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Zencity Aims to Build a New 311 Platform — Here’s How

During the pandemic, 311 services became more important to citizens and governments alike. Now, companies such as Zencity are crafting platforms that offer more efficiency and accountability than before.

Sacramento 311 Call Center
The race to make local 311 services more efficient is heating up, thanks in part to the pandemic. Now, Israel-based Zencity hopes to make its own bigger mark in this space via the use of open source software.

The company has started development on a 311 resident reporting platform that it hopes would not only enable relatively easy integrations with outside technology vendors, but cut down deployment time for local and state government agencies as well.

Coding started about a month ago, and the product could debut later this year, according to Ido Ivri, Zencity’s CTO and co-founder. Right now, he’s seeking web design partners for the company’s new 311 platform push, which will initially target cities and counties with about 50,000 residents, and which operate their 311 services via phone or email, he said.

“If you don’t have a central (311) platform, you need to know someone at city hall or navigate (government) websites” to get responses, Ivri said in describing the problem he wants to solve.

DATA AND CRM


Zencity helps public officials better grasp what citizens are thinking by pulling in data from 311, social media and other sources. The company just raised $30 million from investors.

The general idea behind this new technology project is to bring more efficiency to 311 ticketing — that is, the complaint process — and allow more data analysis of what citizens are concerned about. Such data could, for example, help guide bike-sharing programs, sewer repairs, garbage collection and other areas of government work.

Additionally, Zencity aims to make 311 tech more quickly deployable than is the case now when those local and state agencies rely on traditional customer relationship management products, he said. The problem with that CRM technology is that the software products were mainly designed for business-to-business and retail sales, not citizen service, he said.

“Residents are not (sales) leads,” he said.

Deployment times for new 311 technology can run between 18 and 24 months, he said, especially given the attention to revised workflows from officials. Ivri said he wants to change that.

In Ivri’s view, basing a system around modular, open source technology can simplify and shorten the deployment process, and give specific governmental departments the chance to essentially test drive a new 311 platform before it is used by other parts of public agencies. In short, the new technology would be “lighter” than competing products.

“That’s the theory I have, but I am not sure the theory holds in reality,” said Ivri, who recently published a fuller, semi-technological explanation of the principles behind his idea.

Using open source technology — and building a platform based on existing standards from the likes of Open311 — can encourage developers to customize a government’s 311 service based on local needs. That could, for example, transmit complaints or issues raised on other digital platforms to the central 311 system.

“A 311 ticketing system is something every city and county in America should have,” Ivri said, adding that his work on this particular project is driven by that belief. “We could open source enough of it so another vendor could, say, build an integration for Nextdoor.”

Even so, he said he has a clear view of the challenges such technology faces. Among the main ones is gaining official buy-in for a system that, in theory at least, would bring more accountability to local and state governments via a more centralized 311 platform.

NEW 311 DEPLOYMENTS


The company’s new 311 push comes as the service takes on new importance, especially during the pandemic.

New York City, for instance, had to deal with a flood of new 311 calls and service requests during lockdown, reflecting the experience of other cities. Those municipalities responded to that and other challenges in various ways. New Orleans recently turned to 311 chatbots powered by artificial intelligence to provide quicker responses to residents.

In late June, Houston — the fourth-largest U.S. city by population — launched a cloud-based 311 platform anchored to Microsoft Dynamics ERP and CRM software. The new system enables more citizen self-service and automation for 311 inquiries and service requests, which can now be made via old-fashioned phone calls, a mobile app or a web portal. Water leaks, property nuisances and wastewater issues stand as the most common 311 calls in Houston, according to the city.

“The creation of this new system embraces emerging technology that puts the power of case creation into the hands of residents via a newly created virtual agent, allowing residents to only rely on call centers for the most complicated cases, reducing call volumes and wait times,” the mayor’s office wrote in a press release.

Meanwhile, the Virginia city of Virginia Beach offers another glimpse into the future of 311 services and technology. It worked with Incapsulate, a company based in Washington, D.C., to launch last year what the company called in a press release a “cloud-based digital citizen engagement and service request management solution geared towards municipal use.”

Similar to the case with Houston, the Virginia Beach 311 system includes self-service and mobile features.

“Our goal is to ensure citizens can easily connect to city services and information across multiple platforms,” said Peter Wallace, the city’s CIO, said in the release. “Technology has quickly evolved into a critical tool during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are committed to improving key systems, such as 311, for the benefit of our residents.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in New Orleans.
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