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311, the nationally recognized number for non-emergency calls to municipal services, got its start in 1996 when the first non-emergency phone line went live in Baltimore. The following year, the Federal Communications Commission reserved 311 as a dedicated number for non-emergency calls nationwide.
But the proliferation in the mid-2000s of smartphones and emerging social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, have since shifted public expectations about communication and connectivity, effectively rendering the 311 line obsolete in some cities.
On August 15th, local technology startup Cityflag expects to officially launch a new 311 mobile application for San Antonio. The app is already available for iPhone and Android at iTunes and Google Play stores.
The company began working with the City to develop the application in 2017, when Cityflag received a more than $40,000 contract to enhance 311 services. Last month, the City approved a nearly-$63,000 contract for Cityflag to continue tweaking the application before its official launch this summer.
In 2014, Alberto “Beto” Altamirano, Cityflag’s CEO and co-founder, was canvasing door-to-door for a political candidate in Austin’s historically black and Latino East Side. Speaking with people at their homes, Altamirano noticed several barriers residents experienced to communicating with local government.
“I was knocking on doors talking to folks,” Altamirano said, “and I remember the feedback I was getting. Members of these communities were complaining about issues in their community, and most of them did not know who to talk to.
“Although they had concerns about social issues, most of the time they complained about infrastructure,” he explained. “Residents said that they would vote for my candidate but [asked] who was going to fix the potholes or the graffiti?”
Many of these residents, Altamirano said, were also undocumented and feared the government, “so even if there was vandalism all over the neighborhood, they never complained. They never talked to their government.”
Cityflag is a way to bridge the gap between government and the people it serves, its founders say. The mobile application is similar to Facebook, but is used instead for communication about civic issues between citizens and local government officials. Users can flag a problem like a broken street light on a map, chat with other users or government representatives, and explore data about reports made within the app.
“It’s the first step to getting involved with your government,” the startups co-founder, Alberto Gomez said.
Paula Stallcup, senior manager for the City of San Antonio’s 311 call center, said the application will enhance her office’s ability to respond to and document 311 cases.
“We rely so much on residents to tell us about their concerns and what’s going on in their community,” she said. “We want to be able to provide residents with a different way of telling us about problems.”
The idea for a mobile application that would change the status quo for how citizens interact with local government began to take shape in 2015 when Altamirano started sharing his observations canvassing in Austin with Gomez.
Gomez, who has a Ph.D. in online communication and citizen participation, says he was inspired by youth movements that used smartphones to organize, such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.
“I saw that everyone was using their phones to try to connect with the government. But there was a huge disconnect … because all this energy eventually died out,” he said. “They had to focus on their daily lives.”
Gomez said he wanted to sustain the momentum of citizen engagement, and create a tool that would make communication with local government more consistent and sustainable.
Better online communication also creates better urban data, Cityflag’s founders say, and they recognize the value of the data created by the platform’s users.
“When we talk about smart cities a lot of people are talking about how sensors are producing data,” Altamirano said. “But the reality is that sensors are not the biggest producers of data, people are the biggest producers of data.”
Altamirano says his platform offers open data, because anyone can see the reports of other users, and the local government’s response on an interactive map. Reports can be filtered by their status or content, but a user cannot download the data from the application.
“All those requests are available to the citizen,” he said. “They can utilize this data to have a better understanding of the city.”
Cityflag’s founders say the company is already compliant with the recent General Data Protection Regulation regulations. If you sign in to the app with Twitter or Facebook, for example, Cityflag staff will not have access to personal data other than an email address.
Users may also use the app anonymously and opt out of its “gamified” features, where people earn badges and points for greater levels of participation.
As far as extracting and analyzing all that data internally, Altamirano said, Cityflag is “not diving into that – not yet.” The company is currently focused on its upcoming launch and responding to user feedback.
“As we mature as a company we will have more information about how citizens interact with the platform and the City,” Altamirano said. “That data can serve as a mechanism for the government to make better management decisions.”
Cityflag, which has offices in Geekdom downtown, is not the first civic engagement application to reach urban smartphone users. Other mobile apps like Waze, a community-based traffic navigation app; iCitizen, a polling platform that connects politicians and constituents; and SeeClickFix, a private reporting system city governments can use to supplement existing 311 systems, have also shaped the civic technology landscape over the last decade.
The company does not anticipate dominating markets in cosmopolitan cities like Los Angeles or New York City, its founders say. Instead, Cityflag is focused on small to mid-sized cities, recently adding the borderland city of Mission, Texas, which has a population of 77,000, to its list of clients.
“There are over 17,000 cities in the United States with a population of 10,000 to 500,000, and most of those cities do not have these types of technologies,” Altamirano said.
For now, Cityflag hopes to continue its expansion to small and mid sized cities in Texas, he said.
“We are a San Antonio-based Latino company … for us to be driving in the environment of civic technology is rewarding and very motivating.”