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.