Use The Public Channel For Better Customer Service

One of Mike Bloomberg's greatest achievements is the creation of the 311 service here in New York City. These 311 services operate in many large cities in the US and Canada. The first one was in Baltimore in the mid 90s.

Apparently Bloomberg is a huge user of 311 himself and he calls all the time as he is driving around the city, reporting potholes and such.

We had a pothole in our neighborhood that I passed every day on my way to the subway. It was a big one and I'd watch car after car pound the hell out of their undercarriage as they made their way from Hudson onto Bethune street.  One day I stopped and snapped this photo with my Blackberry and posted it to Flickr (and then automatically to Twitter):

It would be great if you could twitter these in like: @potholenyc corner of bethune and hudson

I added the following to the Flickr headline which became the tweet:

It would be great if you could twitter these in like: @potholenyc corner of bethune and hudson

Of course I could have called 311, like our Mayor does, and reported the pothole. But doing it this way does a bunch of things;

1) It saves the cost of staffing large call centers because computers can handle most of the processing of messages like this. There will still need to be humans at some part of this process, but the front end can certainly be automated.

2) You get an image of the pothole which should help the crews who fix them evaluate the worst ones and prioritize.

3) The photo and the twitter message is out there for anyone to see. Ideally this message would get routed, via something like our portfolio company, to the various local media in the neighborhood. If the messages have enough metadata in them, you could even create pages of local media based on the most common neighborhood issues (crime, infrastructure, schools, parks, etc)

4) The public discussion about the photo and related posts could be aggregated to create even more metadata and further identify the highest priority issues.

We see this "public channel" in action already with services like Comcast Cares on Twitter. Anyone can pick up the phone and call Comcast and tell them that their cable service isn't working. But the only people who know about that are the person making the call and call center rep taking it. When someone posts on Twitter that their cable service isn't working and directs the message to Comcast Cares, many people see that. Some of them may be other Comcast customers who might find out that their cable isn't working either. And as Comcast Cares elevates the issue, gets it fixed, and reports back, everyone gets to see that too. It's a huge win for Comcast. Anything that can make a cable company look better is a great thing and the use of the public channel is exactly that.

The public channel is just developing. It's in its infancy. Services like Twitter and Facebook are building key elements of it. But we need a lot more infrastructure to make this happen. I do not believe that the way this will happen is the creation of "enterprise services" that will be sold to local governments. I think we'll see things like GetSatisfaction and Uservoice develop that are consumer facing first and foremost that governments will be forced to adopt.

My friend John Geraci, co-founder of, is developing a non-profit called DIYcity that is attempting to spearhead a movement along this idea. If you are interested in working on projects in this area, you should join DIYcity and start collaborating with others who are working in this space.

The public channel is the right channel for business and government. Most "customer support" issues are not confined to one person (just look at the comments on my American Express post for proof of that). So we should be using a public channel to talk to companies and institutions. They'll benefit and so will we.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. RichardF

    I run an sms (text messaging) company in the UK and among other things we provide inbound text numbers to many public service companies allowing them to have a mobile public channel. I see quite a lot of crossover in the uses for Twitter in the mainstream that existing mobile services are already providing.At the end of the day its just another communication channel albeit a very fast growing one !

  2. William Mougayar

    Also, apparently, the cost of fixing a pothole more than quadruples as its diameter doubles, so it’s cheaper to fix it earlier.There’s an obvious ROI behind this. Any service provider should see this as an early warning opportunity to fix/remedy whatever situation (e.g. Amex) before it costs more, is more difficult to manage, or lowers their reputation.

  3. Henry Yates

    I think it will be fascinating to see how different services such as Facebook, Twitter and other emerging tools will end up interacting and eventually finding their niche. I have had a stab at thinking through where facebook and Twitter will end up here:

  4. Simon Cast

    There is a UK based service that does something very similar called FixMyStreet ( You locate the problem on the map, fill in details and it is then submitted to the relevant local council. It then lets you track when the issues are fixed. They even have an iPhone app that allows you to take pictures, tag with GPS coordinates before submitting.I could see that adding in a twitter feed would make this even more effective as the issues become more public.

    1. fredwilson

      is it being used extensively?

      1. Simon Cast

        The stats from their site say 841 reports in the last week, 1387 fixed in the past month and 38,951 updates to reports. Compete shows (http://siteanalytics.compet… about 3k visitors with a ramp up over the last couple of months.I think mobility and immediacy is key to getting these services to really work well. People will make reports on the spot but are very unlikely to wait until they get to a computer to make a report. I think as more and more people have smart phones these services will become a big factor in neighbourhood engagement.

