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An Open 311 System for the City of New York - A Letter to Mayor Bloomberg

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, May 28 2009

[This letter is reposted from, with the permission of its author, John Geraci. We fully endorse its contents and call on others to help spread the word. The Editors.

The Honorable Michael R. Bloomberg
Mayor of New York City
City Hall
New York, NY 10007

Dear Mayor Bloomberg:

Under your leadership, the City's 311 System has grown into an invaluable civic service that has accumulated vast amounts of actionable data about all kinds of topics residents of New York City care deeply about. Now is the time to transform 311 into a tool of even greater value, for use by elected officials, policy makers, local leaders, and everyday New Yorkers by allowing any and all software developers to freely access, work with and build web applications based on the data contained in the system. Such a transformation can be realized by implementing a simple Open 311 System for the City of New York.

The vision for Open 311 is a system which would allow the public to build applications that will transform the City's 311 data into all kinds of useful tools and information flows that can be used by government officials and citizens alike. We see Open 311 as the next frontier of transparency, accountability and civic engagement between local government and citizens. With a new political attitude toward openness at the federal level and a large creative class of technologically savvy City residents, your administration is poised to lead the country in this effort at the local level. Below is a brief description of Open 311, examples of what could be created and a description of some of the benefits of Open 311.

What is Open 311

“Open 311” is the term given to providing open, free API access to the City’s existing 311 System.

An API, or Application Programming Interface, is a web protocol that gives programmers anywhere access to data on a web server in order to build custom applications using that data. Businesses that operate on the web commonly use APIs to facilitate and encourage interaction with their core data. By allowing anyone to build applications that make use of their data, they increase the number of ways in which the public can access that data. By doing this, they increase the number of people who actually use that data, as well as the variety of situations in which they will do so. And by encouraging more people to use their data, in more situations, they make that data more valuable – both to themselves and to the public at large.

Open 311 applies this same principle to the City’s non-emergency interface for municipal services. In essence, an Open 311 API will allow third party users to write web applications that do two things remotely and programmatically: 1) get all service requests from the 311 system, or some specified subset of service requests and 2) submit new service requests to the 311 system.

Such an API will have the effect of opening the current 311 service to all who wish to build on top of it, turning 311 from a closed system to an open platform, able to be extended and improved upon by others in whatever way they see fit. This extension and improvement, and the increase in public interaction with the 311 data that will result from it, are core to the vision of an Open 311 System and the value it could provide for the City of New York.

What Can Be Built on an Open 311 System - Some Examples

The number of useful, innovative applications that could be built with an Open 311 System in New York City is practically endless, limited only by the imagination of the public and the online tools they have to work with. Some examples of possible tools built on top of an Open 311 API include:

* A mapping system that allows anyone to see at a glance where the current live issues are, broken down by neighborhood, topic, date of submission, or any other criteria. Such a system would be useful for City officials and the public alike, for easily identifying problem clusters, seeing whether a particular issue has already been reported, seeing what issues are current in your neighborhood, and numerous other uses.
* An early warning system that allows anyone to see, in real time, what issues people are reporting to 311 in aggregate. Such a system could be invaluable to City officials to identify hot issues and potential emergencies within the City as they arise, so as to be able to respond to them more immediately.
* An email alert, update and comment system that allows anyone to track a particular issue and give input on it. Such a system could allow for residents to update City agencies on the current status of a particular issue, allow them to be notified when an issue has been resolved, or even potentially allow residents to organize locally to address and solve particular issues.
* A smart phone application that allows anyone to easily report new issues to 311 with their device’s camera and GPS system, creating automatically mapped and photographed issues that are better documented and hence easier for the city to investigate and resolve.

These applications would be developed entirely by third parties working independently from the city, for their own purposes. As such, they would not require oversight or input from the city to develop or maintain.

Benefits of an Open 311 System to the City of New York

The benefits of such an open platform are several:

* Cost. Creating an Open 311 system is quite simply the most cost-effective way for the city to improve on its existing 311 system, because it transfers the costs of these improvements to third party entities seeking to build on top of the 311 platform. Opening up an API to the city's 311 system allows improvements to be continually made to the system at no additional expense to the city.
* Ease. Creating an Open 311 system is a much simpler move, from the city's perspective, than the "hand held 311" currently proposed by Speaker Quinn. Rather than contracting to create a 311 system that works on all mobile devices and platforms, the city need simply open an API, and allow interested developers to do this for them.
* Expertise. An Open 311 API will tap directly into the widest-possible pool (i.e. the public pool) of experts in the domains of data processing, mapping, GIS, and social software, allowing them to collaborate and/or compete to build the best possible tools. The result is the best possible applications built on top of the city's 311 system.
* Innovation. As always, whenever a system is opened up for all to build on however they see fit, innovations occur which nobody had foreseen. Sometimes these unplanned innovations turn out to be the most valuable to the system's users. An Open 311 API would allow the city to benefit from this kind of open market innovation.
* Leading the Way. Open 311 is the way of the future for cities everywhere. Currently only Washington D.C. has an open 311 system in production, and Toronto is discussing it. New York City has an opportunity with Open 311 to play a leading role on the world stage, adopting and promoting this new way of allowing residents to interact with city agencies.

Meeting with DIYcity

DIYcity is a community of technologically adept urbanists focused on improving cities around the world. The group has over 600 members globally, with 150 in New York City. I speak on behalf of the members of DIYcity when I say we have teams of people ready, willing and able to assist the City with this effort--and to ensure its success once Open 311 is launched. With this in mind, I am asking for the opportunity to have a small group of DIYCity representatives meet with key members of your staff to discuss the possibilities and practical applications that Open 311 would generate. By adopting and promoting an Open 311 system now, the City can bring 311 into a new and exponentially more productive era, continuing to offer its residents leading-edge service at little additional cost above the current system.

Please have your staff contact me to discuss this further.


John Geraci
Founder of DIYcity
Brooklyn, New York

More Information

This document is the result of an ongoing discussion held on about creating an Open 311 for New York City. For more details on Open 311 and the possibilities and benefits it offers, refer to the discussion, here:

Contributors to this document include: John Geraci, Anthony Townsend, Paul Watson, Marissa Gregory, Geddes Munson, Antti Poikola, Liz Barry, Jason Liszkiewicz, Dmitry Kachaev and Nick Grossman.