Montgomery County, Md., increased the input it receives from the public by focusing on open government, says CIO Sonny Segal.

Apr 08 2014

Mobile Apps Enable Citizen Engagement and Better Services

Innovative apps and portals help localities transform service delivery.

Before the city of Elk Grove, Calif., introduced its first mobile app, residents used email or a telephone hotline to report problems such as potholes or graffiti and hoped for the best. Mona Schmidt, a customer service specialist for the city, recalls that hotline messages were sometimes garbled, or staff wouldn’t have enough information to respond to the problems.

The app, Ask Elk Grove, has changed all that. Now, people can easily report issues while uploading photos and GPS data, and Schmidt can quickly route the requests to the right department. “I can take all the information and give them the same picture, the map, and let them take over the request,” she says.

Seeking to expand citizen access, the city of Elk Grove launched the app in 2011. “The city council made it a priority to use user-friendly technology to bring City Hall to our residents,” Public Affairs Manager Christine Brainerd says.

Apps and other initiatives have revolutionized the way governments deliver services by making citizens part of the solution. In San Francisco, food stamp recipients receive text alerts when benefits are about to expire. That city also partnered with Yelp to post restaurant inspection scores next to dining reviews. In Cleveland, bike advocates are using the Streetmix app to suggest design improvements to city planners.

“We’re seeing examples of cities large and small that are incorporating and developing exciting technology solutions, from open data to smart cities to gigabit solutions,” says Brooks Rainwater, director of city solutions and applied research for the National League of Cities. “Technology is a tool that helps local governments engage directly with citizens, and its use will only continue to grow as the benefits are more widely communicated through research dissemination and peer learning opportunities.”

Government Is Always Open

In Montgomery County, Md., an award-winning suite of services has cracked government wide open. The openMontgomery portal has four channels, focusing on access, data, engagement and mobility.

The county now publishes budgets, salaries, contracts, performance measurements, restaurant inspection results and raw data sets. The mobile channel offers citizen-oriented apps ranging from real-time bus information to 311 requests, while a social media platform enables residents to share ideas with officials.


The number of municipal apps being tracked by Code for America

SOURCE: “CfA Commons” (Code for America, March 2014)

“We’re able to see what the general sentiment is because we can see the counts and which way the respondents are going with their suggestions,” CIO Sonny Segal says. The county receives more public input because it is easier for citizens to voice opinions online than attend public meetings.

County leaders’ open-government vision was ambitious, and Segal acknowledges that it challenged his team to create the right solutions. Ultimately, they chose to purchase products already available instead of programming a brand-new system. “With the many cloud services, I think it is becoming more and more appropriate to look at what the marketplace has to offer and then go from there,” Segal says.

According to analytics, openMontgomery has increased visits to the county’s web portals by 15 percent. Segal says, “We’re pleased that it’s popular among the ­users, because that’s the real test.”

Request in Progress

Elk Grove built its customer service mobile app atop a request management platform that enables residents to report code enforcement problems, broken streetlights and other issues. The platform can function as a stand-alone product, but Elk Grove integrated it with its other systems, says IT Administrator Nicole Guttridge.

When a report comes in, Schmidt’s team responds immediately if no additional work is needed, while other requests are routed to city departments and trigger an appropriate work order. “To the end user, it’s completely seamless,” Guttridge says.

The app has about 1,975 downloads, and more than 1,000 requests have been submitted and resolved. At a cost of less than $5,000 to develop, the app was also budget friendly.

And for city staff, the app makes it easier to identify new requests and to know when graffiti has reappeared in the same location after cleanup.

In the latter case, citizens simply add a comment to their original request. “It’s a two-second response to us,” Schmidt says. “They put it in their phone real quick, and it’s done.”

Medical Aid

$11.1 million

The estimated value of volunteer hours contributed at the 2013 National Day of Civic Hacking

SOURCE: “National Day of Civic Hacking 2013” (Second Muse, 2013)

Mobile apps can also augment public safety, as San Jose, Calif., has shown. The San Jose Fire Department partnered with El Camino Hospital to launch the PulsePoint app in 2012. PulsePoint notifies CPR-trained citizens when someone nearby is experiencing cardiac arrest and alerts them to the location of automated external defibrillators in the vicinity.

According to the American Heart Association, cardiac arrest victims must receive medical attention within four to six minutes, yet less than one-third of victims receive CPR assistance.

Supervising Public Safety Dispatcher Doreen Hargrave says the PulsePoint foundation developed the platform with a fire department that uses the same computer-aided dispatch system as San Jose, so no functional modifications were needed. At the same time, she believes San Jose was the first fire department of its size to utilize the app, so PulsePoint made some adjustments to accommodate anticipated call volume.

Now, when the city’s CAD sends emergency responders on a call, it also interfaces with PulsePoint to send alerts. “The intent is to get bystander help notified of an emergency while responders are on the way,” Hargrave says.

Silo Busting, Relationship Building

In the emerging field of civic innovation, mobile apps are just the beginning. Trends include creative partnerships, civic hacking and other idea-generating events, and new roles that specialize in innovation.

While apps are often the most visible result of Code for America’s collaboration between government and the public, the programs demonstrate breaking down silos within city hall, improving collaboration between governments and residents and developing new approaches to local challenges.

Among other programs, Code for America embeds tech experts in local governments for one-year fellowships. This year, for example, a three-person team with software development, web design and GIS skills deployed to Lexington, Ky. They’ll put their expertise to work alongside public and private partners to improve neighborhood quality of life.

The inaugural National Day of Civic Hacking, held last June, highlighted an equally powerful tool. In 83 cities and 95 events, more than 11,000 citizens in government, entrepreneurship, education, art and other fields joined forces to craft technology-based solutions to civic issues such as public transportation and safe drinking water. In Asheville, N.C., hackers focused on increasing access to healthy food, while a Tulsa, Okla., team built a search-and-rescue application for use after tornadoes.

“I do envision that collaborative endeavors like civic hacking will emerge as best practices,” says Brooks Rainwater, the National League of Cities’ director of city solutions and applied research. “We are already seeing this in leading-edge, technology-focused cities, and I believe that it will grow and grow.”

Some municipalities take a more permanent tack, forming new positions to promote innovation. When the city of Austin, Texas, set out to hire its first chief innovation officer, it continued the theme of open government and citizen engagement, hosting a public meet-and-greet with all three candidates.

Khue Bui

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