve the Open311 standard and scale this ecosystem further. To get involved, please chime in on the mailing list.

The Launch of Open311 in Chicago

The following re-post was written by Daniel X. O’Neil of The Smart Chicago Collaborative. It captured all the awesomeness of the Open311 launch in Chicago so well that it deserved to be re-posted here. The original post can be found at

This afternoon the Mayor’s Office released two new resources for the people of Chicago:

The Smart Chicago Collaborative helped write the application for Chicago to become a Code for America city focused on complying with the Open311 standard, and we have funded this project from the start.  John Tolva, Chicago CTO and Smart Chicago Advisory Committee member, has been deeply supportive of the project and has shepherded it through to completion. Chicago Chief Data Officer and Commissioner of the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) Brett Goldstein, along with Director Danielle DuMerer, has been instrumental in getting this project done, as were others at DoIT and people at Motorola Solutions and Connected Bits. Audrey Mathis, Director of 311 Services, has been great to work with as well.

None of this would be possible without Code for America, the ground-breaking organization founded and led by Jennifer Pahlka. The amount of work achieved under this grant is kind of stunning:

  • 311Labs: A space where your dreams of the possiblities of 311 data can become a reality!
  • The Daily Brief:  Explore and filter 311 service requests by neighborhood, service name, and status
  • Open311 Status: a site that shows if Open311 APIs are down or have performance issues, and provides Public APIs uptime, comprehensiveness and citizen utilization
  • Civiz: A polyglot Platform as a Service civic application
  • Civics Garden: Reflect, record—and be reminded of—your civic deeds and contributions
  • And all the normal code, design, documentation, and logo contributions you’d expect when you suddenly find yourself in front of smart Web people who can get things done

The Chicago Code for America fellows— Jesse Bounds, Angel KittiyachavalitBen Sheldon, and Rob Brackett deserve a ton of credit for drilling down into a set of tools that make sense for the particularities of Chicago while being broadly useful as reusable code for other municipalities. They moved the 311 movement forward in ways that will be felt for years to come. They are technically top-notch, excellent communicators, and real-deal project managers, all of them. They listened to our needs and were able understand the unique technology setup that lied beneath a simple desire to see the current status of a pending service request.

So get out there and track your favorite service request:

311 Service Tracker


Online system to track 311 calls

By Fran Spielman, City Hall Reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, September 14, 2012

The technology upgrade will make the process of calling 311 to get a pothole filled, a tree trimmed or a broken streetlight replaced like using FedEx to send a package, under the plan, first disclosed by the Chicago Sun-Times last spring.

Open311 at the Association of Government Contact Center Professionals

In May I had the wonderful opportunity to present Open311 at the annual conference for the Association of Government Contact Center Professionals. This group can be thought of almost like a government equivalent of an industry association for contact centers. While the majority of those who attended were involved with 311 call centers, the AGCCP as a whole includes those involved with 911 emergency services as well as 211 human services hotlines, but it’s not even limited to call centers. There’s clearly an increasing focus on newer and more diverse channels to connect people with government. The membership makeup is primarily focused on the city level, but the association is also open to those involved with state and federal contact centers. I think this kind of broad inclusion represents a great opportunity to facilitate cross-pollination and collaboration between contact centers and different solutions much like we’ve started to see with the emerging ecosystem around Open311.

This event was also a very useful opportunity for me to start shaping a presentation of Open311 to an audience that already has an intimate familiarity with 311-like services, but has less familiarity with technology. In all honesty, this is exactly the audience that Open311 needs to engage with, but is largely the opposite of the audiences I’ve presented to in the past where there tends to be a common understanding of technology, but less of an understanding of the dynamics and challenges of facilitating interactions with government. Over the years my Open311 presentations have gradually evolved as the the effort and the community has progressed and while this presentation builds on an existing slide deck, I made significant efforts to break down concepts and take a less technical approach. In general, the presentation was well received by the folks at the AGCCP and throughout the conference I was surprised to learn how many cities were actively aware of Open311 and were making significant strides to work with it. That said, I know a lot more is needed to help convey the concepts and the value proposition behind Open311 in a way that doesn’t assume an understanding of technology or even an understanding of government contact centers.

