A couple of years ago, a conversation was brewing among city leaders in the Sacramento, Calif., suburb of Elk Grove -- the city realized it could no longer afford to limit interactions with an increasingly smartphone-equipped population to between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.
“We were looking for a way for people to not only report information to us on things that they're seeing, but also for us to give them information,” explained Nicole Guttridge, IT administrator for Elk Grove.
The city considered several options, including a vendor-built mobile app tailor-made to meet its specific needs. And during this process, the city discovered civic engagement startup PublicStuff. Founded by Forbes’ 30 Under 30 honoree Lily Liu, the company offers a service request platform that lets users report issues of concern to the city.
Liu, who previously held positions with both New York City and Long Beach, Calif., realized that many cities couldn’t afford a full-blown 311 call center system to handle citizen requests. Many need a less expensive way of providing responsive customer service to the community. PublicStuff now fills that need for more than 200 cities across the country.
Spot graffiti, for example, and submit a photo to the city. Requests are acknowledged and forwarded to appropriate city staff. Citizens are notified when the issue is resolved. A running counter on the PublicStuff website shows that to date, nearly 90,000 such requests have been resolved using the system. Based in New York City with a satellite office in Philadelphia, the company’s website boasts of recently resolved citizen requests like graffiti in Fontana, Calif., a streetlight outage in Philadelphia and a dog complaint in Riverton, Utah.
Price was a powerful factor in Elk Grove choosing the platform, which was up and running in September 2011. City staff estimated first year costs at approximately $2,500, which has increased slightly as the company continues to add functionality to the platform.
One such enhancement is the ability for cities to use the system to push out notifications to citizens – a feature Elk Grove uses regularly. Last winter, for example, Elk Grove produced an outdoor ice skating rink. The city created a web page for the rink with detailed program information, and within 15 minutes, Guttridge says they were able to create a “widget” on their mobile app that drove citizens to the ice rink site. The city adds these widgets for various city events and programs, and rotates them in and out seasonally.
“Residents can click on the widget and order their ticket straight from their phone, and save it in their phone,” said Senior Customer Service Specialist Mona Schmidt. “No paper printout, nothing more to do, it's a matter of maybe 3 to 5 minutes -- same as if you logged in on the computer.”
According to Elk Grove, operating the system doesn’t require a technical background, and the company has been very responsive to suggestions and ideas for enhanced functionality.
Liu reports that a number of new features have been introduced recently, including a “OneVoice” translation capability that allows non-English speakers to interact seamlessly with other residents on issues of mutual concern.
“Let's say there are multiple followers on a particular issue,” Liu explains. “Everyone is viewing that information and those comments in their native tongue. So you could have a Spanish speaker, a Chinese speaker, a Russian speaker, all commenting and interacting on the same issue.”
Also, a new back-end analytics suite provides municipalities with various ways to look at the data generated by citizen requests. Liu promises that additional features are now in development as well.
In Elk Grove, the city sees heavy usage of the app from community activists who promote the app through neighborhood associations and other community organizations. Spikes in citizen requests predictably occur with warmer weather, when people are outside more and therefore more apt to notice something like a pothole.
The city saves additional time fielding resident requests using the system’s ability to store “canned” responses to the most frequently submitted issues. Schmidt estimates that approximately three-fourths of requests that come in warrant such a response. A report of a streetlight outage, for example, would receive an acknowledgement, tracking number and explanation of the typical time until resolution.
From an IT perspective, Guttridge says the system was simple to deploy and is easy to maintain.
“Everything we do is Web-based as well, so we didn't have to install any software or we don't have to have a server to support it, which from the IT administrator side is fantastic,” she said. “We get the benefit of all this technology, but we don't have to actually manage the hardware with it.”
Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.