Moving data will help fix San Francisco’s messy bureaucracy

This content requires JavaScript to be enabled. On Wednesday, San Francisco became the latest city to implement a software platform designed to assist residents in navigating the city’s bureaucracy and reporting their concerns to…

Moving data will help fix San Francisco's messy bureaucracy

This content requires JavaScript to be enabled.

On Wednesday, San Francisco became the latest city to implement a software platform designed to assist residents in navigating the city’s bureaucracy and reporting their concerns to city staff. At the core of the 311 system are two critical tools: the complaint button and a service number that’s ready to field calls or issue direct assistance.

311 launched in New York City in 2010, and is now being rolled out across the country. It’s been long debated whether the city’s tech toolset is a panacea for the onslaught of new demands from city governments and is one of the most important tech strategies for making people’s lives easier.

Vancouver introduced 311 as one of the first pilot programs for city government, following a similar model to New York City’s. It expanded to San Francisco by following other Canadian cities in starting to develop a similar system. The project has expanded internationally, with several cities around the world considering apps similar to 311, according to the New York Times.

Homelessness is one of the many challenges facing San Francisco

Since 2010, San Francisco has deployed a number of transparency tools to improve how city officials communicate with the public. In 2016, emails became accessible through a new digital archive system, and last fall San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced that three records databases would be made publicly available.

Homelessness is one of the many challenges facing San Francisco. In October 2017, 700 homeless people slept on the streets of San Francisco’s downtown district every night. The following month a settlement with the city’s police department ended a six-month-long effort to house homeless people in temporary shelters.

Mike Valko/The Guardian

Civil rights experts argue that the political push for transparency in the face of a failing city has helped with the sort of civic engagement that ultimately produces changes for the better. On Wednesday, policy professionals applauded the New York City model’s potential to alleviate backlogs with records.

One of the criticisms of the city’s government and some of the proposals to improve it has been the news that the “core technology” for 311 is owned by Deloitte, a global consulting firm. Similarly, all 311 records are in the possession of Chicago’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

“This move to Deloitte is taking advantage of this technology but not using it for the most benefit for the public good,” says David Bank of the Center for Media Justice, an activist group that is heavily involved in Deloitte.

He argues that 311 and the Access Chicago app are remarkably similar, a point Mayor Harold Washington made while criticizing Deloitte. “But when somebody is doing the work of two – Chicago and New York – that right there is saying ‘We’re not using that that badly’,” he said, according to the New York Times.

Still, Deloitte says it has been involved in the development of the 311 system since the beginning and that it will continue to provide its consultative services as required by San Francisco’s IT agency. “Deloitte is focused on the latest technological innovations that may benefit the community and city of San Francisco,” a spokesperson said.

It remains to be seen whether Deloitte’s contract will be extended for the city’s next update, which is scheduled for 2020. Should San Francisco decide to operate the system independently, its next iteration may reveal how the city will tackle the difference between, on the one hand, a powerful client that resists change and, on the other, citizens empowered to make informed decisions that directly affect them.

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