If We Could Design Philadelphia’s 311 iPhone App

From where to find an open parking spot in Center City to which books are due at the library, the possibilities are endless with the city's new app

Yesterday it was revealed that the City of Philadelphia is developing an iPhone application for its 311 non-emergency call system that will allow users to submit requests for city services using an Apple smartphone.

As city Chief Technology Officer Allan Frank told the Inquirer, users will be able to track and retrieve the same information they can from the city’s 311 telephone service. The mobile interface, though, will allow for more, like snapping a photograph of a pothole to request that it be filled. Frank hopes the application will launch next month as a bare-bones preview of what’s to come, before the “rocket-science stuff.”

Though Frank is vague about the future of the software, we’ve got some initial suggestions for what could be easily (and not-so-easily) implemented and advice for the city programmers tasked with developing it. [SIGNUP]

Get all city departments on board. 
Though we’re sure that there’s plenty of valuable information in the 311 call operator database, it’s likely static. Get all the city’s departments involved in the development process. The streets department issue-tracking system is a low-hanging fruit, but there’s plenty more to pick.

The Police Department could offer live crime and traffic accident alerts using the iPhone’s push notification system. The Parking Authority could allow users to re-stock their meter cards, pay parking tickets or it could point them to open parking spots. Users could view flight delays at Philadelphia International. Forcing involvement will set precedents for future city-wide mobile and Web-based apps, an existing priority of the Division of Technology.

Use the opportunity to open more city data.
Last year, New York City launched its BigApps competition to attract local developers to create Web applications for city services. By offering $20,000 in prizes, it’s estimated that the city inherited $4 million in pro-bono software development.

The realvictory of the contest was in the opening of 170 data sets in 30 agencies for third-party use. Philadelphia needs to do the same. The Division of Technology ought to encourage those city departments to provide more data to the public, to help stimulate its internal development process and to offer that information to the outside technology community.

There’s much to be had. We’ve heard that SEPTA has the ability to track buses in real-time using GPS technology. Makes you wonder how city transit could be changed if there was a way for riders using a mobile device to see exactly where the next bus on the route is located. It’s examples like this one — told by city technology employees who aren’t given the opportunity to innovate — that both frustrate us for their lack of fruition and excite us for their possibilities.

Collaborate with outside organizations.
If there’s anything we champion, it’s reaching out to the innovators that already exist. Instead of creating an entirely new tracking system, the city should partner with SeeClickFix, which already provides a web-based submission and ticket viewer. There are a handful of regional community groups and civic associations that utilize the platform, like the Clean Air Council, Bicycle Coalition and the Society Hill Civic Association.

Independent developers have shown interest in developing applications for the city, like iSepta — which offered Regional Rail schedules in a mobile format before SEPTA — so why not seek their input and their talent? City officials have long spoke of the possibility of hosting an app development contest like New York’s. That should be a no brainer. Outside groups offer plenty of data, talent, and already completed work, too, like the Committee of Seventy’s Polling Locator, which would make a great addition to the City’s
311 app.

Whatever happens, don’t try to reinvent the wheel.

Think big.
Though the ends we envision might be too broad for the first iteration of the city’s iPhone app, we encourage its developers to create an app that surprises us.

Imagine if tourists could download the app to receive geo-located recommendations for food, retail, events and sights from the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation. The city could partner with organizations like the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Temple’s Urban Archives for historical snippets and photographs from around town.

Implementation, too, should be innovative. The city could allow users to create profiles that would automatically tap them into the city services most relevant to them. In their personal dashboard, they might see which of their library books are due, the events happening in their neighborhood or school closings — whether they’ve got kids in public school or they themselves attend classes at the Community College of Philadelphia.

An iPhone application could be a prescient public example of the changes promised by the Division of Technology since Allan Frank took its reigns. But it’s going to take more than a few lines of code to put Philadelphia anywhere near the cities that are leading municipal technology innovation. Other departments will have to be convinced of its impact and the city will need to attract outside community commitment to help see it through.

Don’t expect to see all that happen by May.

What would you want to see in a Philadelphia 311 iPhone app? Tell us in the comments below