The potholes of Philadelphia are warned:

The City of Brotherly Love is ready to find you, and fill you.

Philadelphia announced Thursday that it has signed a new deal with the IT services company Unisys to provide a comprehensive 311 system for residents. City officials say the new system will give citizens instant access to ask a question or lodge a complaint by landline, text, mobile device or on the Web.

Philadelphia receives between 1.2 million and 1.5 million calls to its existing 311 line, according to the service’s Executive Director, Rosetta Lue. She says the new system was implemented to handle current and future stress on the city’s 311 infrastructure.

“It was time for an upgrade, and the demand for our services outstripped our abilities.”

Lue said that 80 percent of all 311 calls are requests for municipal services information -- things like city-sponsored events and information requests for recreation leagues. The other 20 percent of calls involve quality-of-life issues, like potholes, abandoned cars and trash collections. And while Lue stressed that she expected city services to improve over the coming years, she also acknowledged that more 311 calls are coming … perhaps as many as 3 million in five years.

“Because we’re planning on promoting the service in the future,” Lue said, “311 is another way we can implement the vision the mayor has for becoming more customer-centric.”

To handle the expected growth in calls, the city did an open request for proposals, and ultimately chose Unisys. Part of the appeal of going with the company, Lue said, is that it is offering cloud-based hosting.

“It reduces upfront costs,” Lue said. “It allows us to plug-in and play.”

The Cloud as a Ray of Sunshine for Taxpayers

Unisys developed the new 311 system, utilizing cloud-based services, in partnership with cloud platform company Salesforce. Crystal Cooper is vice president of Unisys Public Sector for North America, and she said the partnership gave her company a leg-up over other contract bidders.

“I think we won because we had the best solution … we have extensive experience in the private sector with a partner like Salesforce,” Cooper said.

Combined with the cloud hosting, the Unisys proposal offered the robust 311 services Philadelphia desired, Cooper said. Unisys has long been developing those services for the public and private sectors. And while the private sector has long seen the value in keeping software and data services in the cloud, Cooper said, government sectors are hampered by archaic rules and paper-based processes.

“The story is with government, they have a business problem,” she added.

Yet, Cooper said Philadelphia took a bold step forward by utilizing Unisys and its cloud-based services.  “This is a testament to Philadelphia thinking proactively," she said. 

Rosetta Lue said the cloud-based infrastructure will ultimately save the Philadelphia tax-payers money.

“It reduces up-front costs,” Lue said.

But What Is the Cost?

Although cloud-based applications save money on infrastructure and staffing, the exact savings to Philadelphia taxpayers are still to be determined. Although the deal between Philadelphia and Unisys has been approved, the final cost isn't worked out.

 The two entities are still negotiating on price.

“[The ongoing negotiations] do not threaten the buy,” Lue said.

Lue said negotiations are centered on the exact price regarding the volume and depth of the city’s 311 inquiries. Unisys is confident that whatever the final price is, the company will provide the services to fit Philadelphia’s needs. Meanwhile, with the announcement Thursday about Philadelphia’s new 311 services, Unisys officials are hopeful other government agencies will climb on board. 

“There’s always an adrenaline rush when you flip the switch and something goes live.” Cooper said. “And I’m excited, because the expectation is that citizens should be able to interact with their government 365 days a year.”

John Sepulvado  |  Contributing Writer

John Sepulvado is from Southern California. He enjoys writing, reading and wants to take up fishing.