City Partners With Local Company To Make 311 Fun

May 3, 2017

The room of cubicles that is San Antonio's 311 call center is filled with the sound of operators answering questions. From "How do I get a pothole fixed?" to "How can I report my neighbors yard?" and questions everywhere in between are being navigated by the 15 plus people here on a Friday afternoon. 

The calls start at 7 a.m. and they don't stop until well after 7 p.m., when the emergency 311 calls take over for things like dog bites.

Senior manager for the 311 call center, Paula Stallcup, says despite a mobile app and a web portal most of the traffic comes from these calls.

"We actually rely on residents to call in and let us know because we can't see everything," she says, adding that citizens provide the intel to the city to keep resources going where they are needed.

Depending on the day, anywhere from 12 to 28 people can be manning 311's call center phones at their Brooks City Base facility
Credit Paul Flahive / texas public radio

Last year, 7,000 service requests came from the app the city launched in 2013. This year they have 4,000 within the first three-ish months, so the app is gaining traction, but Stallcup says more needs to be done.

She says the city can better engage millenials with an app that is a social platform and makes reporting issues a game. 

"Exactly," says Alberto Altamirano. He is CEO of CityFlag the company that the city has contracted to create something completely new when it comes to people interacting with their cities and local government.

"So, we post it [a service request] immediately that information goes to the city, but the moment that you post it, you also gain points. There are levels also. You start as a volunteer and the more you participate the more points you get," he says.

Credit Courtesy of cityflag

He is demonstrating the boiler-plate app they have. What he describes is an app somewhere between Twitter and Reddit. Twitter in that you can follow people in your area and your "urban feed" is filled with posts about service requests that you can like and comment on. 

Reddit in that each post adds to your points and enables you to level up from "Volunteer" the lowest level, to "Community Representative" the highest. The validation of likes and points will encourage more participation, he says. 

Ultimately, CityFlag wants to connect people with their local governments.

"Anything that goes on in your neighborhood you, can report it instantly. In less than 30 seconds, you can make a report. It's not only saving you time, but it's also, you're contributing to your neighborhood," says Altamirano.

This is an innovative use of game-ification, and one of the big reasons the city chose the untested CityFlag over four other more established vendors, says Stallcup.

CityFlag ran a pilot version of their app in a popular Mexico City neighborhood. But to go from a beta of 50 people to one of the largest cities in the United States might worry some. Stallcup says it isn't an issue.

"New? Yes, but that doesn't bother us. That just means we are going to work very, very closely to make sure this gets done, that it gets done right, and that they are going to be able to launch a really good product. And San Antonio is going to be the first, so we're very excited about that," she says.

311's Paula Stallcup says a new app is necessary for improved engagement.
Credit Paul Flahive / texas public radio

When Stallcup says it is a small investment, she means it. According to the city, the first year CityFlag will be more than 30 percent cheaper than the current 311 app. In year two and beyond it will be less than a sixth the price of the current app.

For CityFlag, San Antonio represents just the beginning of what they hope will be a huge market. 

The city anticipates the app will be launched this summer.