Chicago and Code for America team up to improve the city’s service request system

By Chris Loeber

A plan is in the works for an upgrade of Chicago’s information service center to improve the way residents and city officials communicate.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel welcomed a group of four Web developers Feb. 3 from Code for America, a nonprofit organization that works with city governments and municipalities to facilitate transparency and communication through Web-based solutions that are tailored to their needs.

“Essentially, they have nine months to develop the Open311 platform [for Chicago],” said Kathleen Strand, director of Public Information for the Mayor’s Economic, Budgetary and Business Development Council. “After five weeks of gathering data and intelligence on how to make it work, they are going to go back to San Francisco to develop that platform.”

The Open311 standard will introduce many additional means of communication, such as enabling residents to submit and track service requests through the Internet and mobile devices, according to Daniel O’Neil, executive director at Smart Chicago Collaborative, an organization that provides funding and leadership for technology-based projects in Chicago.

The new 311 system will allow residents to request city services and share information in new ways, according to O’Neil. For example, users may be able to “up vote” requests in order to help city officials determine which ones are relevant to the most people.

Smart Chicago Collaborative granted $300,000 in funding to the City of Chicago for expenses related to the 2012 Fellowship Program.

The effort to modernize the city’s communication technology is part of the mayor’s attempt to increase transparency between the city and its residents, Strand said.

Chicago was one out of eight cities chosen to participate in Code for America’s 2012 Fellowship Program, which sends teams of Web developers to different cities for five weeks in order to tailor plans that will fit each city’s specific needs, according to a written statement from the mayor’s office.

According to Rob Brackett, a user interface designer and member of Chicago’s Code for America, conforming to the Open311 national standard will allow both city technology experts and individual developers to re-purpose and build upon web-based solutions created in other cities, such as Washington, D.C. and Boston, that have adopted Open311 systems.

“There is basically no way for citizens to get data out of [311] other than if you call and submit a request,” Brackett said. “It might give you a service request number that you can call later to find out about the status of that number, but it is hard to see what is going on in the system asa whole.”

However, not everyone is looking forward to the 311 update. Thaddeus Budzynski, a Chicago cab driver, said people already abuse the city’s current 311 system to submit what may be unreasonable complaints about cab drivers.

“If people don’t like the way the cab driver says, ‘Good morning’ to them, then they get on the phone and cry about how mean the cab driver was,” Budzynski said. “And then they say, ‘OK, send the driver down to administration where we will take his money.’”

Although the Code for America team will focus on creating a plan for the 311 improvements during their stay in Chicago, they will also search out additional Web-based projects that could further enhance communication and access to information in Chicago, according to Brackett.

“We have some freedom to look at other projects besides this 311 thing and find what we think is valuable,” he said. “It’s been a really packed week so far, and I’m sure it’s going to be like that going forward for the rest of the month.”