I was one of the people who criticized Boston Mayor Tom Menino, a notorious technophobe, for not adopting a simple 311 phone line for collecting residents' complaints about rats, noisy neighbors, potholes, missing street signs, etc. A 2008 Boston Globe article by Donovan Slack slammed Boston as being "far behind other cities such as New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and even Somerville and Hartford — and leaving untold numbers of citizen complaints by the wayside."
Critics of the city's complaint line were especially perplexed by Menino's refusal to change from a 10-digit number (617-635-4500) to the easily remembed 311. The complaint office was also understaffed (14, compared with 600 in New York), and behind other cities in acquiring software to track complaints.
That's why the New York-based Center for an Urban Future last month cited Boston for having one of the most "responsive, transparent, and participartory 311 [systems]" in the nation (even though it's still not actually a 311 system). In a report called Innovation and the City, the Center warns New York tech officials that the Hub has eaten their lunch:
In Boston, the Department of Innovation and Technology and the Office of Urban Mechanics work with innovators from inside and outside of government, helping them incubate and scale their ideas. Citizens Connect, Boston’s version of 311, has been a primary beneficiary. Its Twitter account uploads all open service requests to its feed and posts updates when cases are closed. Its smartphone app—the first in the country and still the most emulated—allows users to read recent submissions, look at accompanying pictures and even view their location on a map. The “City Worker” app allows government employees to access service requests while they are in the field and officially close out cases without ever returning to the office. Service requests are directly routed to the nearest work crew from the responsible department, automatically and efficiently assigning responsibility.
In New York, a heavily curated 311 Twitter account serves mainly as a resource for parking regulations rather than for information on service requests. The City’s smartphone app does not allow users to see others submissions, either on a map or as a running tally of recent requests.
The Citizens Connect app is so successful that it's been adopted by 35 other cities and towns in Massachusetts (including my home city of Malden and Somerville, which isn't embarrassed to pick up another city's good idea).
So Mayor Menino, stepping down next January after 20 years, has good reason to gloat a little on this score.
311 logo from Somerville website; sepia tone added by iPhoto.