I would love to ultimately develop a compelling story to tell mayors in the towns and cities around the world that have never had a government contact center. We need a presentation of the concepts, potential, and real world examples of Open311 that can give civic leaders a rich understanding of what this means both in terms of service delivery and civic engagement. We need a message that will inspire them to leverage this community and its emerging technologies and even leapfrog many of the costs and challenges associated with traditional contact center operations.

There was a video recording of my presentation at the AGCCP which should be made available within the next few weeks and I will update this post when that is ready. In the meantime, I leave you with the slide deck that was used and welcome any thoughts and feedback on how to convey the value and potential of Open311 to civic leaders of all backgrounds.

Tackling the long-term strategy of Open311

The following post was written by Andrew Nicklin of NYC DoITT, a long time member of the Open311 community. It’s a cross-post from the original at The points Andrew raise about the challenges of scaling Open311 as an open platform are spot on and the whole post seemed important enough to re-post here. Andrew also thought it’d be best to get feedback about these issues here on the main Open311 website.

As Open311 adoption grows rapidly, with more endpoints on the way, it’s time to start developing a broader strategy to solve some new problems that will emerge. I think one of the first of those problems will be recognizing where someone is, and connecting them automatically to the right Open311 endpoints (yes, I do mean plural- more on this in a moment). In his Open311 Wish List, Philip Ashlock starts to tackle this:

As more cities stand up their endpoints, it becomes more of a challenge to know they all exist and make sure client applications can discover them. Several years ago we started thinking about an idea called GeoWebDNS that would essentially act as a geospatial lookup service for geographically bound web services. Ian Bicking, built a proof of concept and I later discovered that the FCC was evaluating a similar, albeit more robust, proposal called LoST (see reference implementation) to be used for the same purpose on Next Generation 911 services. So far, these are merely proposals, but we’re increasingly in need of one of these systems to be put to use as a real world pilot and eventually to act as a critical piece of civic infrastructure.

So with that goal in mind, here are a few issues that I think need to be tackled in order to have a sustainable future.

  1. API Keys. At present, 8 of the Open311 endpoints (Baltimore, Bloomington, Boston, Brookline, Grand Rapids, San Francisco, Toronto, Washington DC) have distinct API key request mechanisms and key management solutions. The rest of the endpoints leverage a common SeeClickFix solution. (SeeClickFix also offers a proprietary API). As more endpoints are added, having to manage an array of endpoint keys is going to become untenable for the developer community.
  2. Authentication/Authorization. Although there isn’t yet clear consensus from the members of the Open311 community about how authentication/authorization fits in to the drafted specifications, one thing that is clear is that having to manage a customer identity at each endpoint will not make it easy for a customer to request services.
  3. Terms of Service. Along with requiring the independent provisioning of API keys and customer identities, each endpoint also has different terms of service which a developer must explicitly agree to, and a customer must implicitly agree to. Having to comply with multiple, differing terms of service is going to become untenable for the developer community.
  4. Geographic overlap. 311 as a telephone service is constrained to one call center/answering point per geographic region; this is imposed by the very one-to-one nature of a phone system. While following the same model has served the Open311 mission very well to-date, this isn’t the reality of how service providers work in the real world, and I think it will reduce the long-term sustainability of Open311 to stay with a one customer-to-one provider model. A customer can only be in one location when making a request, but they could be making a request to their local town/city, to their local county, their state/territory, their nation, or even to the world (e.g. the United Nations). Each of those tiers offers a distinct set of services, and in the ideal scenario, all of those services should be presented to a customer in a unified manner, regardless of who is offering them. At the moment, we all get around that problem by providing information which, technically speaking, is really the responsibility of others to maintain. For example, you can contact NYC 311 and ask how to obtain a driver’s license, and you’ll get an answer – but that’s a New York state-provided service, and they should own it.Incidentally, tackling this issue might eventually drive official 311 systems to leverage Open311 to make calls to other overlapping service provider systems.

    A final note on this: neither GeoWeb DNS, nor LoST (IETF RFC 5222) seem to support returning multiple services per query.

