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Chicago Open311 Empowers Texters

Chicago Chief Technology Officer John Tolva

January 29, 2013 By

In an attempt to mitigate the digital divide and provide greater functionality to 311 users, Chicago announced a new set of features that can be accessed by texting the city's 311 system. The new features build on the existing SMS system, ChiTEXT, a component of the city's Open311 system. Launched in September 2012, Chicago's Open311 system aims to closely integrate with mobile apps and ultimately, provide greater service for users. ChiTEXT, with its expanded feature set, allows users to complete most 311 tasks solely through texting. Users can then track the progress of their ticket as it goes through the city, in the same way that shipping customers can track their packages online.

Prior to the upgrade, ChiTEXT's functionality was extremely limited, said Chicago Chief Technology Officer John Tolva, explaining that users could just get information, not submit requests for service. “Open311 is a standard open source protocol for letting external developers write applications that access 311 data,” said Tolva. The launch of Open311 in Chicago allowed for simple integration with the mobile SeeClickFix app. Perhaps more importantly, Tolva said, users can follow their ticket's progress with or without a smartphone, thanks to the Open311 service tracker and expanded SMS functionality.

The top 14 reasons people call 311 make up about 70 percent of the city's call volume, Tolva said, and all those requests can now be submitted and tracked via SMS. “This is as much about the digital divide and making sure that no one is disenfranchised here,” Tolva said. “We're absolutely fired up about smartphone apps and things like that, but we have this tool, and frankly, sometimes it's easier just to text, no matter what kind of phone you have.”

Just as mobile apps and websites provide alternate methods for citizens to find information they need, ChiTEXT does its part to take some of the load off the city's 311 call center. The call center, Tolva explained, will never go away. “You're always going to want to have the option of people calling in,” he said. “Some people are just more comfortable with that.” And Open311 and ChiTEXT only address the most common 311 issues -- for more detailed requests, talking to a call center representative is still the best approach.

Enhancing the functionality of ChiTEXT didn't cost the city anything, Tolva said. SMS features were already provided by the city's back-end customer service system vendor, Motorola. Improving the system was a simple matter of capitalizing on what they had already invested in. “The difficulty in it only came in having to script out the questions,” he said.  “It's not all that complicated except when you start to think that there are certain requests that require detail.” When a user reports a pothole, for instance, he will receive a series of questions from the system such as, “Is the pothole near the curb line?” or “Does the pothole look like a sinkhole?” The challenge, according to Tolva, was crafting succinct questions that would gather all the needed information as quickly as possible.

As many government agencies have found, the old “build it and they will come” adage doesn't usually hold true for technology projects. Informing the public that these services exist was as important as the services themselves, Tolva said. The city advertises the services through graphics on buses and bus shelters. A lot of people in Chicago text the city's bus and train tracking systems, so the 311 functionality was a natural extension of those services, he said.

The service tracker and its wide accessibility is unique, Tolva said. “There is no other city that has the ability to show where inside the city's internal departments your request is,” he said. “And that's just part of a larger tracker fascination that we have. ... We have bus tracker, train tracker, plow tracker, traffic tracker, and now service tracker.” These types of services make the city's operations more visible, and they also provide opportunities for developers to build applications and even entire businesses on top of what the city started. “I would view Open311 as part of turning the city into a platform,” Tolva said.

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