Articles

Detroit Revitalizes City with 311 App

Motor City jumps on a wave of 311 apps to curb blight by connecting citizens with service departments.

by / May 7, 2015
An abandoned building in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Flickr/Thomas-Hawk

In the wake of the Detroit bankruptcy, blight sieged parts of the city as its populous exited. The fallouts were typical. There was a run of vandalism, thefts, arson and graffiti. Hard times pushed throngs of looters into scores of homes to scavenge for anything that wasn’t bolted down — and often, even for the things that were.

Jeff Mooney recalls the latter.

“They were going in and they were actually stealing the water meters … they’d just tear it out, but the water would keep running,” Mooney said.

As a VP at SeeClickFix, Mooney first heard of the looting through a partnership with Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). The water meters, along with other home furnishings like plumbing and electrical fixtures, it seemed, were hot commodities.

The looters were privy to the value of meters. They fetched, depending on size and sophistication, price tags akin to flat-screen TVs with retail prices hitting upward of $500 each. And unlike high-end electronics, the meters held the added appeal of being completely unguarded.

Complicating things further, staff to monitor the city's blighted housing was already strapped. The large-scale citizen departure left thousands of homes vacant. U.S. Census figures reveal that Detroit’s population has been cut by more than half since the 1960s, from 1.6 million to 700,000 today.

For solutions, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and DWSD’s CIO Dan Rainey partnered with SeeClickFix. The company, based in New Haven, Conn., is known for its mobile platform that’s embedded itself as a conduit between city service departments and citizen non-emergency — or 311 — requests. Duggan saw the platform as an opportune answer to address more than a single issue. Instead, the mayor asked how the app could be integrated throughout the city. Potholes, downed trees, graffiti, missing signage, streetlight outages — the mayor wanted a bundled solution to handle an array of common challenges.

Improve Detroit was his answer. The city app, officially available since April, allows citizens to report problems using photos, location data and by request type. Notifications on progress follow and residents can even pay utility bills through the app. For departments, it’s ingrained into work orders and workflows, while analytics provide data for planning, and filters permit a deep-dive analysis.

improve detroit app“Mayor Duggan has been very focused on making sure things are easily accessible for our citizens and being a lot more efficient with our critical service issues so he’s been pushing for a tool like this for his entire term,” said David Lingholm, Detroit’s director of digital media and community engagement.

Detroit now sits among many metropolitan cities pioneering such 311 apps. San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago are just a few of them. And there are a host of equally adroit tech providers supplying and supporting the apps — companies like Salesforce, CitySourced, PublicStuff, Fix 311 and others. Some cities have even developed their own apps through their internal IT departments.

What’s unique in Detroit is the city’s ambition to leverage a 311 app against major blight while the city works to demolish more than 20,000 abandoned homes — susceptible to fire, flooding, pest infestations and criminal activity. Beyond this, Lingholm said the initiative doubles as a tool to rejuvenate public trust. Data from the app is fed to the city’s new open data portal, and departments have set goals to ensure responsiveness.

”There is a lot of skepticism [after the bankruptcy], and it does us a lot of good to make sure our citizens can see what happens in city hall,” Lingholm said. “That transparency is a big, big deal for us.”

Yet Lingholm stressed the technology for the app wouldn’t have worked if there wasn’t a human component to back it up. To ensure the app worked, Detroit had to align service staff with their 311 call center.

“I think it’s probably something where every city will have to have something like this in the future, but it’s also important that it complements what you’re doing offline,” Lingholm said. “There really needs to be a human connection if we want these apps to be accepted and useful for our citizens.”

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.