        1. fredwilson

          i totally agree. that’s how i did it, snapped a photo with my blackberry and posted it to flickr and twitter

  5. Guy Dickinson

    Here in the UK we have which lets you report such issues, automatically routing it to the local council dept. responsible.geographic areas have rss feeds, etc to enable aggregation of this local data in the way you envisage. However, their iPhone app is the closest I’ve seen to the mobile submission model (althought the site is phone friendly.It’s a non-profit initiative run by the wonderful; the code framework is open source, I believe.Along with the BBC, MySociety makes me proud to be a Brit!

    1. Guy Dickinson

      SimonCast beat me to it (that’ll teach me to answer the phone, mid comment 🙂

    2. William Mougayar

      Also in Canada, we have which is part of, modelled after the UK’s WhatDoTheyKnow. FixMyStreet strikes me as similar to SeeClickFix.

  6. Mark-BrandInnovator

    great ideas. We recently heard that the LA Fire Dept has been successfully using twitter for public emergency alerts. on the other end other end of the spectrum, the Chicago commuter system Metra just announced it would start accepting credit cards for train fares. Wow!?!?!

  7. martinowen

    Love Lewisham pre-dates fix-my-street. The Council’s own employees and contractors are encouraged to join in – so refuse collectors, who visit most streets, can act as agents.

    1. fredwilson

      it seems that the UK is way ahead of the US in this regard

      1. danvers

        Oh yes, we are. And in so many other ways as well.

  8. Peter Evans-Greenwood

    This sort of “Flickr for potholes” public service was done a few years ago in the UK. (A UK reader might have more details than myself, who live in AU at the moment.) One of the local boroughs put together a web site where you could submit road problems (potholes and the like) either via a desktop/laptop or mobile phone. All issues were publicly viewable, and the information was used to improve the scheduling of road crews. It was a huge success, from what I heard.r.PEG

  9. Taylor Davidson

    Point #4 is the most interesting part; in essence, “defaulting to the public channel” would be a way to flip customer service from a one-to-one response channel (cost center) to a many-to-many interaction platform (profit center).Private data sits stuffed inside a data center or company waiting for the owner to make sense of it, but public data is open for anyone to make sense from (and ultimately, profit from); the owner becomes a custodian, a massively different relationship.

    1. fredwilson

      yes! that’s exactly right

  10. zerobeta

    Great post. I agree completely. Yesterday on Twitter I had an experience with Western Union. I don’t even use them but had tweeted how I liked their song on the commercial a week back (…. Then out of the blue yesterday I get this reply from them (…, telling me what song it was. It ended up in a genuine conversation where I suggested another song to them where the artist is basically talking about them and selling them.I thought it was an excellent use of Twitter to reach out to the market and a great example of a company being “human”.

    1. fredwilson

      it makes companies “human”

      1. howard lindzon

        cnbc is not human. i just posted on that. so dumb when it could be so smart.i guess i should be grateful

  11. Kalle Airo

    There is an interesting project doing feedback systems for public orgniazations in Finland. The project is called HILA ( [only in Finnish, sorry]) and is currently doing a pilot with city of Helsinki, who is a paying customer.The participated in our business plan competition with an interesting open source business, and finnished in the top-10.

    1. Peter Corbett

      I meet with the guys who did Open Feedback when i was in Helsinki recently. One of the coolest ways of using OpenFeedBack is to encourage the cyclist community to be the mobile reporters that add info to the system. Cyclists really really want safe streets, and see more of the cityscape than other kinds of commuters.

  12. Victor Wong

    there is an interesting start up based in New Haven that does exactly this … called “SeeClickFix” and its widget is already up on a few publications like The New York Times. see

    1. fredwilson

      thanks. i’ll check that out.

    2. fredwilson

      I learned ystrday that seeclickfix is part of the DIYcity effort I mentioned in the post. Excellent stuff!!

  13. apoikola

    Hello from Finland,Last autumn we (a bunch of software oriented cyclists) got inspired about similar simple idea of Open Feedback, that you well explained. We started developing a pilot project for the cyclists in Helsinki.The municipality loved the idea and decided to pay for us so that we build a demonstration platform where the officers of city planning and construction departments could easily follow the discussion and give “official” responses.In addition to the fact that anyone can see the given feedback and official responses we build a open API to the system so that anyone can build their own interfaces to the system and do all kind of visualizations and pothole mashups. What makes Twitter so nice is the open API that they provide!PS: The amount of phonecalls to 311 must be crazy! Even in a small city like Helsinki the construction department alone gets 300 000 phonecalls in a year and the phone number is not at all easy to remember or find.-Antti “Jogi” Poikola

  14. Chris Dodge

    From an Architectural standpoint, it’s interesting to consider how these “notification platforms” (which Twitter is ultimately) could be used from an efficiency standpoint. It’d be terrific if these notifications would be routed to people already in the field. Plus with geo-tagging on the submitted photo, it would go a long way to make municipalities run better.This is really the dawn of Mobile Apps. It’s been mostly consumer focused so far but the next big opportunities are in Enterprise (particularly Logistics and Business Intelligence) and these “civics” type projects are very interesting as well from a cost saving opportunity point of view.

