Quick! Call 911 to get the 411 on 311

There is a lot of discussion about the need for governments to become more open, more transparent, sharing data with citizens. 311 services, anything considered non-critical services, are getting a lot of publicity now with Washington DC and San Francisco making big public splashes around their open 311 efforts. Vivek Kundra, Federal CIO, said this about Open 311:

“Too often, people grumble that their complaints about government – be it city, county, state, or federal – get swallowed by the bureaucracy. Open 311 is an answer to that problem, placing the role of service evaluator and service dispatcher in the power of citizens’ hands.”

These open datasets give opportunity for businesses to build applications around, for citizens to get more valuable information from their government, and for government at all levels to better manage individual and group performance. That may sound like a lot to expect, but it’s a sunny Sunday morning and anything is possible.

Before the details John, why should I care?

There are several reasons to care, of course, but let me start with MONEY. Do you have any idea how your dollars are being spent? Probably not. Outside of a handful of people in any town no one, not even the State government, has a clear picture of where those dollars are going. Each town, each city, reports different data in different formats and it is nearly impossible to find anything from the information being provided.

Performance. How are the towns really doing with their core services? The data, turned into useful information, enables transparency. Potholes, the gateway drug for citizen engagement, are one of the better examples people point to. Citizens report potholes, the data given to geomapping services that show where the holes are, how long since they were reported, etc… Town governments can point at this data, available to everyone, and ask hard questions about why things are not being resolved quickly enough.

CRM providers, software developers, a heads up. Helping towns and cities manage this data is a huge opportunity. There is a major need for those that can help cities and towns better track this data so that it becomes actionable information (CRM), that serves the data to other application providers (web service developers and third party development shops). Take a simple example from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. The Department simply provided raw bus schedule information in machine readable format (XML)to anyone that wanted to use it. Within a month, several applications were built to leverage this data at no costs to the Department or to citizens. Hey, anyone want to help me write an iPhone application for my blog?

Alright, I see the need, tell me a little more

Yes, I know, you are about to fire up Visual Studio or Eclipse and start cranking out some code. Slow down, though, here are a few important points before you get started:

– Open 311 is not really a standard. You can check out the Open 311 site, but keep in mind it is really the result of Washington DC, San Francisco, and some talented developers working to define the starting point of what could one day grow up to becoming a real standard.
– Along the same lines, I have already suggested to Kevin Novak, EGOV Chair at W3C, that they should consider taking ownership and making this into a real standard. If W3C takes ownership we could see this grow up to becoming a truly useful standard, similar to what has happened with HTML and other key web-related standards.
– Small towns and cities are lucky if they have 1 IT person who could work on this effort. States and Federal Government are really not much better off when it comes to having money to spend. The smart vendors will look at alternative pricing models where they help these cash-strapped towns create and maintain Open 311 data at little or no cost but then take a piece of the revenue from application developers. Does this require a new way of thinking? Absolutely.
– State Governments will need to take a stronger role in demanding standard reporting formats and information. Each town provides data in different formats (PDF, CSV, etc..) with different pieces of data being reported. Standardization must be demanded from the top.
– Washington DC and San Francisco must look at Open 311 as more than a showy political statement and continue to be thought and technology leaders, open sourcing their efforts. I look forward to seeing them open source their code on sites like github.com..
– There will be resistence from many directions on providing this information. Small towns that are struggling will fear looking bad, potentially hurting political careers. Again, the State Governments must demand it.

Will this make a difference in our lives? Possibly, but only if the points above are taken into account. If not, this will just be another great idea that ultimately goes the route of the Sony BetaMax.

Finally, what can the private sector learn from this?

There is great opportunity in the public sector for those creative application development shops, for CRM vendors, and for others. However, the is not the gold rush of the mid 1800s. While there is great need there is little direct revenue to be found. However, look to leverage these opportunities for indirect revenue opportunities. For example, if you can build mash-ups that tie public information with private information you might find some very interesting, lucrative, applications. Be creative and be smart. Who knows, you might just create the next big thing.


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