News, Open Data, Public Participation

SF311 iPhone App and Open APIs

I spoke with Dave Mitchell, Connected Bits, who just released an iPhone app for Boston’s 311. I was most interested in his challenges and eventual path to success, but was also hoping to build a partnership so that SF can eventually use the app for our city. It looks like we will be able to move forward with more conversations around our requirements and a partnership with Connected Bits, however I am now struggling with how this will promote our goals of open data, open source, and open participation if we don’t use any of those pillars in its development. Should we partner with a private company to develop our first app? If we develop an iPhone app “in-house” will it create excitement for future 311 mobile apps? Ideally this would spawn interest and bring a larger pool of developers who would like to work on other mobile apps for the city.

I have looked at some recent Open311 API guidelines and those don’t seem to fit well with a high volume model like San Francisco’s 311 since our goal would be to circumvent the actual call center and route service requests directly to the servicing agency. I am open to conversations on the topic and admit I still have a lot to learn about this space.

If you have insights or comments on this topic and how I should best approach opening up our 311 APIs I am all ears.

– Alissa Black

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3 thoughts on “SF311 iPhone App and Open APIs

  1. Alissa:

    I think the best way to engage outside developers to build applications that can support the submission of service requests (if that is the ultimate goal) is to develop an API.

    I think what Boston has done is praise worthy, but ultimately their iPhone application is geared for a very specific audience (i.e., iPhone users) and it doesn’t really help anyone else build an application of this type – even if they happen to be another private company that the city contracts with.

    Developing an API for 311 service requests has three major benefits for SF (and other cities as well):

    1. Even if SF decides to engage a private company to build an iPhone app (or some other kind of app), they would need to provide some way to interact with the back end systems that support 311. By providing a standard API interface, the city can help ensure that its app will continue to work if it decides to change things on the back end somewhere down the line. If its built against an API, the vendor’s app will still work because it is unconcerned with back end changes – so long as they do not affect the API.

    (One could argue that developing an API for a specific vendor project would be a good way to work out the kinks before it is opened up to others, including outside developers.)

    2. APIs are interface agnostic. This means that any user interface – iPhone, regular phone, SMS, instant messaging client, Twitter client, etc. – can potentially be built to support 311 service request submissions. As long as the application provides the information required of API methods, and use the appropriate interaction protocol (typically HTTP) it can be used. This makes it potentially more valuable for the city because it doesn’t limit the type of apps that can be used to submit requests. Don’t get me wrong – I love my iPhone. But of the total number of cell phones in SF, how many are iPhones?

    3. Open source developers love APIs. I’m admittedly a little biased on this point, but I think what DC and others have done recently around development competitions proves that there is an active developer community out there that would be willing to help the city develop apps – if there is an API to code to.

    Sorry for the ramble – hope this input is helpful.

  2. I was in New Mexico this week and stumbled across Albuquerque’s 311 use of Twitter:
    http://tr.im/rHhi

    They are using Twitter’s infrastructure instead of having to build their own SMS system. And they are also encouraging people to use the features of their smartphones to enhance the info they send to the city. For example, they have detailed instructions about how to use TwitPic or similar services to attach a photo to your report about that pothole. Or on the iPhone you could send a link to the exact location with GMaps.

    Interesting direction for 311.

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