Frameworks for citizen responsiveness

In the past, I’ve often enough described cities as being “all about difficulty“:

They’re about waiting: for the bus, for the light to change, for your order of Chinese take-out to be ready. They’re about frustration: about parking tickets, dogshit, potholes and noisy neighbors. They’re about the unavoidable physical and psychic proximity of other human beings competing for the same limited pool of resources….about the fear of crime, and its actuality.

If this is so, and I continue to believe that it is, are we compelled to accept it? Or is there anything that can be done about it? And especially, might the constellation of tools we’re just starting to wrap our collective heads around offer us any recourse in our struggle against this tangled welter of hassles and frustrations we call life in the big city?

Well. Some measure of friction is unavoidable in urban life — both endemic to any physical system anywhere near as complex as this and, truth be told, not such a bad thing. But there’s no reason why we can’t use our new capabilities to get on top of the roil, see what’s going on, and maybe even keep the less felicitous contingencies from solidifying.

Prior art

Two services that I’m familiar with address this set of concerns, each representing a slightly different way of framing the problem: New York City’s 311 gateway to non-emergency services and, in the UK, mySociety‘s awesome FixMyStreet. There are others — many, many others — as well as roughly congruent resources facing other domains, but as far as municipal services are concerned these two are the best-known, arguably the most successful, and the most faithfully representative of their respective approaches.

As an official utility of the City of New York, 311’s stated mission is to:

– Provide the public with quick, easy access to all New York City government services and information while maintaining the highest possible level of customer service;
– Help agencies improve service delivery by allowing them to focus on their core missions and manage their workload efficiently;
– Provide insight into ways to improve City government through accurate, consistent measurement and analysis of service delivery Citywide.

…while FixMyStreet’s proposition is a little simpler: it allows its users to “report, view or discuss local problems.”

Despite the clear differences in aim and ambit, I think of both as frameworks for citizen responsiveness. Their essence is that some issue arises — a pothole, a fallen branch, an open fire hydrant or a wandering elder — is identified by a member of the public, and is then raised to the attention of whatever municipal authority is empowered to respond to it. (We’ll get to the weakness of this last link in the chain in a bit.)

While it does provide an online point of entry, 311 is in my experience predominantly something you engage over the phone. It’s an easy number to remember, the city’s representatives have repeated the mantra “911 for emergencies, 311 for everything else” until it ought to be second nature and, nicety of niceties in this IVR age, your calls are answered by a human being. Every time I’ve ever had cause to engage it, my calls have been answered in seconds, not minutes.

In fact, this is the nicest aspect of 311. There’s a certain deep satisfaction in venting your frustrations to someone listening with (at the very least a convincing simulacrum of) empathy, and I’d imagine this has practical consequences, too — that a decent swath of incoming complaints are prevented from escalating via the simple expedient of hearing the caller out.

When navigating a beast like municipal government, though, even the best and most sensitive operator is unlikely to have all the answers at his or her fingertips. So 311 operators are coupled to a reasonably good search database, and from what I’ve seen they’re usually able to point you at the proper resource or department in short order, whether your problem is a registering a noise complaint, a shattered bus shelter, or tracking down the taxi driver who drove off with your briefcase.

But that’s where 311’s utility largely ends. Once this connection is made, the caller is deposited right back into the universal thicket of big-city bureaucracy. Worse, the categories into which the catching department will sort your issue are likely to be brittle, and there tends to be little provision for following up on the status of an issue — or for that matter, identifying the single team or individual responsible for resolving the complaint.

Similar things are true of FixMyStreet, which collects issues on its users’ behalf and then forwards them to the relevant department of government. Despite offering users a range of tools that 311 lacks, and which ought by now to be table stakes in the domain, like the ability to pinpoint issues on a map, or document them with pictures, you get nothing in the way of confirmation or response other than a terse notification that the complaint was “Sent to Kensington & Chelsea Borough Council 1 minute” after its entry.

Seeing the city as software

So how would you close the loop? How would you arrange things so that the originator, other members of the public, the city bureaucracy itself and other interested parties are all notified that the issue has been identified and is being dealt with? How might we identify the specific individuals or teams tasked with responding to the issue, allow people to track the status of issues they’re reported, and ensure that observed best practices and lessons learned are gathered in a resolution database?

In a talk I heard him give a few months back, technology entrepreneur Jyri Engeström suggested stealing a page from the practice of software development as a way of addressing shared problem spaces more generally. He pointed out that, during his time at Google, employees turned the tools developed to track open issues in software under development toward other domains of common experience, like the shuttle buses the company provides to haul them back and forth between San Francisco and Mountain View.