    1. Peter Corbett

      What a timely post, Fred. We just yesterday launched an innovation contest in Washington DC to build just that. Apps for Democracy “Community Edition” (http://www.appsfordemocracy…) is taking place between now and the end of June with $35,000 in prizes…for the best solution to 311 service request submissions.The city is releasing a API for developers to use and our insights phase is open now powered by uservoice: http://insights.appsfordemo….

      1. fredwilson

        Awesome. Seeclickfix ought to enter the contest

        1. Peter Corbett

          Thanks for the tip. Seeclickfix is great. I’ll let them know about Apps for Democracy.

  15. Mike Evans

    One pitfall of the public channel for city services is that things won’t necessarily escalate based on importance, but based on outcry. So, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. Resources would be assigned based on perceptions and image control rather than a more objective metric.

    1. fredwilson

      True. We’ll still need humans (thankfully)

  16. Scott

    I would say that the only thing to change should be the “@potholenyc” — because what of the many other tune-ups needing to take place in the city? I feel it would be too much for a person to have to find the right username to tweet to (graffiti, trash, car accident, etc.) ; perhaps, just one user in New York, like an @TuneUpsNYC or something

  17. Ben Berkowitz

    This is a great post!Please see for its incarnation.On SeeClickFix Anyone can document non-emergency issues and report them to those accountable for the public space.You can add photos and video and click that you “want something fixed too” to raise the “clickets” rank and prioritize its importance. You can also create watch areas for those accountable to the public space so that they receive alerts on the issues. Document enough issues publicly in NYC and maybe Mr Bloomberg will want to integrate SeeClickFix as a community friendly front end for getting things fixed.Twitter for SeeClickFix? Great idea. If you’ll use it, we’ll build it.If you want to embed the seeclickfix reporting widget in your site:….If you want to reach out to us: [email protected] for the blatent spam but your post was so aligned with SeeClickFix it felt necessary. Check out this article on SeeClickFix from yesterday’s Hartford Courant:

    1. Resident

      i agree with ben. seeclickfix is a great resource – a 311 system but much more open and participatory. it combines 311 with open blogging, social networking, and government advocacy.scf is really catching on in many other cities, not so much so yet in new york, though i am hoping it will soon!!!… has a good summary of the site & where it has been succeeding.

      1. fredwilson

        I’ll check out seeclickfixAs usual you are all way ahead of me on this stuff

    2. fredwilson

      This is great. I will use it the next time I have a 311 issue. Pls get @seeclickfix on twitter so I can send it in that way

      1. Ben Berkowitz

        It’s in the works sir! This was an awesome suggestion and a great preemptive strike at our Iphone and Blackberry Apps.The only thing I notice is that twitterific’s map location tends to be pretty off. Suggestions for a better twitter app. for us to recommend with photo and one click googlemaps link?Stay Posted for SeeTweetFix!

        1. Ben Berkowitz

          I’m going to look for an email for NYC 311 so I can create a watch area for NYC 311 on SeeClickFix.If anyone has an email for them, please post.If you want to beat me to it:… This is how data is sent to city hall (or anyone you choose) when a clicket is reported on SeeClickFix.One thing we did not anticipate when we allowed anyone on the site to be a “Fixer” and receive alerts from watch areas was that citizens might go out and do the fixing. Since the site was created we have seen citizens removing graffiti, purchasing pedestrian in-road signs for their street, doing litter pick-ups and even removing an abandoned boat and ski-do from a park before the city’s park’s department could get to it. What you are proposing goes beyond Gov 2.0 it’s Community 2.0.

          1. Ben Berkowitz

            Hey Fred,Your idea is reality:You can tweet @seeclickfix with map link location issue description and photo optional.Here’s the instructions:…Thanks again for this. We’ve been having some fun tweeting issues to our local officials.

          2. fredwilson

            Sweet! Now I gotta find a local issue to tweet about

  18. Clint

    I agree that as Twitter and other community apps are built and become more popular the public channel will start to have a larger voice. To play off the @potholenyc I created this service that I call @Spotd that listens for @replies sent to a Twitter account and then relays those messages through itself. Any account can be set up for this service, but I created a @spotdnyc and @spotdchicago because I wanted to create something to give people a common source of communication throughout their city to stay on top of things that are happening right now without having to wait for major media outlets to cover them or without searching through the endless dribble of Twitter looking for a specific hash tag. Like potholes for instance.I think if the city of New York or Chicago(where I am) supported a service where members of the community could send information maybe the they would hear the people more.

