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Miami 311 Goes Online, Keeps Phone Calls

Cash-strapped Miami IT department creates online app using Microsoft Azure platform.

Miami residents still must dial 311 to report non-emergency problems like potholes, missed trash pickup or broken streetlights. But now they -- and Miami city employees -- can go online, view "problem areas" and track their requests.

Launched in early March, Miami 311 pulls data from the telephone-based system and displays it on an online map. Residents can view an average of 4,500 issues in progress on the map instead of a list and filter searches based on type of request, date, district and status, according to Stuart McKee, Microsoft national technology officer. Using the Microsoft Azure cloud platform, Bing mapping and Silverlight, Miami 311 was created by two people over an eight-day-period, with no up-front costs, according to a city press release.

"A simple click on the map allows them to easily drill down to more and more specific details if they want," McKee wrote on Port 25, a Microsoft blog. "In short, they have turned what used to be represented by a meaningless list of data into useful information, and created actionable and consumable knowledge that is relevant to the citizens of Miami."

It's also a proactive tool for managers, as they can easily ensure their employees are responding appropriately to the 311 calls.

Miami officials chose the Microsoft Azure cloud platform -- which provides virtually unlimited storage and processing power -- out of fiscal necessity, said James Osteen, Miami's assistant IT director. After the IT department's budget was slashed by 18 percent and 22 of its 102 full-time employees were lost during the last budget cycle, "we started questioning everything," Osteen said.

Osteen started looking at areas that personnel were spending their time -- half were dedicated to caring for infrastructure -- and decided to increase efforts toward resource development, to meet citizen needs and address cost cuts. Then he ran into a Microsoft Azure account executive in December 2009 and started having conversations that eventually led to the creation of Miami 311.

The Azure platform also brings technological advantages the city of Miami isn't equipped with. Because the city hosts and maintains its own servers and can only get new server hardware and maintenance every five years, the IT department must predict server needs five years in advance.

"The solution scales with unlimited storage and processing power, providing the ability to quickly address service requests and implement updates even during peak times, such as hurricane season," the press release said.

"We have to make the best estimates to what growth patterns will be," said Conrad Salazar, Miami 311 project manager. "We don't always get a good feel for what demands will be and if we guess wrong, it's very difficult to change that. The Azure fabric will allow infrastructure to resize to meet demands."

One of the city's next steps is to allow citizens to enter a 311 request via the Internet. But that process will take much longer than the eight days it took to develop the 311 app, Osteen said.

Miami isn't keeping its solution to itself, either. Using the Azure platform, other local and state agencies can use the template, Osteen said. "The issue has always been that everyone has something different," he said. "Now we have something in common, which is the Azure platform."

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.