During Hurricane Sandy, Philadelphia turned to a new system for communicating vital information related to the historic storm. Tree down in the neighborhood, blocking streets or disrupting power? Instead of being left guessing, affected city residents received a proactive email and a notification to their mobile phone. The municipal government's mission: reach residents in near real time using multiple outreach methods to impart important updates about a stressful emergency situation.
“This isn’t necessarily something people are used to with government,” says Lily Liu, founder of PublicStuff, the technology being used in Philadelphia.
Liu is on to something: most citizens certainly want to communicate with city officials or staff about things that matter to them -- graffiti on storefronts, questions about water bills, complaints about their neighbor’s barking dog. What we don’t always remember is that local governments want to communicate with us too, but few have access to an efficient system for doing so.
That’s why Liu started PublicStuff, a citizen-facing application and customizable Web-based system for municipal governments seeking to streamline communications with constituents and residents. PublicStuff routes requests or questions to the right department, and then communicates status and outcome back to the originator, saving time and frustration on both sides of the exchange.
The idea was born of practical necessity. When Liu, who studied policy and government, was working in city government after graduate school, one of her jobs was to help the city of Long Beach, Calif., implement a 311 public information service. Her team spent more than a year studying available technologies only to discover the city couldn’t afford what it really wanted. The investment for building a call center, reorganizing processes and hiring new staff can be millions of dollars.
“It’s a lot of work for cities,” Liu says. “I thought, 'There has to be a better way to do this. Let’s utilize what the private sector is doing and bring it to scale.' ”
Launched two years ago, PublicStuff has about 200 cities on its roster. People can report issues, ask questions, pay bills or learn more about government officials and services through a Web interface, mobile app, SMS services or toll-free number (for those without a mobile phone). Subscription pricing varies based on population. Smaller cities can get started for about $1,000 annually, while larger ones could pay up to $20,000, depending on the edition and how much work is needed to integrate with systems already in place.
Oceanside, Calif., uses PublicStuff to help citizens reach the appropriate person by calling one number. “I think it’s easier, especially for utilities, payments and first-level questions,” says Yvette Barajas from Oceanside City Hall. “It’s nice they have one spot, and get the answer there. Even with graffiti, a lot of people who know about program will just call it in.”
Because Publicstuff is Web-based, some citizens have worried about their personal information being on the Internet if they make a complaint, Barajas admits. To that end, PublicStuff allows requests or issues to be submitted privately.
In addition, this spring, PublicStuff added One Voice, an app that acts as a translator. Residents can use any language to submit an issue or question, but the city's staff will see it and respond in English. The response is translated back into the citizen's native language, removing barriers for someone who might not otherwise feel comfortable calling, emailing or visiting city hall.
“We’re working on better defining what civic engagement means and being more useful to both user bases,” Liu says.