A few weeks ago we had a discussion about creating an Open 311 System for New York City. Based on that conversation, I wrote up a short letter to Mayor Bloomberg, which I just faxed to him this morning. The letter is also being delivered via a few other channels, to ensure a better chance of reception.
Here is the letter I sent him, the result of everyone's conversation here on the site.
The second section, "What Can Be Built on an Open 311 System" is a bit brief due to space limitations. If anyone wants to add ideas in the comments below as to other things that could be done with an Open 311, that would be a great addition to the document.
20 Jay St, Ste 1019
Brooklyn, NY 11201
May 28, 2009
Re: An Open 311 System for the City of New York
The Honorable Michael R. Bloomberg
Mayor of New York City
New York, NY 10007
Dear Mayor Bloomberg:
Under your leadership, the City's 311 System has grown into an invaluable civic service that has accumulated vast amounts of actionable data about all kinds of topics residents of New York City care deeply about. Now is the time to transform 311 into a tool of even greater value, for use by elected officials, policy makers, local leaders, and everyday New Yorkers by allowing any and all software developers to freely access, work with and build web applications based on the data contained in the system. Such a transformation can be realized by implementing a simple Open 311 System for the City of New York.
The vision for Open 311 is a system which would allow the public to build applications that will transform the City's 311 data into all kinds of useful tools and information flows that can be used by government officials and citizens alike. We see Open 311 as the next frontier of transparency, accountability and civic engagement between local government and citizens. With a new political attitude toward openness at the federal level and a large creative class of technologically savvy City residents, your administration is poised to lead the country in this effort at the local level. Below is a brief description of Open 311, examples of what could be created and a description of some of the benefits of Open 311.
What is Open 311
“Open 311” is the term given to providing open, free API access to the City’s existing 311 System.
An API, or Application Programming Interface, is a web protocol that gives programmers anywhere access to data on a web server in order to build custom applications using that data. Businesses that operate on the web commonly use APIs to facilitate and encourage interaction with their core data. By allowing anyone to build applications that make use of their data, they increase the number of ways in which the public can access that data. By doing this, they increase the number of people who actually use that data, as well as the variety of situations in which they will do so. And by encouraging more people to use their data, in more situations, they make that data more valuable – both to themselves and to the public at large.
Open 311 applies this same principle to the City’s non-emergency interface for municipal services. In essence, an Open 311 API will allow third party users to write web applications that do two things remotely and programmatically: 1) get all service requests from the 311 system, or some specified subset of service requests and 2) submit new service requests to the 311 system.
Such an API will have the effect of opening the current 311 service to all who wish to build on top of it, turning 311 from a closed system to an open platform, able to be extended and improved upon by others in whatever way they see fit. This extension and improvement, and the increase in public interaction with the 311 data that will result from it, are core to the vision of an Open 311 System and the value it could provide for the City of New York.
What Can Be Built on an Open 311 System - Some Examples
The number of useful, innovative applications that could be built with an Open 311 System in New York City is practically endless, limited only by the imagination of the public and the online tools they have to work with. Some examples of possible tools built on top of an Open 311 API include:
These applications would be developed entirely by third parties working independently from the city, for their own purposes. As such, they would not require oversight or input from the city to develop or maintain.
Benefits of an Open 311 System to the City of New York
The benefits of such an open platform are several:
Meeting with DIYcity
DIYcity is a community of technologically adept urbanists focused on improving cities around the world. The group has over 600 members globally, with 150 in New York City. I speak on behalf of the members of DIYcity when I say we have teams of people ready, willing and able to assist the City with this effort--and to ensure its success once Open 311 is launched. With this in mind, I am asking for the opportunity to have a small group of DIYCity representatives meet with key members of your staff to discuss the possibilities and practical applications that Open 311 would generate. By adopting and promoting an Open 311 system now, the City can bring 311 into a new and exponentially more productive era, continuing to offer its residents leading-edge service at little additional cost above the current system.
Please have your staff contact me to discuss this further.
Founder of DIYcity
Brooklyn, New York
This document is the result of an ongoing discussion held on DIYcity.org about creating an Open 311 for New York City. For more details on Open 311 and the possibilities and benefits it offers, refer to the discussion, here: http://diycity.org/discussions/calling-open-311-nyc.
Contributors to this document include: John Geraci, Anthony Townsend, Paul Watson, Marissa Gregory, Geddes Munson, Antti Poikola, Liz Barry, Jason Liszkiewicz, Dmitry Kachaev and Nick Grossman.
I'm back from San Jose, where I presented DIYcity to a room of mapping and GIS professionals and enthusiasts at O'Reilly Where 2.0 last week (photo here). The presentation was well-received, with lots of people approaching me with good ideas and feedback afterwards. (One idea I liked: DIYcity should build apps that are *more* local, that people implement at the neighborhood level, not the city level. The reasoning was that neighborhoods are the basic cellular unit of community, easier to get adoption, and then easier to replicate from neighborhood to neighborhood).
Now since I've been back I've been working on the 311 document that everyone submitted ideas on a few weeks ago. We should have something good on that soon, and I'll let you know as soon as we do.
Also today SickCity is featured in the Wall Street Journal, in a story titled "Health Data Proves Contagious On Social Media". If you have a subscription, see it here. If not, you can see a version of it on MarketWatch here.
BTW, the media story about SickCity currently is how we got trounced by all of the bad data from the swine flu epidemic, and how we are learning from that. But in fact the site itself seems to be working great these days - very low noise, very good signal. We're making a few more tweaks to it, and at that point I wouldn't put it past SickCity to actually pick up on a flu outbreak in a city in real time if one occurred. So I think the swine flu was good for SickCity all in all, and I think it's time for a new storyline about it.
On a more general level, I feel like SickCity definitely proves the central premise of DIYcity, namely that ordinary people working with freely-available data can build tools that can make their cities work better - and not just marginally better, but radically better. What else can we do in this regard? A lot I think.
But mostly on my mind right now is how to take DIYcity to the next level. It is clear to me and to everyone I talk to that it's ready to go there, and it's got to go there. The question is just where "there" is exactly and how to get there. Any silence from me on the site these days is really just due to that question swimming around in my head. Rather than creating lots of new activity on the site, I would rather push it to a new level and then create that activity. I've been having lots of very good chats with people on how to do this, people like Fred Wilson of USV, several notable people and groups out west, and friends here in NYC. I'm getting a good picture in my mind now of where to take this. It's not 100% clear yet, but I feel like all it needs is about 3 espressos, a notepad, and a spare hour to get me there.
Hopefully I'll get a window for that to happen soon, make a plan and have something to report on!
Got this in my inbox the other day in response to a proposal on an open 311 system sent to Speaker Quinn. What are the chances they'll do something really open here?
Dear Mr. Geraci,
Thanks so much for your interest in our newly proposed 311 mobile application.
Right now, we're still working out the details for this new tool with the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT).
We're very excited about this new opportunity, and I'll be sure to keep your contact information on file as our discussions with DoITT move forward.
Thanks again for writing.
Christine C. Quinn