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Open311 – opening the city like we really mean it

Last Friday, due to a great stroke of fortune, I got to visit the Vancouver 311 call centre and hear a presentation from two of that project’s key figures: the person who championed the project within City Hall, Barbara Pearce, and the Operations Manager, Darcy Wilson. I didn’t know too much about the 311 project beyond the barest of details, so it was very exciting to learn from them, the process they underwent to plan and implement 311, as well as their results to date, since the centre went live in February of this year. I asked a gazillion questions, and they were patient in answering them, and I wasn’t able to stump them on much of anything.

Coincidentally, I stumbled across this from my Planning Innovation Heroes down at The Open Planning Project: naturally, it’s called Open311.

Open311 Dev Camp in New York, Oct. 24 2009

[The Open311 website] is meant to facilitate an international effort to build open interoperable systems that allow citizens to more directly interact with their cities. Many 311 systems provide a broad range of information and services, but currently the primary focus here is coordinating a standardized, open-access, read/write model for citizens to report non-emergency issues.

…and, what is a movement without a time and place to dig our heels in and make it so? Open311 DevCamp (register here) is happening on October 24th in New York City — but accessible to 311 teams across the world through the magic of the Internet. The event is free to attend, physically or virtually.

This is a DevCamp style un-conference to coordinate a standard specification for 311 services. Washington D.C’s 311 API will be a major case-study for developing a more universal 311 API. In general, this DevCamp will be an opportunity to discuss and develop what’s needed to make 311 services more accessible and for cities to share knowledge for mutual benefit. The event is intended for developers, project managers, and policy makers involved with 311 services. We encourage those involved with 311 services from all cities to take part.

Having advocated and obsessed over open civic data the way I have for the past 6 months, open311 is nothing short of astounding. A couple weeks ago, after my previous post regarding how open civic data can and (IMHO) should change the way the City thinks about putting resources online, a conversation with a friend got me thinking about how open data has been interpreted (this was prior to the city’s data catalogue going public-beta). One interpretation is that the City is simply making accessible information that is already available to members of the public willing to hit up a desk at City Hall — and indeed, much of the information that we think shouldn’t be publicly available might only seem private due to security by obscurity.

But I’ve always thought of it as something much more: that cities might even start proactively disclosing things they never had thought of doing before. Open311 strikes me as just that: the walking of the talk, beyond the baby steps of giving access to what’s most obvious.

Are 311-using cities in Canada (Vancouver, as well as Calgary and most recently, Toronto) able and willing to realize this next step of open data? I’m the last person able to provide an educated opinion on that, but I’ve certainly got my fingers crossed.


  1. Thanks for the shout @ TOPP! It’s always nice to meet people who are pushing in the same directions as we are. We are excited about Open311 too, of course, and think that there’s a huge opportunity to learn more about how our cities are working from this information. One of the great lines I heard at the Open Cities conference last week was “311 call volume is an indicator for how much a neighborhood cares about itself” (by John Tolva of IBM and http://cityforward.org).

    Posted October 15, 2009 at 7:38 am | Permalink
  2. Nick,

    Thanks for dropping by, the tweet and the link! I used to be a little sheepish about having worked for IBM but they’re working on some super awesome stuff now. Ever since I met some TOPP folks at Paricipation Camp in NY in June, I’ve become a bit of a TOPP fangirl…hoping similar energy gets an outlet in Canada! ;)


    Posted October 18, 2009 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

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