Philadelphia 3.0

Five ways city government should embrace the Web — and make all of our lives easier

The use of technology to transform government has been a growing municipal interest in city halls across the country.

Here, the City of Philadelphia has announced intentions to release a service-orientated 311 iPhone application, it’s applying for ultra high-speed broadband from Google and it’s in hot pursuit of a funded team of developers and technologists which may someday make our every government transparency dreams come true. [SIGNUP]

The overtures are there, even if the substance hasn’t yet hit the pavement.

As such, a question or three remains as to where the priorities of the newly centralized city Division of Technology should be. We’d think every department’s site should be an open and transparent list of internal data, but there are specific goals each agency could reach. Below, we share our hopes for Web openness and effectiveness at five agencies or departments that Philadelphians often loathe.

Philadelphia Water Department

Before all city technology services were consolidated, the Water Department had the reputation for having the most formidable IT infrastructure since our water bills give the department its own protected source of revenue — at the end of fiscal year 2009 the water fund’s unrestricted net assets rang in at about $174.2 million [PDF]. Among city insiders, its commercial stormwater billing overhaul is being lauded as innovative and effective, and the department has a system for online billing, so we can shoot higher.

The Dream: What if the site offered real-time bill tracking to compare your bill with the average among your zip code to see if you’re on par or an excessive user.

What’s possible: Create a friendlier online billing system that offers automatic payment (and instills enough trust that we’d let it take from our bank accounts on its own).

Philadelphia Parking Authority

The PPA charges a $2.50 processing fee for Web payments of parking tickets. With a price tag that discourages anyone from using a paperless method to pay this cash cow, there’s no questioning that the state-controlled agency is still built for the paper age.

Our Dream: The PPA rolls out a geo-location-based smart phone application that can alert drivers that they’re parking illegally and has an alarm integrated into a parking meter network that tracks open spaces and, to help the PPA, tracks expired meters. A dynamically updated hot map tracking from where the number of violations come is publicly available and details how much revenue comes in.

What’s Possible: The PPA overhauls its collection system so online payment is easy and free, and, for anyone who has ever woken up to have their car towed because they didn’t know their street was getting paved that morning, a zip code or neighborhood-specific alert system that plays nice with RSS protocol.

Licenses and Inspections

Credit where credit is due for a department that is completely rewriting its foundational code. The facts are aplenty on the website of L&I, but for a department that deals so much with public information — like why my neighbor is adding three floors to his rowhome — there isn’t anything in the way of transparency.

Our Dream: A mobile accessible site that offers the following: a dynamically-updated map of on-going zoning hearings, variance proposals and permit requests for the entire city; a searchable database of historical property alterations and requests approved by L&I and community organization opinion. Of course, all the facts and figures on trends can be downloaded into spreadsheets, so we could see that, say, the number of fish-shaped bay windows grew 50 percent in the 19125 zip code last year.

What’s Possible: The department starts by investing in digitizing a decade of its approvals and denials and works toward posting online all requests, the data of which can be manipulated with a public API.

Board of Revision of Taxes

Remember these guys? The seven-member board that Mayor Nutter says is crooked. Short of dismantling the whole damn thing, he’s at least going to work with City Council to slash their pay. It was nothing short of a miracle that its site added a property owner search, but for an agency shrouded in confusion, we don’t see much more than that.

The Dream: A site that encourages payment of back taxes by listing what each property owner owes the city. Integration with Streets and L&I to lodge a complaint for nuisance or otherwise problematic property, historical ownership information and RSS feeds of changing property ownership specific to zips or neighborhood.

What’s Possible: Web forms to request appeals, abatements and exemptions and set up appointments are a small step, as would be enhancing the site’s property ownership searchability to allow for reverse look-ups by name.

Streets Department

The Streets Department website has added options to request pothole service and lodge other complaints, but there’s no transparency or follow-up.

The Dream: Each complaint gets a tracking number that can be updated by e-mail blast or RSS feed to track where the complaint goes. Dynamically updated maps should open up where the problem areas are and what neighborhoods are getting the treatment. Trash, maintenance and snow removal trucks would be retrofitted with GPS and would be able to be tracked by residents. Honey, bring empty the trash can, the truck is heading our way.

What’s Possible: Offering a trackable ticketing number for a complaint seems like a given, but can we at least get RSS updates on where work will be done and when trash collection is coming during the next blizzard? — Christopher Wink

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