The Municipal Web: Open311 and a Network of Civic Services


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While working with many cities toward an open standard for 311 services, it became clear that the distributed model of civic web services had many implications.

In an effort to make the user experience of civic applications location agnostic, a model for a GeoWeb DNS service was created. The Open311 implementation of GeoWeb DNS is based partly on traditional DNS systems, but a closer analogy is the process of reverse-geocoding an address. In this case, a coordinate is sent and a URI is returned. This model is being applied to Open311 to demonstrate how many municipalities can be connected as one platform. However, nothing about this is unique to 311 services, it can also be used to connect locations using other standards and web services.

With the further establishment of open standards and the ability for applications to query location-specific services, municipal governments can be more interactive, provide better services, and act as innovative hubs in the emerging GeoWeb. Open standards and increased interoperability also lay the groundwork for a rich ecosystem of open source software which in-turn spreads new technology and cost-savings. However, local governments must collaborate and cooperate with one another in order to achieve these benefits.

The U.S. government provided us with GPS and many of the core foundations of the web (including early DNS), can many governing bodies now work together to provide improved local services and the foundations of an interoperable GeoWeb?

This talk will examine case-studies like Open311 and look at broader initiatives like GeoWeb DNS to help answer these questions.

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  • There’s a bit of ambiguity about this project because it has a pretty abstract name. The overarching domain is referred to as 311 services, but the main focus now is a standard for reporting and tracking geospatial issues.
  • A very accurate analog can be found in open source software development where there are public facing collaborative issue trackers to collect and manage bug reports and track ongoing development in general.
  • This analog is so accurate, that we even developed a set of geospatial extension on top of the open source Trac bug tracker to create GeoTrac. The analogy between free & open source software and our communities is a powerful one and historically it makes sense. The “free” in “free software” refers to the same “free” referred to in “free societies”
  • The analogy between real word bug fixes and software bug fixes can get blurry some times. This is FixMyStreet, the first widely released example of collaborative geospatial issue tracking. Deployed for UK-wide use by MySociety 3 years ago.
  • Inspired others in the Netherlands
  • A few more from the Netherlands

  • Probably the most successful and widely known example of this in the U.S. is by a company called SeeClickFix
  • Maybe more widely known here in San Jose is another company called CitySourced
  • Another project in Spain
  • in Australia
  • in India. This one is using Ushahidi.
  • Ushahidi was originally developed in 2008 to report violence in Kenya following their elections.
  • It has since been used for a variety of purposes. From crime reports.
  • To war
  • To a widespread catastrophe.
  • to a snow storm in D.C.
  • Now these are all examples of reporting and tracking problems, but like open source software, can we also track ongoing development? This is something that will be really interesting to see play out in Haiti as they continue to take ownership of Usha-Haiti and use it to track development and accountability as they recover and rebuild over the months and years to come.
  • A very specific example of reporting and tracking development is this app we developed in coordination with the NYC DOT to report where bike racks are needed. When a neighborhood hits critical mass of requests the DOT is then able to efficiently deploy a bulk order.
  • I hope these examples show the difference between something like 311 and more individualized emergency responses like those commonly associated with first responders. Even if not made public and collaborative, cities use 911 & 311 to measure and respond to emerging trends. Yet more open platforms and policies will only help to improve measurement and response to those trends.
  • Now that you have a conceptual model of what Open311 refers to, let me describe the process of developing a standard around all of this.
  • As an organization we’d been developing ideas and technology around collaborative issue tracking for a while, but had not yet been in a position to really deploy it and develop a community around it.
  • Then about a year ago. John Geraci of helped cultivate a discussion about this on a forum he’d created called DIY City.
  • That discussion and input from the developer community in D.C. helped influence the focus for Washington D.C.’s second Apps for Democracy contest. This contest was different from many other app contests in that it was focused on one dataset and that it was actually making use of a read/write API.
  • Developed their API around their internal CRM (Hansen at the time). Successfully ran the competition and had several applications developed around the API.
  • Influenced San Francisco who announced they would be focusing on this too.
  • Brought everyone together to coordinate the technology and begin really working toward a shared specification. San Francisco released their draft. Influenced by both D.C.’s spec and a draft spec from SeeClickFix.
  • Continued working with the developer community and coordinating with other cities. Established first iteration of spec and deployed their API early this month.
  • Big announcement with Mayor Gavin Newson, CIO Chris Vein, White House CIO Vivek Kundra, and Tim O’Reilly
  • National support for the effort. There was some confusion over the announcement because the API was often referred to as a “National API” or “Nationwide Platform” and of course it seems odd for San Francisco to be launching a national system.
  • To clarify, this is meant to be an international standard that can act as a unified yet distributed platform much like the web. So far San Francisco has deployed and D.C. has followed the spec with it’s current API as well. Boston is also preparing to open their API.
  • As a distributed platform. Innovation can be develop and spread organically, a software ecosystem can grow on a common foundation without reinventing the wheel, citizens get interoperability and consistent interfaces, cities get more efficient and consistent internal processes, and since it’s distributed the system as a whole is robust and fault tolerant.
  • Diagram is actually take from a system architecture diagram for PubSubHubbub, but the point isn’t just that it’s decentralized. As an open system, other standards and innovations can easily be coupled with it to provide new features.
  • Excited to see how developers can provide better access to it using web based voice and SMS services.
  • Question of accessibility comes up often. There are two parts to accessibility - one is ubiquity and the other is a consistent interface that everyone has access to. As a telephone shortcode, 311 often fits this description, but this can be more difficult with a distributed web based system. Example of Ushahidi using 4636 shortcode and distributed processing of requests. The biggest problem with this system was that it wasn’t in place before the earthquake hit.
  • Equivalent system architecture proposal for Open311 APIs. The 5 step workflow for processing a report maps very well to the 4636/Ushahidi workflow, but one of the main differentiators is that it doesn’t begin with the 4636 shortcode. Instead it begins with another API called GeoWebDNS.