The good news is that I believe there are solutions to all of these challenges. Before we start digging into those, however, I invite the community to comment on these and, more importantly, identify other challenges which I have missed or am unable to see from my perspective.

An Open311 Wish List

The Open311 GeoReport v2 spec was finalized on 3-11-11. That date was historic instead for the heartbreaking Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. I think that disaster revealed a great deal of civic minded compassion and heroism in Japan so it all may be interrelated in the end. With dozens of cities now implementing the spec, Open311 has come a long way since last March and so has Japan. The transition to a new year is always a time of reflection and list making so I thought I’d make a wish list for Open311.

Throughout the course of the year we’ve seen many implementations emerge and more recently there have been impressive examples of cities and counties developing their own open source Open311 software stacks. To compliment their homegrown Open311 CRM, the city of Bloomington, Indiana has developed GeoReporter, an Open311 iPhone app which also works with other cities and Miami-Dade County has also developed a CRM middleware server which can be used with other governments. Yet even with all this activity, there’s always more that can be done.

In September, we started a substantial effort to identify how the next version of the spec would evolve, but feedback about the state of the current spec has led me to focus more on improving the documentation and infrastructure of GeoReport v2 before focusing on the next iteration. We’ve recently started discussing a redesign of the website, I’ve started working on an improved version of the docs, we’re trying to better manage bugs and feature requests, and also to track implementation issues. Even after all of that, a wish list has been emerging for things that I think would really give the current specification better footing and more reach: the documentation needs to be clearer and easier to use, we need to do a better job of ensuring compliance and interoperability, and we simply need to bring more diversity and scale to the ecosystem and demonstrate the value proposition of this platform. There’s more we can do.

The rumor is that this year Code for America will make a big impact on Open311 by continuing to build off of their already impressive contributions and by working with new cities. The Code for America fellows will be working with the city of Chicago as well as a number of cities who are interested in implementing the standard and the ecosystem of tools that come with it. With that on my mind, I thought I would lay out a wish list and invite the 2012 Code for America fellows and everyone else to help us build an even more solid foundation for the Open311 platform. What follows is that wish list.

Documentation & Infrastructure

An Open311 Validator
Build a web-based validator to test implementations

The easiest way to track compliance and interoperability of GeoReport implementations would be to have a web based validator that can be used as a simple web form much like the W3C validator, but for more complex API interactions rather than just validating a schema. From there, you might as well have it occasionally run tests on known endpoints to show the status of the all endpoints in one place. Over the past year or so there’s been some work on a validator. An early version was developed by DC OCTO in Python and SeeClickFix has more recently been developing one in Ruby. I’ve also recently started to play with an API testing tool called api-easy in node.js (Mark Headd has a node.js client library too). Currently, these are all just command line tools, but the next step is to make them web based and make it very easy to see how compliant an endpoint is when you’re building a client app or want to connect to it.

Interactive Documentation
Implement I/O Docs or similar interactive API documentation framework.

We’d love to provide a way for people to experiment with the API while they’re reviewing the documentation. This can be done with open source tools like iodocs and aided with web-based consoles like the one Twitter uses from Apigee. Setting up the configuration for iodocs could also go hand in hand with setting up the validator (iodocs and api-easy are also both node.js). Furthermore, making sure something like iodocs is working properly should also help us consider how to provide better written documentation.

Build off of the GeoWebDNS concept with an administration interface to manage new endpoints.

As more cities stand up their endpoints, it becomes more of a challenge to know they all exist and make sure client applications can discover them. Several years ago we started thinking about an idea called GeoWebDNS that would essentially act as a geospatial lookup service for geographically bound web services. Ian Bicking, built a proof of concept and I later discovered that the FCC was evaluating a similar, albeit more robust, proposal called LoST (see reference implementation) to be used for the same purpose on Next Generation 911 services. So far, these are merely proposals, but we’re increasingly in need of one of these systems to be put to use as a real world pilot and eventually to act as a critical piece of civic infrastructure.

