App of the Week: City of Houston 311 App Has Promise, but Needs Work

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App: City of Houston 311 Platform: iPhone, Android Website: iPhone Site Cost: Free

The city's 311 hotline is one of the easiest ways to circumvent the hassle of city government. The idea originally was to route non-emergency problems away from 911 and create a first line of defense against the typical city complaints: trash pickup problems, potholes, etc.

As a means of enhancing that service, the city recently released its new 311 app for iPhone and Android created by the SeeClickFix people who create similar apps for other cities. The premise is simple. The app gives users the ability to report problems and upload them directly to the city complete with description, map location and even a photo. Users can track their requests on the app and on the SeeClickFix website and responses from the city's 311 department seem to be pretty good.

But there are issues.

I am not a fan of apps with complicated registrations or complex interfaces. While the interface for the 311 app is pretty straightforward, I had an impossible time getting the map to look up my current location. In fact, it simply wouldn't do it even from multiple locations. In lieu of that, I manually entered a location, which you can do by putting in the address or by using the Google Map interface to hone in on your spot.

Both worked fine and off I went.

The next problem is that to access the core of the system, I had to be registered. Frankly, I don't want to be registered for the city's 311 app. I should be able to anonymously send reports and interact with the reports from others without signing in, but I begrudgingly accepted.

Once I was registered, which you have to do via the phone and your e-mail account for verification purposes (annoying), it was easy to spot problems on various map locations. Each had a description and comments as to whether the problem was acknowledged by the city. No word on if the problem was fixed, but I imagine if it isn't, at least there's a record of the report.

Users can vote on individual reports as being fix-worthy, which is a good way to highlight more pressing concerns. There's also a list of users in your area and you can check their profiles to see what they have reported. I didn't have anything to report, but I'll certainly do so when I'm out on the road or if there is a problem in my neighborhood, but I have to question if this is actually easier than just dialing 311. The extra stuff is interesting, but reporting a pothole either means dialing the phone or opening an app, writing down comments and maybe taking a photo. Not exactly easy.

Bottom Line Despite its shortcomings, which seem more related to the software than the city, the app is worth having. They could take cues from apps like Waze for easier and safer reporting of problems or the Houston Association of Realtors and their slick map that automatically changes its search just by moving it around.

I also really feel a forced registration is a bad idea, particularly for a service like 311. Some citizens may not want their name attached to a report, particularly if the issue is a neighbor with an over-grown yard or dogs not on leashes. I'll keep it on the phone, but I have my reservations.

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