When hassles arose with the bus service, employees treated them just like they would known issues in some application they were working on: they entered their complaints into an existing bug tracker, which provided each case with a unique identifier, a space to characterize it more fully…and perhaps most importantly, the name of a party responsible for closing out the ticket.

The general insight Jyri derived from his experience got me to thinking. An issue-tracking board for cities? Something visual and Web-friendly, that’s simultaneously citizen-facing and bureaucracy-facing? Heck, that begins to sound like a pretty neat way to address the problems with systems like 311 and FixMyStreet.

You provide citizens with a variety of congenial ways to initiate trouble tickets, whether they’re most comfortable using the phone, a mobile application or website, or a text message. You display currently open cases, and gather resolved tickets in a permanent archive or resource. You use an algorithm to assign priority to open issues on a three-axis metric:

(a) Scale. How many people are affected by the issue? Does this concern just me, me and my immediate neighbors, our whole block, the neighborhood, or the entire city?
(b) Severity. How serious is the issue? In descending order, will it result in imminent loss of life, injury or the destruction of property? Is this, rather, an aesthetic hazard, or even simply a suggestion for improvement?
(c) Urgency. How long has the tag been open?

Because a great many urban issues are going to crop up repeatedly, routinely, perennially, perhaps you offer the kinds of tools content-management software for discussion sites has had to evolve over the years: ways to moderate tickets up or down, or mark their resolution as particularly impactful.

You assign tickets to specified agents.

Then, of course, you apply the usual variety of visualizations to the live data, allowing patterns to jump right out. Which city department has the best record for closing out tickets most quickly, and with the highest approval rating? What kind of issues generally take longest to address to everyone’s satisfaction?

So. To reiterate. As I see it, a contemporary framework for citizen responsiveness suited for big cities would offer most if not all of the following features:

- Two aspects of 311, an easy-to-memorize universal point of entry and a catching mechanism of empowered human operators lying just behind it;
– A useful spread of other points of access, including desktop and mobile applications;
– The kind of location-specific overview provided by services like Everyblock, with maps as one obvious and logical way in;
– An appropriate prioritization algorithm;
– Moderation tools;
– The accountability, transparency and ticking clock-to-resolution offered by an open-ticket system;
– A persistent archive of resolved issues;
– Top-notch graphic design, capable of holding its own with best contemporary Web practice; and
– A layer of data analytics and visualization.

Beyond trouble tickets

As is well-known, I tend to be skeptical when the replacement of human systems, however clumsy, with novel and untested technical frameworks is contemplated. I’m also acutely aware that the purpose of a system is what it does, and there may well be occult reasons why urban systems that appear intractably broken are allowed to remain that way, i.e. they’re actually functioning just fine in support of some agenda.

No issue-tracking system, even the best-designed and most cleverly devised, is going to quash the frustrations of city life completely. I believe, though, that the system I sketch out here would give cities a supple and relatively low-cost way to close the loop between Jacobian “eyes on the street,” and the agencies that serve and are fully empowered to respond to them. What I’ve described here is, if nothing else, a way to harness the experience and rich local expertise of ordinary citizens.

I’ve always taught my students that if you scratch a New Yorker, you’ll find a committed urbanist — someone with intense and deeply-held opinions about the kind of trees that ought to be planted along the sidewalks, or the right way to organize bike parking, or ways to reconcile the conflicting needs of dogwalkers and parents with children in city parks. And the same thing, of course, is true of Mancunians, Singaporeans and Cariocas.

The point isn’t that all of their notions are going to be fair, practical, practicable or even remotely sensible, but that an immense body of pragmatic insight and — more importantly, in my view — passion for the city is going untapped. Pundits, bobbins and bureaucrats talk constantly about improving the efficiency of municipal services, but if improved information is a driver of that efficiency, why aren’t we even trying to gather all the incredibly rich data that’s just lying there, more or less literally begging us to use it? We have the tools, we have the models, we know what they’re good for and where they fall down. It’s past time to build on this experience and bring its lessons to bear on the places we live.

27 responses to “Frameworks for citizen responsiveness”

  1. zyc says :

    Living in NYC I can say with passion and certainty that 311 is the best fucking idea the city ever implemented.

