By Bill Oakey – June 18, 2015
Yes, Austin has a smartphone app and it’s extremely well designed and easy to use. You can download the “Austin 311” app free from your iPhone App Store or Google Play Store for Android phones. I’ve been using this app for a few months, and it’s great for requesting pothole repairs, reporting water wasters, dead animal collection requests, etc. What makes it really handy is that you can snap a picture with your phone’s camera, do a couple of taps to describe your issue and attach your photo, and then tap to submit your request. Each one is assigned a Case Number. Then, you can check the status of the City’s response by tapping “My Requests.”
Here is a sample from my phone:
In this instance, the fifth time was the charm. When I spotted the large crew of City workers assembled with major equipment and orange cones, I knew that this friendly, familiar, adopted pothole was on its way to final oblivion. I cheerfully shook hands as I thanked the workers and confessed to being the person who made the report. The incredible amount of rainfall that we have gotten has generated more potholes than the City can manage to keep up with. That is quite understandable. However, the temporary patches that were applied within a few hours were of insufficient quality to last more than about 3 days. The fact remains, though, that the Austin 311 app is a marvelous tool for citizens to access City services. Whoever designed it should be highly commended.
The App Knows Your Location
If you are reporting a street light that is out or another location-specific issue, the app uses GPS and lists the street address for you. If the address is off by a couple of numbers, you can take your finger and quickly move the pointer to the exact spot where you are standing.
Look Up City Council Meeting Dates and Read Agendas and Backup Documents
All of this information is right there on the app. Just tap FAQ from the opening screen, then click on “Calendar,” then “City Council.” Some upcoming board and commission meetings are also listed. You cannot use the app to sign up to speak on Citizens Communications or on specific agenda items just yet. But it’s possible that plans for that could be in the works.
Just Imagine the Possibilities That We Could Have at Our Fingertips!
If the neighborhood leaders and our new City Council members were to collaborate on the best potential uses for this app, we could be on our way to having the best public engagement tool available anywhere. Here are some ideas that come to mind:
1. Short-Term Rental Code Violations – Tap to enter an address to see if the house is properly registered. If not, tap again to report it. Tap to report loud wild parties, more tenants than the code allows, or too many vehicles clogging the neighborhood street. Perhaps you could even tap to suggest that identifying signs with permit numbers be attached to these structures, so that anyone wishing to verify their registration, complaint history, or tax payment compliance status could easily do so. The ideal way to do that would be to include a QR code on the sign, so that people could hold their phones up to the code grid to immediately view the online information.
2. Connect With City Council Offices – Tap to request an appointment, send messages voicing support or opposition to upcoming items posted for action, submit a reform proposal (if you know anybody who would want to attempt something like that), etc.
3. Connect With Your Neighborhood Association – Tap to contact your neighborhood representatives to bring your concerns to their attention, view their upcoming meeting dates and agendas, etc.
4. Provide Public input On Major Studies, Planning Processes, Etc. – The 311 app could become the mechanism for public engagement on major initiatives like CodeNext, Corridor Planning Groups, Advisory Groups, Task Forces, etc. The app could list all of the ongoing groups, along with their meeting schedules and the names and affiliations of the appointees. All public input would be analyzed, tabulated and quantified in automated reports that are accessible on the app, updated regularly, and submitted to appropriate City Staff and the City Council.
5. Enhanced Options for Providing Citizen Feedback – This is my favorite suggestion. Once you have the City Council agenda on your phone screen, you would be able to quickly search for a topic, such as “Decker Lake Golf Course” or “Hot Button Zoning Case.” Once that item pops up, you could tap a button and register your support or opposition, along with some comments that the Council could review. Then, in Version 2.0 or 3.0 of this feature, perhaps we could view a real-time tally of other citizens’ support or opposition to each item. If you would like to be notified of how each City Council Member voted on an item, and whether it passed, failed or got postponed to what date, then you would simply click the “Notify Me” icon next to that item. I forgot to mention that the agenda items would all be listed with approximate times to be heard, so that you could plan to be down at City Hall in case you wanted to witness the sausage-making in person. And the same public engagement features should be provided for Council Committees and all boards and commissions.
How Much Would a System Like That Cost, And How In the World Would We Pay for It?
The project could be phased in over time. It would be nice to have both a phone and dedicated tablet app, as well as a desktop computer version. And they should wirelessly sync with each other on your home network. With any luck, there might even be a non-profit organization or foundation that would consider underwriting all or part of the cost.
Final Note: When I first set up this blog, I did not include a category for “Dreams and Fantasies.” Some of the content does not fall into a standard affordability category either, since the citizen input would only lead indirectly to more affordable outcomes. So, in the absence of any better option at the moment, I will list this posting as “Uncategorized.”