Just four years ago, if you wanted to report a pothole to your local government, these were your options: leaving voicemails on City Hall’s answering machines or praying to sky gods for resolution. Public matters were handled through closed channels of communication.
SeeClickFix started with the mission to change the way citizens communicated with each other and their governments. The first release of SeeClickFix allowed anyone anywhere in the world to publicly document issues in their community that they wanted resolved or improved. Most importantly, and sometimes controversially, we sent alerts to publicly available government email addresses to let those accountable know about the issues.
Thousands of citizens signed up their governments to receive alerts and many more governments signed themselves up to find out what their constituents were complaining about. As a result of publicly documenting issues, we witnessed accountability, efficiency and, in more than 60% of the cases over the last three-and-a-half years, resolution.
Consequentially, today email—not apps or a website—is the primary interface for communicating with local government. Not so sexy, huh? Well, it’s government. Government may never be sexy, but at least it can be more efficient.
So, although it was a major step in efficiency to move governments toward email, we, along with many other players in the space like open311.org, Open Plans, Lagan and Cityworks still wanted to build an ideal API, an easily accessible and interoperable way for any aspiring civic tech developer to build on and improve the platform for citizen and government end-users. It would make the entire process of communication standardized, open and more practical than email for city governments. Nearly two years ago we set out as the open311 ‘consortium’ to solve this problem. Our goal was to create a standardized read/write API for government communication software.
In 2010, my co-founder Kam Lasater drafted a suggestion for the first spec of the open311 API, which would allow cities and citizens to collaborate on making the best products and solutions for community issues. Today SeeClickFix is the largest provider of the open311 API, serving Oakland, CA; Richmond, VA; and Raleigh, NC. In addition to SeeClickFix, Lagan and Motorola are providing their own open311 endpoints for cities such as Houston and Boston. Cities like Toronto have created their own open311 endpoints internally. All over the country, cities are opening up the lines of communication between the government and the citizens, allowing for far more effective and responsive government services.
But it’s not an easy process. While companies like ours, Connected Bits, and Lagan support open standards, there are many government software vendors that have chosen to keep their API’s proprietary for personal business gain. Though in rapid decline, there are still cities that contract with these vendors—using our tax dollars—to create solutions that aren’t open to tax payers. Houston and Chicago have joined the open311 movement, but the other three of the five largest American cities (we’re looking at you, New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia) have not.
Recently, Code For America fellows have developed a number of open-source mobile reporting applications using location data. And while the API is far from perfect and certainly not the most flexible for developers, it is part of an open compromise between states to take steps toward a better solution for civic communication. Cities that don’t choose to innovate will always have email. But with all of this collaboration and opportunity, is that really the best way forward?