New York City, Boston Add Web 2.0 to Customer Relationship Management

iPhone apps and Twitter let citizens exchange information with city 311 centers.

by / November 16, 2009

Earlier this year, San Francisco announced that citizens could use Twitter to inform the city about municipal service problems, such as graffiti, broken streetlights and potholes. By following San Francisco's SF311 Twitter account, users can submit "tweets" to the city and receive a tracking number that lets them follow the city's progress -- or lack thereof -- in addressing their issues.

The simple act of incorporating Twitter into its customer relationship management (CRM) process adds San Francisco to a growing list of cities using Web 2.0 applications to make the citizen-government relationship a little easier. These applications tend to be easy-to-use and easy-to-integrate, providing benefits to the city and the citizen at minimal or no expense. On the East Coast, New York and Boston aim to join San Francisco by adding their own 2.0 twist to CRM.

Apples for Bean Town

In winter 2008, as snowdrifts lined the streets of Boston, a few staffers at Mayor Thomas Menino's office came up with an idea. The city's CRM service had been receiving a lot of input regarding snow removal, said Nigel Jacob, the mayor's senior adviser for emerging technology. Jacob and his colleagues thought it would be great if Bostonians could let the city know, via their mobile devices, where snow was piling up.

Then, as now, Apple's iPhone was a consumer blockbuster, due largely to its ever-growing list of handy applications -- or apps. To Jacob and his colleagues, the iPhone seemed like the perfect platform to experiment with a mobile CRM/311-type application. There was only one problem. They needed to build the application.

For help, Jacob turned to Connected Bits, a Boston software development company that specializes in mobile software.

"Our thought in trying to make it interesting to Connected Bits was that if we could develop an application like this, then at some level integrate with our CRM back end, presumably other cities would be interested in something like that as well," Jacob said. "So isn't it in their best interest to do this work for us? It worked."

Development work on the app began in mid-April. For about $25,000 to cover technical support and server costs on Connected Bits' side -- and thanks to some long hours put in by Jacob and his staff -- the free app, called Citizen Connect, was ready in mid-August for iPhone users to download.

With Citizen Connect, Boston-area iPhone users report problems to the city in four categories: potholes, graffiti, streetlights and other. And it's the "other" category that could prove revolutionary. Jacob cited the example of a citizen who wants a tree planted in his community.

"By selecting 'other,' you could snap a photo of the location, the GPS will grab your coordinates and you can write in the field, 'Plant tree here.' So those are the kinds of things that this enables," he said.

Jacob also noted that if residents think a street needs more lighting, the Citizen Connect app will work in the same way. An iPhone user only needs to take a photo of the street, and the GPS details are uploaded with the picture to the city CRM. Like San Francisco's SF311, Citizen Connect generates a ticket for each issue submitted, allowing users to track what's being done.

"I think this is just a chance for us to build some excitement and interest in this as an approach, and then we'll do a lot of other things as well," Jacob said.

Tweets of New York

A few hundred miles southwest of Boston, New York City also is upping the ante in the Web 2.0-enabled

CRM game. And like San Francisco, New York's first foray involves Twitter. Unlike San Francisco, however, it's not New Yorkers who will be tweeting the city, it's the city that will be tweeting New Yorkers.

With budget cuts impacting the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, CIO Paul Cosgrave wanted to find a way to drive people to the city's Web site to conduct civic transactions. That desire led to the development of the city's online version of 311.

Photo: Paul Cosgrave, CIO, New York City/Photo courtesy of Paul Cosgrave

"A large part of our whole movement started with 311 Online, which gave us the ability to do everything we've been doing with 311 in an online capacity," Cosgrave said. "The cost-reduction aspect of what's happened and this entire growth has hit us very rapidly around the Web 2.0 expansion with people wanting accessibility in every conceivable way possible."

Since 311 Online launched, Cosgrave and his staff have looked for more ways to optimize the system. The sudden rise of Twitter gave them an idea. The 311 system routinely received large amounts of consumer input concerning parking regulations. It's common for motorists in the city to find parking prohibited on one side of a street for regularly scheduled street cleaning. And with parking at a premium, citizens are continually asking for information about where and when they can park.

"There's something in the city called 'alternate side parking,'" said Joe Morrisroe, executive director of 311/ Operations. "It's basically street cleaning rules and regulations. But many New Yorkers call every day to find out whether it is or is not in effect."

Cosgrave and Morrisroe saw an opportunity to incorporate Twitter into 311 Online. But instead of responding to tweets about alternate side parking being in effect or not, they decided to invite people to follow the city on Twitter so they could be updated automatically.

"So rather than a one-to-one relationship where a customer has to call and deal with one representative to get the information, we will have one source, push it out and potentially hit many customers, be it our followers on Twitter or potentially our followers when they retweet, which then has the exponential factor," Morrisroe said.

Cosgrave said that the city will launch additional mass awareness campaigns on Twitter. Whether telling New Yorkers where to obtain marriage certificates or how to enroll kids in meal programs, the Twitter service is a simple and free way to dispense information to a large audience.

Besides Twitter, the city is also rolling out Skype for 311. Skype, the free Web-based phone system, will allow New Yorkers to get 311 updates anywhere in the world at no cost.

"It was just one of those logical steps," said Nicholas Sbordone, director of external affairs for the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. "We already have people able to call in from their cell or landline, and they can log in now to 311 online from their smartphone or desktop. It only makes sense for people who are traveling either within or outside the country to be able to Skype them if they have accounts and then access the same services."


Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.