San Antonio has launched 311SA, its new interactive civic engagement app developed by local startup Cityflag. The cellphone app enables residents to report municipal issues to the City of San Antonio and is available for download in the iTunes and Google Play online stores.
Cities are developing new avenues for civic engagement using a technology most residents already possess—a smartphone. In the U.S., 80 percent of all mobile phone users use a smartphone. The emergence of interactive municipal apps as a new means for citizens to report issues is spreading as cities look for more ways to engage with its residents.
The 311 app allows San Antonio residents to upload photos of municipal problems such as a downed street sign or graffiti and geotag it using Google Maps. The reported issue gets highlighted with a red flag until City employees use Cityflag’s “citizen relationship management system” to acknowledge the problem which turns the flag yellow. App users can read City employee comments on each issue and can vote on the severity of specific ones. The top-flagged issues appear on the app’s “urban feed” and once addressed, the issue’s flag changes from an open green flag to a closed blue one once resolved.
The City of San Antonio awarded Cityflag a two-year contract in 2017, requesting additional features over the course of app development. San Antonio tech entrepreneur Alberto Altamirano, founder and chief executive officer of Cityflag, said the City-requested enhancements include improvements in photo quality, the ability to upload photos directly from the camera gallery on your smartphone, as well as a shorter request processing time.
“It now takes only 3 seconds to generate a case reference number for the reported issue,” Altamirano said. “We got the time it takes for a request to be processed down from 10 seconds.”
The robust functionality sets the 311SA app apart from most of the ones in use in major cities like New York City or San Francisco. Users can see the incoming requests in real time or click on the map to zoom in to see on the street level, thanks to Google Earth.
“You can also filter the reports and look only at those of stray animals or for potholes,” Cityflag chief financial officer Eduardo Bravo Jr., said. “The issues stay on the map for three weeks.”
Cityflag is an agile team of seven composed of co-founders Altamirano, Bravo, and chief of operations Beto Gomez plus engineers and developers. The startup launched a 311 app for the Mission, Texas in early August, a city of about 100,000. Their third implementation is for a population much larger than the two Texan municipalities combined. Cityflag worked with one of the 16 boroughs of Mexico’s capital Mexico City, Cuauhtémoc. Their 311 app will support the five million people who live and work in the historic and cultural center of Mexico City.
“We’ve shown how we can handle a population as small as Mission to San Antonio’s 1.2 million all the way to Mexico City’s five million in a part of the city that is not even fully digitized,” Bravo said. “We use an agile approach with our ‘plug and play platform’ in digitizing a city’s civic engagement ecosystem.”
While the team took almost a year from their first concept to rollout for San Antonio’s app, Cityflag spent six months from proposing the idea to full launch in Mexico City, where there was no fully digital municipal platform, which Cityflag needed to create as well. For Mission, the startup got even faster, completing their 311 app development in four months.
“We’ve now gotten implementation time down to 45 days,” Altamirano said.
The City of San Antonio’s Innovation Office oversaw the 311SA app project. Earlier this year they partnered with Geekdom to launch CivTechSA and are wrapping up work with its first two startups, Reckon Point and Kinetech Cloud.
“Over the past year the City of San Antonio has been more open to working with startups because we see the talent that is developing within our city,” chief innovation officer Jose de la Cruz said. “It helps us to increase our capacity for innovation.”
Paula Stallcup, assistant director for communications and public affairs for the City of San Antonio and senior manager for the City’s 311 services, has also been involved in the 311SA app development since its start. Previously the City had a reporting app, but it lacked interactive features and did not give users visibility on the City’s responses. The newly developed 311 app offers residents an interactive way to communicate with the City. There are almost 800,000 calls to 311 annually, according to Stallcup.
“The app is different from what you might expect in a city services app,” Stallcup said. “We are excited about the functionality within the app—people can report an issue 24/7 and not have to remember to call the City in the morning.”
For cities considering an interactive smartphone 311 app like San Antonio’s that help drive civic engagement, de la Cruz emphasized how benefits extend beyond residents.
“Civic engagement and listening to your residents are the most important things you can do, and an app like 311SA helps you to do that in a new and fresh way,” de la Cruz said. “I would also say to look at your local tech talent and find ways to help them grow. As a city organization, we have the opportunity to influence how that talent grows in our city.”