Last week, while the City of Philadelphia was busy celebrating the country’s 234th birthday, another anniversary passed by with little fanfare. July 5 marked three months since the city announced it was developing its own 311 iPhone application to allow citizens to access city data on the go. It also marked the day the application was two months late.
In an April 5 announcement, Division of Technology chief Allan Frank said the application would be available in May, yet there’s still no sign of it on the city’s 311 site or in the App Store.
While we’re certainly on board with city government embracing new technologies, there were several alternatives to the city developing the application itself that would have sped up its development and saved precious taxpayer dollars.
“We need to be less focused on managing servers and more focused on serving citizens,” said Councilman Bill Green in a phone interview with Technically Philly about the 311 application. Green says the city could have cheaply crowd-sourced the application development using a service like Force.com.
In building the application itself, the city showed that it didn’t even perform a simple Google search to weigh other options. Philadelphia is not the first city to attempt a 311 application, nor is the 311 department the first city department to bring its data to a mobile platform. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
Across the country, many municipal 311 departments are releasing data to the public so volunteers can create applications for free. One non-profit, Open 311, is used by cities like San Francisco, and provides a model for other cities that are developing 311 applications (like Philadelphia), so they can piggyback off of the work of others.
There is also a small handful of companies such as Public Stuff (incubated right here in Philadelphia), See Click Fix and City Sourced that offer pre-made template applications which can easily be slightly modified to suit the needs of a city like Philadelphia.
There are also civic development meet-up groups around Philly that are full of talented developers who want to help make it a better place. They often discuss ways to develop municipal applications and websites, and are eager to develop useful apps as a side project to their day jobs (read: for cheap or free). They would have loved to have been a part of the development of a 311 iPhone app.
But there was no request for proposal for the 311 application, shutting out the city’s best resource: its citizens. By making the project internal and not involving local companies and residents, Philly now has a delayed application that most likely cost much more than if it had considered collaborating with others.
The Philadelphia technology community wants to help make this city a better place. Why not let them?
TECHNICALLY PHILLY is a news site that covers technology in the region. The site covers startups, investment, government policy, Comcast, social media and all that is Philadelphia tech. Read more at technicallyphilly.com.