This is the first interview in a two-part series about Los Angeles’ efforts at data driven government .
In April, Los Angeles joined New York, Chicago and other major American cities by launching a mobile app version of its 311 call center for non-emergency city services.
The app’s main goal is to give citizens an easier, 21st century way to report potholes on their streets and graffiti on their walls. The app’s back end will also make it easier to track service requests from cradle to grave and to gather better data about where city officials should devote scare resources.
Nextgov spoke about the new app with Eduardo Magos, programmer analyst with LA’s Information Technology Agency and MyLA311 project manager Jennifer Ba?os in September.
The transcript below is edited for length and clarity. The second half of the interview, focused on LA’s plans to use data to drive more city decisions, will be published tomorrow on Nextgov.
How and when did you decide the city needed a 311 mobile app?
Magos: We wanted to have mobile for a long time. We wanted to have a centralized way of tracking all service requests from cradle to grave, but that’s always been difficult to achieve because there are so many departments and bureaus providing services in the city of LA. Some guys are doing sanitation work, others are doing graffiti removal or tree trimming and they’ve all got different internal systems.
To really get mobile to work, you need some way to reach across all these siloed systems. Now we’re at a place where the price you pay for the sort of software that does that is more attainable.
So are you using technology that reaches across all those legacy back-end systems or are you updating the back-end systems themselves?
Magos: It's going to be a hybrid. We’re starting with our public works department because they get the most service requests based on statistics from the 311 call center. We looked at that data going back 10 years and our most popular requests are potholes, tree trimming, illegal dumping and scheduling bulky item pickup. So we went to public works and said, ‘Let us see your systems.’ If it was sort of an antiquated system, we invited them to join in on our CRM and rebuild on a more modern infrastructure. If they had a legacy system they wanted to keep that did something more than work- order management -- for instance, some of them did inventory management -- then we handled that with Web service integration.
How did you settle on what the final product would look like?
Magos: The idea behind the phone version of 311 is that people don’t have to keep track of 13, 14, 15 city phone numbers. You don’t have to care how we’re organized bureaucratically, you just submit the request for service and we’ll figure out whether it goes to transportation, sanitation, street services or wherever.
We looked at the apps that were out there. A lot of cities have just gone with City Sourced or SeeClickFix, two groups that are making generic offerings for cities and they all do service request intake well. But we’ve always had a vision for a larger portal, a way of interacting with the city that isn’t just service requests. We wanted it to be a place where you can do bill pay and where you can catch up on the latest city tweets and get the latest information.
What distinguishes LA’s app from other city’s 311 apps?
Magos: We wanted to create an app that didn’t look like a government app. We were looking more at things like Yelp and some of the more popular private apps. We wanted something more colorful and friendly.
We liked the idea of bringing social to the front. Even for people who don’t like Twitter or don’t know about it, they might see some value in recent tweets cycling through. We didn’t see that in other 311 apps. Some of them have Twitter feeds, but they’re three links in.
We also did some simple things like changing the image of Los Angeles when you open the app. We have six photos that we cycle through now, and we can and will change those over time. We're a huge city and there no one picture that’s going to be the perfect representation of us.
Tell me about your process for getting the city agencies and bureaus on board.
Ba?os: We’re not there yet. That challenge is coming. Our plan is to not focus on twisting arms, but on cooperation and showing how our solutions can benefit their constituents.
Did it help to launch the app first so the bureaus could see what they were getting into?
Ba?os: Yes. The app is successful, and we’re hoping that will demonstrate our credibility.
Magos: We also have strong support from the mayor’s office, which is sending out memos to department heads saying, ‘I really want this to happen, this is my vision, please help make this happen.’ A system that offers unified reporting, dashboard views, single point of entry across different channels sounds great to citizens. It sounds great from a tech standpoint. But it doesn’t sound great from inside a department doing the work. They say, ‘Our system works for us so why would we want to change anything?’
Technology also helps because the expectation with data and APIs [application programming interfaces that can stream data directly from one computer to another] has grown to the point where it seems ridiculous if you don’t have a way to share data. It’s become a big enough deal that departments can hardly stand against it anymore, and that timing makes it easier. Departments want to have Android and iOS apps and they don’t have resources to build their own, so they do want to piggyback off us.
We want to keep managing this so its remains useful for citizens, though. We don’t want it to become a kitchen sink that does everything so no one uses it. We have a vision that we want to stick with, and we can partner with other departments on their own apps.
You were going through a mayoral election as you were preparing for launch. Did that affect things?
Ba?os: The reason this was implemented early is because our former mayor [Antonio Villaraigosa] mandated ‘I want this to happen before I leave office,’ so we had three months to launch it.
Magos: That meant almost every service inside the first launch of the app was already available, embedded in a department website. So we were able to review all of those, look at how they were taking information and what information they needed. Then we tried to simplify that interface because we don’t want to ask a million questions.
What kind of personal information are you taking for online bill payments and how have citizens responded to that? Are they concerned about security?
Magos: Right now you can just pay water bills, and the department of water and power handles all the billing. If you get to that part of the app you’re pretty much in a water and power system, even though it’s surfaced through the app. So if people are comfortable paying bills through that website, it’s really the same thing.
Paying parking tickets is another high-demand service, so when we add the department of transportation, we’ll use their third-party billing company in the same way, so we’re not handling the actual storing of credit cards. We’re trying to let the pros do the billing.
What are some lessons you’ve learned from this process?
Magos: The most obvious lesson learned is that people expect government apps to be as good as what they’re downloading elsewhere. There are no grace points. It's ‘you guys suck if you can’t do the most amazing thing. If you’re not on par with Google, you’re really slacking.’ So there’s a lot of catch-up trying to stay current and relevant.
Ba?os: Also, because it’s a mobile app, they expect it to be working 24 hours a day. People can be out at 1 a.m. and submitting a service request, and if a server’s not working they don’t like that.
What devices does the app operate on now?
Magos: Right now it’s on all iPhones and iPads but only down to the 3G. We’re on most Android platforms from Gingerbread up.
Eventually, we'll have a responsive Web version [which means you can visit a mobile version of the website on any device], and that will authenticate who you are and remember your history -- things like that.
How are downloads progressing?
Magos: We have about 15,500 total downloads. About two-thirds on iOS and about one-third on Android. Downloads have increased every month except August, when we took a dip. That was because the new [city] council members came on in July and they were tweeting about the app, so there was a lot of awareness and we saw a spike then. We’ve had about 14,700 service requests. The most popular ones are graffiti removal, illegal dumping and bulky item pickups.
Are there any changes you need to make based on user experience?
Magos: One thing we have to do is introduce a little more bureaucracy back into the app. One compromise we made with the departments is people often had a number of fields to fill out for a service request, and we wanted just one text box.
The idea was we didn’t want them to have a huge survey to fill out. But the departments did want them to fill out a survey because it makes their lives easier if they know, for instance, what type of paint the graffiti is and what it’s on . . . that tells them what type of chemicals they need to bring. What we settled on was a box with a smart label that changes for different requests. It says, ‘Tell us what you can about the graffiti, is it on a wall, etc.’
We found that most people who really want to get the problem fixed will read this box and put in the right information. But there are a few places where in the next release we need to add in a special field and not let them submit until that field’s filled out because we don’t want crews wasting gas and time if they don’t have the information they need.
It’s a balance between making the app user-friendly and nonbureaucratic with a slick interface versus a government that needs to get work done and needs to collect data -- and the more data they have the better they can do their work.
(By Joseph Marks)