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Cities add citizen engagement mobile apps to their portfolios:
KM issues include software integration, transparency

After installing a new 311 CRM system two years ago, the city of Riverside, Calif., recently added a mobile application. "We decided it would be valuable for citizens with mobile devices to be able to submit photos of graffiti, potholes and streetlights," says Steve Reneker, the city's CIO. "The key to it is the back-end integration. It creates a ticket automatically and gives the citizen's GPS coordinates, and the system validates that it is not a duplicate of another work order already in the system."

Riverside's graffiti abatement program is very aggressive with a goal of eradicating it within 24 hours of a report, so if someone uses his or her mobile to report graffiti in the morning on the way to work, that person might get a message by the time they go home that it has been cleaned up.

Reneker says. "Ten percent of our call volume is from these mobiles, and we expect that to go up." He also has noticed an increase in mobile apps for internal users. "We are starting to see a lot of tablet solutions and cloud-based software for things like code enforcement workers," he says.

BART's app development ecosystem

One regional transit agency has been praised for the relationships it has established with the mobile software development community. Executives at California's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) understood several years ago that its transit customers are mobile by definition, and decided to reach out to the developer community and open up a Google Transit Feed in August 2007.

"The first day Apple opened its App Store, there was a BART app on it," says Tim Moore, BART webmaster. "We have been sharing data with other groups since the mid-1990s. We always thought that schedule information belongs to the public. Sharing it is part of our business."

In the last few years, an entire ecosystem of third-party apps has grown up around BART data, some for pay and some free. In fact, in 2009 BART dropped its internal mobile app development altogether. "We don't have a lot of in-house resources to devote to this," Moore explains. "We want to reach out to others who can foster new and innovative mobile tools. The cool thing is that these developers are competing to offer the most creative and valuable apps."

Not all government transit agencies release data in open formats, and some even threaten legal action against developers who hack their schedule data. Some agencies have concerns that the applications are driving traffic away from their official websites, and others have tried to sell the data. "We have watched as other agencies have tried to monetize schedule and real-time data," Moore says, "and have never seen it scale enough to make up for the administrative and legal costs."

Moore says that creating this type of developer ecosystem around civic data is not easy. Transit is a natural fit for mobile apps, but other things such as crime or environmental data may not be. "You have to create a market and match it with the skills of developers," he says. "We tried to do that by doing a mobile survey of our customers."

BART asked: What services are customers using? Would they endure ads? Would they pay? What mobile platform are they on? It is not enough just to release data, Moore says, "you have to cultivate a community and connect with the developers with skills." 

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