    1. fredwilson

      Awesome. I’ll check it out

    2. fredwilson

      Awesome. I’ll check it out

  19. Mike McDerment

    Great post Fred – thanks for writing it.For what it’s worth it’s my belief that Twitter’s (and other social media’s tools/properties/etc) greatest contribution is going to be to keep large organizations honest and realign them with their customer bases.It’s never been easier to unite with others who are as disgruntled with you. The flip side of that coin and the great news for telcos and other massive organizations is it’s never been easier to be in touch with so many customers at once….to hear what they’re saying (research) and easily respond to them (low cost).These are powerful forces; it’s really really exciting to see the “vendor/client” alignment being restored.

  20. Paul Higgins

    Fred we saw this a while ago and put it in our newsletter – looks exactly what you are looking forGoogle map complaintsThe Geuzenveld local council has created a Google map that local citizens can putphotos and location information on for a complaint about a pothole, garbageproblems etc. The system makes the problem visible to the council but also to thewhole area. An example of Mashups leading to more transparent governmentprocesses.look at

    1. fredwilson

      Yes it is. Thanks for sharing it

    1. fredwilson

      Yes, but they pull data out of govt databases. I want to get the data on the way in

  21. Carl Rahn Griffith

    this is all good stuff but accountability and transparency is key – otherwise it is just cathartic.

    1. fredwilson

      Carl – is there more accountibility and transparency in a call to a call center?

      1. Carl Rahn Griffith

        Absolutely not, Fred – by their very nature (1:1/call to call centres) they are verbose and apart from the ubiquitous and often meaningless ‘trouble ticket’ number being issued, any such calls usually vanish into the ether.As ever, data is king – and any such processes (such as discussed) which are automated, data-centric and in the public domain should/could be an improvement. However, there needs to be (and i hate to use such terms) clear KPIs/SLAs in place, along with ownership. Similarly, people need to learn to express themselves and use such services, believing they will deliver results. A lot of education is required but better to start sooner rather than later, for sure!Around our village the roads are in the usual post-winter utterly dire condition with pot holes aplenty, unattended to for months, not just weeks – friends have suffered car damage and won’t even complain to the authorities to seek the compensation they are rightly due (because they are so cynical of ‘the system’) as a result of the local government’s neglect.PS, i can’t see this replacing a good old French protest, however … 😉

  22. William Mougayar

    I was at an event yesterday where Toronto Mayor Miller said their 311 service will be an end-to-end call center, where a caller can request an “order” on a government service (e.g. fixing a pothole), and they get assigned an order number which is trackable on the web until completion. Some info on program here:

    1. fredwilson

      That’s half rightThey should accept info from the open web too

      1. William Mougayar

        That’s correct. They also announced where they’ll publish real time feeds and public data,- but I’m not sure if they’ll accept open participation, as that may be the place to do. I’m copying and will re-tweet to @mayormiller who is on Twitter.

        1. fredwilson

          This is all great. It makes me so optimistic about truly open gov’t

          1. William Mougayar

            Speaking of which, “Microsoft unveils open government initiative- The Open Government Data Initiative provides an Internet-standards-based approach to host existing public data in its cloud computing platform”…

          2. fredwilson

            Nice. Two of the most hated institutions pare up

  23. BmoreWire

    Just a testimonial on Baltimore (and thanks for the shout out, we appreciate it). Called 311 at 9am on a Saturday about some graffiti on the side of our building. By 11am they had matched the paint color and painted over it.

    1. fredwilson


  24. Craig

    Hi Fred, Might be worth you having a look at 4ip an £50M innovation fund spun out of Channel 4. One of the UK’s public services TV channels. Tom Loosemore, who heads up the fund has a great track record of building valuable social and democratic services, having been involved in mySociety and the BBC previously.

    1. fredwilson

      ThanksI’ll do that

  25. Priya Narasimhan

    I just read your thoughtful post. And I completely agree. I hope that more cities, small and large, see the wisdom and efficiency of moving to mobile e-government.Pittsburgh released its mobile 311 app (iBurgh) in August 2009, and iBurgh has seen some 7000 downloads since its release. iBurgh is actually integrated into the City’s 311 IT system so that every incident report filed through your cellphone is directly seen by the City and attended to. iBurgh is moving to other cities within the US and abroad. iBurgh aims to empower people with a two-way (so that the City is actually listening) channel into their local governments.More on iBurgh at… and on twitter (@cityZenMobile).