  • Municipalities are inherently distributed and they all share very similar needs and requirements as far as IT and public services so from an infrastructure perspective it makes sense to use the same model as the web for managing and deploying municipal information and communication technology.
  • Though, I would argue there is a deeper reason for the distributed model: which is that it maps to the underlying protocols of our society.
  • It turns out that there’s a lot of alignment between the fundamental architecture of the Web and the fundamental architecture of American Democracy. The more you think about things this way, the more you can begin to draw other parallels like maybe campaign finance reform is analogous to net neutrality.
  • There are a number of books that get at this, but probably best of all is David Post’s In Search of Jefferson’s Moose. Post’s book is mostly a discussion about scaling large systems and it draws many parallels between Jeffersonian democracy and the web.
  • This point is very clear when Jefferson is thinking about scaling American government to accommodate the Louisiana Purchase and beyond. Unlike Hamilton, Jefferson embraces the possibility of scaling the republic because he has a vision of a pervasive and widely distributed system of local self governance that can then filter up as necessary to state and national governments.
  • With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the web and democracy are coming together with local open government initiatives. The state & local page on doesn’t show too much activity on the local level, but it’s also only showing where data catalogs are available and data catalogs aren’t really about ensuring greater participation, they’re simply about providing greater access to information.
  • So another measure is to look to see where the full Open Government Directive has influenced local level.
  • Most of the local open government policy has happened on the west coast. Full legislation started in Vancouver then influenced Portland and San Francisco.
  • There are now a variety of organizations working together to help coordinate these advancements and really orchestrate compatible data and policies among localities. We’re working on the best ways to structure this collaboration maybe in the form of a consortium of some sort. Some of this effort has been developing under the name OpenMuni.
  • Much of the information and planning for this coordination can be found on the OpenMuni wiki at There are a variety of exciting developments as far as coordinating data systems among localities. For transit, crime, environment, et cetera and I think GeoWebDNS will likely play a role in many of these
  • one of the ones I’m the most excited about has just begun to coalesce. It’s called DemocracyMap and the idea is to collaboratively collect a base layer of data, both spatial and non-spatial from the census and throughout the web, to connect people to their local jurisdictions and local representatives. Think of it as OpenStreetMaps for local democracy.
  • We’re planning another Open311 DevCamp likely in May to better develop the spec. Watch the website, twitter, or join the mailing list for more info

  • The Municipal Web: Open311 and a Network of Civic Services

    1. 1. The Municipal Web: Open311 & A Network of Civic Services Philip Ashlock - OpenPlans Where 2.0 Conference - March 2010
    2. 2. The Open Planning Project We work with software-developer and advocacy communities to create both technology & media that support a smarter, more open, and livable society Civic Works Civic Media
    3. 3. A standard for collaborative geospatial issue-tracking.
    4. 4. Public bug trackers for real world problems
    5. 5. Public bug trackers for real world problems Can we track development in addition to bugs?
    6. 6. 911 for Emergency Action 311 for Emergent Action
    7. 7. Open311. A standard for collaborative geospatial issue-trackin org
    8. 8. DevCamp New York City October 24, 2009
    9. 9. A National 311 API?
    10. 10. API Distributed innovation API API
    11. 11. Live Maps with PuSH Feeds + PubSubHubbub PubSubHubbub GeoRSS A
implementa0on A simple, open, web-hook-based pubsub protocol & open source reference implementation
    12. 12. Telephone & SMS Accessibility from a web API?
    13. 13. GeoWebDNS: Geospatial Glue for Distributed APIs Text t GeoWebDNS Stack: PostGIS GeoAlchemy WebOb SilverLining / Libcloud deployment
    14. 14.
    15. 15. The Municipal Web?
    16. 16. The Architecture of Participation Web Open t Republic Parsable Open Data Free Citizen Public Platform Open Interface Democracy Process Distributed Open Standards Constitution Decentralized
    17. 17. O
    18. 18. Vancouver Seattle Edmonton Portland State of Vermont San Francisco New York City Washington D.C. State of California
    19. 19. OpenMuni City and County of San Francisco
    20. 20. I'd Open311 Philip Ashlock The Open Planning Project
    21. 21. The Municipal Web Philip Find Resources at: Ashlock http://