The reviews for Baltimore’s new 311 apps are in, and they are not good.
“You took a functional app and removed the functions,” one user wrote in Google’s online app store. “This app sucks now.”
Rating? One star out of five.
Lisa Allen, director of Baltimore’s 311 system, apologized for the problems and said the city’s IT department is aware of the issues with the apps and is working to fix them.
The new apps, which residents can use to report non-emergency situations from rats to potholes to poor parking, are part of a complete overhaul of the 311 system.
Allen said the changes launched this week were the culmination of 21 months of work aimed at modernizing how residents file complaints. She acknowledged some functions from the old apps are unavailable and, as a result, less information is available to the public about complaints.
“We know we went through a little hiccup with this,” Allen said.
Andrew Coy, the executive director of the Digital Harbor Foundation, said that problems with the 311 system could ripple through city agencies.
“If that system goes down or doesn’t function properly it’s just compounding every other problem that needs to be fixed,” Coy said.
The old versions of the phone apps for Android and Apple products were not as big a source of 311 complaints as phone calls, but Allen said the apps had about 50,000 users.
“Not only do they use it, they use it for consistently what their pet peeve is,” Allen said. “They’re used to pushing those buttons almost with their eyes closed. When you change something it’s difficult.”
The apps do not include an easy way to track the outcomes of complaints filed by users, something several early reviewers noted. And there’s no way to see complaints filed by other users. That information is available on the city’s website, but it includes far less detail than the previous system, which let the public browse the full text of complaints and photos submitted with them.
Allen said the city knew those functions wouldn’t immediately be available but that “maybe we underestimated the popularity of those functions.”
“We do apologize,” Allen said. “Those functions were very important to people.”
Coy said government agencies bear significant responsibility when they upgrade their systems to ensure that they continue to work properly. At the same, Coy said government agencies should be willing to learn from private technology companies’ willingness to launch a product and improve on it as they go.
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“We need to learn how to allow for iterative design process to happen but you cannot do that at the expense of those currently being served,” said Coy, a former technology adviser to President Barack Obama. “There is a higher degree of responsibility.”
Allen said her team’s top priority is fixing bugs in the Android app that are showing up on certain phones and weren’t caught by internal testing. Some users can’t log in and the app isn’t able to determine where pictures are taken as it should.
About 30 Android users who had an old version of the app and used it submit complaints after the old system went offline received an error message.
The city awarded Washington-based technology company Incapsulate a $2.6 million contract to carry out the 311 revamp in July 2016. Incapsulate developed the mobile apps and the system runs internally on technology from Salesforce, another IT company.
In 1996, Baltimore became the first city in the country to use 311 as a police non-emergency number and began using the three digits as a contact number for city services in 2001.
Allen said the new system was needed because the previous company the city worked with was no longer providing updates to its technology. The new system will eventually allow 311 operators in the city’s call center to text and chat online with other city agencies and members of the public. And work crews on the street will be able to document how they responded to complaints in real time.
“This was a huge project,” Allen said. “For a project of this magnitude it has really gone well.”