Philly 311 Turns Urban Complaints Into High-Tech Gossip

City Hall's new app is pretty useful. Better yet, it's highly entertaining.

A lot has been made in the last week about the city’s new (and long-awaited) 311 app. The free app, available for Android, iOS and Blackberry devices, allows anyone with a smartphone or tablet to put a very public bug in the city’s ear about, well, anything it wants—a cracked pavement, a noisy neighbor, illegally locked bicycles, illegally parked cars, you name it. The app  is essentially a skinned version of an app called “Public Stuff,” which was developed by a company of the same name and which is used in a bunch of other municipalities across the country.

For all the handwringing over the delays in getting Philly 311 implemented, it really is a useful bit of technology—so long as the city keeps up the monitoring job it’s managed thusfar: You see an urban issue, you click a few buttons, categorize and describe your request, snap a photo if you’re so inclined, then click submit, and it’ll be in front of a city employee almost instantaneously.

Once your request is in the system, it’s tracked through four steps, from Received, Acknowledged, In Progress and Closed, and includes commentary from the city employees handling it, ranging from “You have the right to remove the bicycle [chained to your private property]” to “the request has been given to a tree inspector” to “Please contact the Narcotics Hotline: 215-686-8477 or 215-686-8478.” Public service indeed!

There are some glitches: half the photos are upside down or sideways, and complaints that are not given a title simply show up as their category type, which often is “other.” But what’s great is that other users can comment on and follow requests, and you can elect to receive update emails as a complaint you submit or follow is addressed. And that might be the best thing about this app: It’s all public.  (Or much of it, anyway: After this post was originally published, the app developer contacted us to note that users can adjust the app’s settings to keep their complaints private.)

Yes, yes, this is all very good from a government transparency perspective. But it’s even better for its voyeuristic qualities. Mixed in with legitimate concerns (ie the kinds of things 311 was set up to address) are some actual emergencies (If you see a drug deal in progress or your neighbor physically threatens you, just call 911, people!)  and downright petty complaints (if your 100-year-old neighbor has a dead cat on her stoop, get a bag and a shovel). But mixed up in this very utilitarian public service app is Philly’s own version of Passive Aggressive Notes, or a more productive channeling of the energy that goes into City Paper’s I Love You, I Hate You.

And that just might be what makes Philly 311 a success beyond it’s yeoman public service aspirations: It’s truly entertaining. Trusty me, you could blow an entire evening just gawking at some of this stuff.

(Click here for a slideshow of some of these Philly 311 complaints, or view below.)

You’ve got your bad smells, from dead cats to nasty Dumpsters to live chickens.

You’ve got your predictable bikes vs. cars gripes, from bicycle cops behaving badly to cyclists locking improperly to neighbors behaving inexcusably to churchgoers parking impiously.

(There could be an entire subsection devoted to bikes with stolen wheels abandoned on signposts. The Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities is apparently looking for these bikes.)

You’ve got your staple city problems: Blight, squatters, graffiti, and the classic homeless guy with cat on a leash.

And, of course, you’ve got your serious safety issues: The abandoned truck that had been set on fire, the drug deal in progress, the dangerous pedestrian crossing, the loose construction plate.

But then you’ve got the pithy, passive aggressive stuff, the kind of stuff that makes you wonder about the complainer and the complained about: a noisy party, this business doesn’t recyclemy neighbor throws his trash out too early.

And the kinda stupid stuff: I think my tree is dead, what do these no-parking signs mean?

Then there’s a pair of entries that are both priceless, and a window on how this whole thing could go wrong. One snarky dickbag submits a complaint about “this iPhone App,” to which the city rep responds admirably, “Please be more specific in regards to the issue that you are having. Thanks.” And then there’s this one, titled “Decaying Balloon” about “a decaying balloon stuck in a tree on the sidewalk,” which the city rep closes with this response, the disdain barely concealed, “complaint of balloon stuck in tree.”

It’ll be interesting to see how Philly 311 evolves, whether it’ll become force for civic empowerment, if it’ll devolve into a forum for people to snark on their neighbors and City Hall.