    Vacant building rented by giant rats? 311

    Can’t figure out when to leave out your recycling since it snowed and the trucks were busy plowing? 311

    Need to fix the pothole that is now bigger than a car? 311

    Car crushed by a fallen tree that is now blocking the sidewalk? 311

    311 is like a universal interface to the amorphous bureaucracy that is New York City and really cuts down on being told “We can’t help you, that’s not our department” because it is 311’s department to find the right department.

    While the responsiveness of the actual department whose job it is to fix the problem may vary. It is way better than it was before because you are generally pretty sure you have the right department once 311 is done.

    A trouble ticket system would be awesome if some of the privacy issues could be worked out. I could complain about rats down the block, then get a ticket # and give that to my neighbors to follow up on the complaint and encourage the city to move faster with fixing the problem.

    There needs to be at least some sort of pseudo-anonymity at least to prevent retribution by city employees whose actions generate complaints from citizens.

  2. fake is the new real says :

    Saying that cities are “all about difficulty” is ludicrous, and even more so because your examples are mostly rooted on impatience and mild annoyance.

    Head up to a mesa in northern Arizona and see how long it takes you to get take-out, for a bus to come, for a light to change. You’ll be waiting a long time, because there are no restaurants, no roads, and no electricity. There’s probably no dogshit either, but you can be duly annoyed by deer scat.

    To complain about a waiting for a bus or a traffic light is to complain about a feature in a complex transportation system that lets you and a few million other people move quickly and with relative ease to nearly any point in a few thousand square miles.

    Cities are amazing systems for giving you, Adam Greenfield, access to a huge market for your labor, to an enormous variety of good and services, and to varied entertainment, diversion, and intellectual stimulation. When you complain about being the petty difficulties of being proximate to millions of other people, keep in mind that despite your impatience, your urban context is doing an amazing job of helping you stay employed, fed, warm, safe and dry.

    If you thing that it’s too much to bear, there’s lots of cheap farmland in the upper Midwest, go to.

  3. Anthony Townsend says :

    So, GetSatisfaction for cities? I like it.

  4. Christopher Fahey says :

    As far as I understand it, at the last step of a 311 complaint interaction the 311 people create a trouble ticket for you in their own system (they explicitly call it a CRM), independent of the city agency they refer your problem to. Where, say, the streets department might, in the golden age of municipal incompetence, lose any record of or even deliberately and maliciously ignore your over-the-phone complaint of a geyser of sewage your street, the 311 folks have created a single layer of issue tracking that crosses all city agencies. They track our problems, and the performance of the agencies responsible for fixing them. They insert your complaint in the appropriate agency’s system, and track it.

    I think this is precisely what the second and third bullets in their mission statement refer to.

    Now, making this open and transparent to the world is a fantastic idea.

    If you’ve not already, you should try to meet and chat Chenda Fruchter, NYC 311’s (for lack of a better title) information architect. Video here (skip to 4:30).

  5. Anthony Townsend says :

    Adam, I seem to remember that when the Korean government did a big e-government push, they implemented some really cool transparency ideas, like allowing you to see the status of various permit applications as they moved through the bureaucracy. Might be something to look into.

    • AG says :

      Hey, thanks. IIRC, you spent some time on the ground with the Songdo folks, right? Is there anyone in particular I should be talking to?

  6. shawnbot says :

    Adam, have you seen SeeClickFix? They’ve been hugely successful in getting some cities’ public works departments to use this as a platform for monitoring 311-type problems and, in some cases, engage directly with the public. But it doesn’t tend to work unless city agencies are using it, too. (In San Francisco there are a lot of unresolved tickets.)

    I think that’s the future of good government: one that provides direct channels to the people on the ground getting shit done. Here in San Francisco I’m starting to get the impression that DPW is the most effective in this respect. Just this morning I stepped out of my apartment to walk the dog and was greeted by a giant heap of trash that had been dumped on the sidewalk overnight. Before I could even get to my phone to call 311, though, a DPW truck had already pulled up and two guys jumped out to haul away the garbage. I went back outside and asked them if anyone else had called, and they said no; they just drive around and pick stuff up off the street on some mornings. How awesome is that?

    Now, imagine if every agency worked that way. They’d all be plugged into channels like 311 and sites like SeeClickFix with small teams of people empowered to and capable of getting shit done under the purview of their agency. Then imagine that those agencies, by virtue of becoming better connected to the constituents and better respected, got bigger budgets and started hiring smarter, more agile workers: civil SEALs; city service SWAT teams; people who not only give a shit, but have the tools and the skills to make a difference quickly and effectively.