More, More, More

More Cities
Help more cities implement the spec

There are currently over two dozen cities that are implementing the Open311 GeoReport v2 API, but there should be more. One thing that would be really helpful would be to identify what’s preventing a city from implementing and then help focus on solutions to address that. These reasons can span a wide range from the small towns that can’t afford a CRM offering to the large cities that have too complex of a 311 system to be able to easily integrate an API that works for the whole city (and which might benefit from starting with a more targeted pilot project approach).

More Companies
Inspire more companies to build and support apps

There’s currently somewhere between five and ten companies that provide support for the Open311 GeoReport v2 API in different applications and services, but there should be more. These companies range from the early supporters like SeeClickFix and Connected Bits to the well established CRM vendors like Motorola and Kana Lagan and even to companies like Mark-a-Spot and Joget which can support their open source offerings. In the next year, I look forward to seeing more support from the prevalent CRMs (including Microsoft, SAP, and others) and I also look forward to more entrepreneurial start-ups in the spirit of SeeClickFix and Connected Bits making a huge impact across numerous cities. There’s clearly an opportunity for people to step up and start new companies or provide support for the growing ecosystem of technology in this space and I think efforts like the Code for America Accelerator are on the right track to harness that opportunity.

More Apps
Help grow the ecosystem of Open311 compliant apps, particularly mobile apps

Between the supported apps & services and the emerging open source projects, there are currently about 20 different pieces of software that implement Open311 GeoReport v2. To my surprise, the majority of these have turned out to be more focused on the server side rather than the client side. I think we need more client apps, particularly mobile apps, as well as things that provide better visualization and contextualization.  Apps like the mobile app from SeeClickFix have been around for a while to hook into GeoReport APIs and Bloomington is releasing an open source iPhone app that can work with any compliant city, but I think there should be more choices on more mobile platforms. I also think it’d be great to see Open311 support as an added feature for an existing app. Perhaps an app that integrates with Twitter or Foursquare could also work with Open311 endpoints and know how and when to make that connection.

Open Source Ecosystem & Community

Open311 support for the Ushahidi web platform
Implement the GeoReport v2 API in Ushahidi to act as a server endpoint. For bonus points, also implement it as a client that routes to other endpoints.

I’ve often heard Ushahidi referred to as the “WordPress of web mapping.” It has been used far and wide, especially after gaining attention for the major role it played in mapping the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Because Ushahidi has developed as an international open source project, it is implemented in a broad number of places. Often times these implementations are ad-hoc unofficial systems that serve as the only reporting and coordination platform available. Other times they’re used in more of an official way, as we saw with NYC during Irene. In either case, there are problems with connecting the platform with those who need it. When it’s implemented only in response to a problem, it can be difficult to get people familiar with it and let them know it exists in the same way they might be familiar with a more permanent everyday 311-type of system. Even when used officially or permanently, Ushahidi instances are often not integrated with the established communication and response processes like any kind of 911 or 311 system. For all these reasons Ushahidi is an ideal platform to integrate the Open311 standards. Some of this has already begun with a proof of concept to connect the Ushahidi data model with the Open311 API and the beginings of an Ushahidi plugin. To learn more about what has already been developed, see this project page from RHoK. I’m happy to help coordinate this and Heather Leson has offered to help act as a point person for the Ushahidi Team.

An end to end open source stack
Mash-up an end-to-end open source stack by building off of existing mobile apps, CRMs, workflow tools, and visualization dashboards.

Bloomington, Indiana has single-handedly built out a substantial portion of an Open311 software stack with both a mobile app and a CRM, but a more complete open source stack has yet to be pieced together. Fortunately, there is a lot of code available out there, with projects like the Open311 Dashboard and Joget Workflow from Code for America as well as the code from Miami-Dade County, Mark-a-Spot, FixMyStreet, and even planned support in new projects like Shareabouts. There’s also a wiki page to highlight visualization libraries that you might want to put to use. Libraries like Raphael have been put to good use for things like the Birmingham Civic Dashboard.

Get Involved

That’s all I’ve got for now. If you’d like to hack on any of these projects please be sure to join the mailing list to ask questions, tell us what you’re thinking, and find out if there are others working on the same thing you’re interested in.

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