City Desk

D.C.’s 311 App: “I’ve Never Even Heard of It”

311You may have missed it when the District launched Social DC 311 last year; it's an app designed to enable D.C. residents to report neighborhood issues—potholes, mouse infestations, abandoned vehicles, and piles of trash—directly to the D.C. 311 office using an iPhone or Facebook. It was the winner of the District's “Apps for Democracy” innovation contest.

The city “sought to engage the community to develop solutions at a fraction of the cost,” Bryan Sivak, D.C.'s interim chief technology officer, says. That cost: $10,000, which went to software developers Victor Shilo, Roman Zolin, and Andrey Andreev. After the contest, the developers turned their program over to the city.

Eliminating 10-minute hold times and conversation with a 311 operator, the District finally seemed to have caught up with the manners of the 21st century (the absence of direct human contact is optimum). Social DC 311 is supposed to send user reports to the 311 call center, where they are filtered and routed to the main office, says Eric Hines, team lead at D.C. 311. The app has a built-in "geolocator" and "photo capture ability," meaning you can snap a picture of that pothole and send it the city's way. Avid users are inducted into the app’s “Hall of Fame”: the more you complain, the higher in rank you go.

That’s where the glory starts to fade. The "Touch City's Heart" Social DC 311 Web site seems to have been abandoned—it hasn't been updated for months—saying the “IPhone” app is still waiting for approval from Apple (Apple approved it long ago). Some members of the D.C. 311 team had never laid eyes on the Web site until City Desk asked about it. “I’ve never even heard of it,” said one 311 operator. It has only 27 active monthly users on its Facebook Fan page and 40 followers on Twitter.

Resident Michael Galvin wanted to use it, but couldn't. After several failed attempts, the iPhone app finally connected but wouldn’t accept service requests, so he deleted it. “A big disappointment, would have made a great tool,” Galvin told City Desk.

The application received a 4.5 out of 5 stars based on 3 reviews from August: “Awesome app! Useful, intuitive, fascinating, and…fun!” writes Wolf Ruzicka. (Maybe it worked last summer?).

The dismal following is not a sign of failure, Sivak says. The District intends to take Social DC 311 and revamp the current model into an app that’s “enterprise-ready and robust for a large volume of users,” Sivak says. “Think of this first step as a pilot.”

Once it’s ready, Social DC 311 will be launched through the D.C. App Store and the Digital Public Sphere. “DC Wi-Fi Hot Spot Map” and “Where is my Bus?” are apps the city has successfully launched. FixMyCity DC, runner-up in “Apps for Democracy” is expected to complement Social DC 311.

Honestly, we think it'd just be faster to dial 311 the old fashioned way.

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