    Cities desperately need this level of engagement, and I think we’re just scratching the surface of what 311 can do to make cities safer, healthier, and less difficult places to live. The biggest challenge, though, is making these frameworks ubiquitous and available to people who aren’t so tech-savvy or clued in. We’ll know 311 has been successful in SF once Latinos in the Mission are calling in (to Spanish-speaking operators, of course) to report potholes on their street.

    I have to say that I totally disagree with you about cities being “all about difficulty”, though. For many the myriad advantages of cities heavily outweigh the relative inconveniences of things like shit on the sidewalk and noisy neighbors. And there’s real value in the meaningful interactions that result from the “friction” of living in close quarters with people and sharing limited resources.

    The sooner we start embracing the ways in which cities make people’s lives richer and better, the sooner citizens will start feeling like their cities are places worth fighting for and see the value in spending the mere minutes that it takes to do something like report a pile of trash dumped on their sidewalk.

    • AG says :

      I went back outside and asked them if anyone else had called, and they said no; they just drive around and pick stuff up off the street on some mornings. How awesome is that?

      Totally awesome. It reminds me of something from the very dawn of locative mobile, which was a very clever routing strategy CEMEX used when they first installed GPS in their trucks back in the early ’90s.

      As I remember it, anyway, the perpetual tangle of Mexico City traffic was causing major problems for them — due to hours-long delays, they simply weren’t able to ensure that cement mix arrived on a given job site while it was still fresh.

      The wastage was putting a ginormous dent in their bottom line, until they figured out the expedient of having several trucks with fresh mix orbiting the city at any given time. They’d vector in the one GPS indicated was closest, just-in-time style, when a job site required a pour.

      You’d think this would result in a certain amount of wastage itself, and it presumably did, but it apparently allowed them to run at much less of a loss than before. (I stole this strategy for an orbiting fleet of drug dealers in my titanically shitty, unpublishable 1992 SF novel The Carbon Sutra.)

      W/R/T “difficulty”: I hope it’s obvious that the benefits of metropolitan life outweigh the disadvantages for me — otherwise, as FITNR suggests above, I’d move.

      But it’s also true that I belong to a very privileged cohort.

      I read recently (and now I wish I remember where) that a decent definition of privilege is when your social networks support and extend your ambitions, rather than suppressing them, and that rang true to me. So inasmuch as I agree with you 100% about “the ways cities make people’s lives richer and better,” what I’m getting at is that this is not obviously true for everybody — in fact, that an unacceptable percentage of those around us, in every city in the world, are leading lives of quiet desperation. Nor is poverty the only driver thereof.

      For someone in those shoes, I can very easily imagine the difficulties you and I shrug off as minor quality-of-life issues causing horrendous, even irreversible damage as they cascade through the circumstances of their lives. (Not to be melodramatic, but a flat tire for you means you’re fifteen minutes late getting to work; picture what it means to a kid on her way to her first non-burger-flipping job interview.)

      To reinscribe it just in case it isn’t crystal clear: I believe passionately in cities as engines of good. Still doesn’t mean we can’t do better.

    • AG says :

      m. migurski FTW!

  7. Christopher Fahey says :

    shawnbot said: civil SEALs; city service SWAT teams; people who not only give a shit, but have the tools and the skills to make a difference quickly and effectively.

    You are of course referring to Archibald “Harry” Tuttle.

  8. Rick York says :

    Adam, this is a very interesting post. I got here through Chairman Bruce but, I am happy to know about your blog.

    I have one very high level observation about your post and the comments. It applies to cities but, also to virtually any political entity.

    There is an epidemic of anti-government thought poisoning both the US and the UK. This has led to a combination of both apathy and unreasoned anger. The Tea Party movement best illustrates this.

    If systems like the ones mentioned by you and the commenters really do come into play, we could see a revival of civic participation. When people know that their government is responding quickly and accurately to the problems citizens witness on a daily basis, they will be far more comfortable with their government.

    In addition, being closer and more responsive to the citizenry might well lead to a bureaucracy less inclined to dogmatic and programmed response. The bake sale brouhaha in the New York public schools might have been avoided. When bureaucracies ignore basic common sense, they incur the wrath of their clients. Justifiably.

    • AG says :

      There is an epidemic of anti-government thought poisoning both the US and the UK. This has led to a combination of both apathy and unreasoned anger. The Tea Party movement best illustrates this.

      Rick: I know, I know.

  9. Zane Selvans says :

    OMG, how can this post exist without any reference whatsoever to San Francsico’s excellent new Open 311 API?

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