By Ariel Schwartz
Even if you haven't heard of PublicStuff, a three year-old startup, there's a decent chance you've used its services. The brainchild of Lily Liu, a former Mayor Bloomberg staffer, PublicStuff creates digital communications systems for over 200 cities across the U.S. Even if you don't live in a participating city, you can use PublicStuff's 311-like app to get your service requests routed to the correct agency.
For an example of how cities are leveraging the system, which just released a slew of updated features, take a look at Philadelphia. Since working with PublicStuff to create the Philly 311 app just over a year ago, the city has seen over 12,500 app downloads and over 14,000 requests through the service to take care of things like graffiti removal, abused animals, and abandoned vehicles. That's just the beginning of what the city hopes to do with the platform.
"In a year or two, we see this turning into a community engagement platform, a robust suite of widgets and products geared towards enhancing community engagement," explains Adel Ebeid, Philadelphia's Chief Innovation Officer.
Philadelphia first began searching for a 311 mobile app solution because of what Richard Negrin, the city's Deputy Mayor and Managing Director, calls "the digital divide." Between 45% and 50% of residents in Philadelphia, a place with one of the highest poverty rates among all major cities, don't have access to the Internet. It's not that people weren't using all the other 311 access points the city provides--email, telephone, walk-ins, etc.--but that "mobile was an opportunity to have people utilize  as an onramp to the Internet, a sea change in how people interact with government," explains Negrin.
And in fact, it's not just wealthy areas of the city that use the app. The numbers show that use is evenly distributed across all of Philadelphia. "We saw it as a poverty strategy. Many of our constituents didn't have Internet at home, but something I always said just from being in the community and growing up in a tough urban community, it's sneakers and smartphones. We figured out a way to get the best sneakers and the best smartphones every time they came out," says Negrin.
Philadelphia has already started building widgets on top of the basic 311 app. During the November elections, the city created a widget to help residents find their polling places, look at a sample ballot based on where they live--and tell them the facts about Pennsylvania's controversial voter ID law. During Hurricane Sandy, the city pushed out evacuation notices, emergency numbers, Red Cross locations, and other important pieces of information through the app.
Now the city is working a language assistance widget to help non-native English speakers fill out forms and documents. Next month, Philadelphia is hoping to launch a widget contest that will engage local tech startups in developing even more applications for PublicStuff's platform.
While cities across the U.S. use PublicStuff's system, Philadelphia is probably its highest-profile customer--the company does have its competitors, and some cities have elected to build their own systems. But, says Negrin, "We weren't looking for a vendor, we were looking for a meaningful partner."
It's hard to say how much money Philadelphia is saving by using PublicStuff (outside of emergencies like Hurricane Sandy, where the savings are obvious). That's because 311 requests via more traditional venues haven't slowed down. The city's 311 service was once a 24/7 operation, however, and it was forced to cut back after the recession in 2008. Now it's available from 8 AM to 8 PM. As Negrin points out, "the app has given us an alternative to being open 24 hours a day."
Adds Ebeid: "What's more important than the possible savings is that it gives us additional operational awareness and intelligence around the city that we normally didn't have getting phone call requests." There's something to be said for having access to a real-time dashboard mapping out the city's complaints.
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.