311 iPhone app puts City Hall in your hands

Post by Mike Klassen in


judy rogers npa 311
Too true that without the impetus of Judy or NPA leadership, 311 has stalled in Vancouver

Vancouver's 311 service – which was meant to make City Hall services more open and available to end users like you and me – may have flatlined under Vision's governance, but that doesn't mean that other cities are not charging forward with their own modernization of city services.

Last January, just few weeks after we launched CityCaucus.com, I waxed a bit in this post about how technology was reshaping urban communities, and wondered when our handheld devices would provide important connections to the streets we live on. I suggested that lamp standards might be outfitted with wireless beacons which stored messages like bulletin boards for that immediate area.

While I predicted that this kind of power in your hand was off in the distance, the explosive growth of the iPhone app development has turned idea-into-reality quicker than I would have imagined. A Seattle-based developer called Urban Anomaly has developed a new iPhone app called 311 Universal. Now in other cities with 311 service, you can report non-emergency issues swiftly and with pinpoint accuracy using GPS.

Urban Anomaly's developers have created 311 Universal to work with built-in iPhone tools for a quick, efficient way to communicate issues to government offices. It allows users to report problems on the go and eliminates the need for lengthy customer service calls that often involve long periods of time on hold. Considering that call centres (in multiple languages) are a component of 311, it would be good to reduce reporting times and save dollars.

This YouTube video that the company is circulating is a hoot, as it shows someone reporting graffiti to 311, with a photo and GPS coordinates within 16 seconds. The world of technology is clearly miles ahead of us on this one. Hold off spending the 99 cents on the app though – it won't work in Vancouver...yet.

Vancouver has moved forward with it's Open Data initiative, and while it's still too soon to see what impact open and available data will have, I have no doubt there will be many exciting and creative applications for this knowledge. I like this map, for example, which shows just how many properties the City actually owns within its borders. It just seems odd that in spite of the fact Vision can get behind something like Open Data, yet they barely whimper about something as important as 311 for revitalizing city business.

Just recently I used the 311 service to try and get a sewer catchment which plugged up last winter cleaned out by the Engineering department. It took three calls to the 311 switchboard. Each time I gave the exact coordinates, and each time I was assured that it would be looked after.

Then the heavy rains came, and of course the street flooded. The final time I called I said simply that the service had not worked. Months had gone by with no record and no response. It must have stirred the call centre up, because a City truck was on-site within an hour to assess the situation, and the machinery arrived just after that to clean out the drain.

One of the city crew said to me that instead of phoning, perhaps I log into vancouver.ca and report it there. I'm not sure what the experience of others has been with the service, but so far I'm barely prepared to give 311 in Vancouver a passing grade.

Someday soon I expect that I'll be able to use 311 Universal, and not have to spend time waiting on hold, or making repeated calls. Under questioning from council about the status of 311 this week, City Manager Penny Ballem remained non-committal about the future of the service.

Meanwhile, our 311 clock keeps ticking at the top of the page at CityCaucus.com. We're still waiting for someone at City Hall to actually let the public know this service exists.

- post by Mike


At the June 16th Council meeting Barbara Pearce, Manager, 311 Business Planning, presented a report on the progress of 311 which laid out an "extensive
communications plan beginning in mid September, 2009" including, "direct mail to all residents and businesses within the City of Vancouver, creation of a brief video outlining the 311 service and a media launch event at the 311 Contact Centre."

Has any of this happened? The city sure hasn't updated it's web page for 311 beyond the placeholder that is currently there: http://vancouver.ca/311/

Why isn't council promoting the 311 service, which is a valuable and useful tool for residents and businesses?


Cell Phone technology has come a long way. I hope iPhones dont get taken over by Android phones. I sure remember carrying my cell phone around in a briefcase. It was as big as the briefcase LOL. Now I just carry my iPhone! Im a new reader here. Thanks for the intriguing articles. Go iPhone!

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