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Chicago launches 311 service tracker

Chicagoans can now track the status of pothole repairs, broken street lights or graffiti removal the way they might track a UPS package: with a tracking number.

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The city of Chicago has launched a mobile-friendly website that allows users to track the status of 311 service calls.

Chicagoans can now track the status of pothole repairs, broken street lights or graffiti removal the way they might track a package making its way through UPS: enter the tracking number and see whether the request is “under review” or completed and what city agency is handling the job. The site also displays a list of recent service requests and when and where they were submitted.

Chicago Chief Technology Officer John Tolva said the new service will help make city government more accountable and more transparent, something Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised upon taking office. “You need to be able to see where [a service request] is at every step along the way – not just whether it’s open or closed,” Tolva said. “Our residents and our businesses deserve to know that.”

Despite the innovation at play here – the city claims it’s the first in the country to launch such a service – there’s still a lot it won’t allow you to do. You can’t yet search the database by address or location, for instance, and you won’t be able to find a list of all service requests. For that you have to go to the city’s data portal, a clunkier, more complicated interface designed for enthusiasts rather than the casual user. And, although you can text Chicago’s 311 for department contact info or the location of your alderman’s office, you can’t yet report a pothole or a missing trashcan via text. Tolva said he expects that option to come in about a month.

Another thing you won’t see here is a city-sponsored mobile app. That’s because Chicago hopes third-party developers will take the initiative and offer up cheaper, more creative mobile apps better than it ever could.

Tolva cites the example of “Chicago Works,” a free mobile app developed with the help of Ald. Ameya Pewar (47th). The alderman first launched the app during his 2010 campaign with the help of his childhood friend, developer Dimitrios Tragas. The 2010 version allowed users to say, take a picture of a pothole, add GPS coordinates with their smartphone and email it to their alderman. The newer version of the app, which is currently awaiting iTunes approval, automatically recognizes a user’s location – and ward – and prompts you with the kind of specific questions you’d get from a 311 operator. It sends the service report to 311 and the appropriate alderman, then sends you and the alderman the service tracking number. Once the city has the request it assigns it to the appropriate city agency.

Both Tragas and Pewar’s app and the city’s new Service Tracker website are based on Open311, an application protocol interface (API) that helps developers access the massive amounts of data generated by the city’s 311 service more easily. The service tracker was created by four development fellows on loan to the city from the nonprofit Code for America – a kind of “Peace Corps for geeks.” And with Open311 technology in hand, Tolva thinks Chicago Works is only the first of many Chicago 311-related apps.

“I believe that’s the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “Since we’ve launched this we’ve given out dozens of API keys to developers who want to create apps. I have a feeling we’re going to see a real flowering of applications soon.”

The city gets more than 2 million 311 calls a year, 40 percent of which are people calling to check the status of repairs. Tolva said he hopes the new tracking service will cut down on duplicate calls, but that may or may not turn out to be the case. In 2008 Boston launched an Open311-based mobile app called Citizen’s Connect, which functions somewhat like Pewar and Tragas’ Chicago Works app.

Since the city launched the app, it has seen a reduction in repeat calls, according to Nigel Jacobs, co-chair of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a kind of start-up inside the mayor’s office. But Jacobs pointed out that the city has seen a rise in the overall number of service reports since they made it possible to submit items through the app. “Which is good for us,” he said. “We’re very interested in people reporting.”

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