Software Development

This already-iconic Philly 311 Photos Twitter account is run by a local technologist

"Looking at what people submit to 311 is both fun and depressing, same as living in Philly," creator Nat Lownes said.

An illegal dumping post via @Philly311Photos.

(Screenshot from Twitter)

We here at Technical.ly are no strangers to the brand of weirdly wonderful local social media accounts.

We noticed in 2019 that the Pennsylvania Treasury Department had gotten a handful of internet-obsessed staffers to promote the department’s general information at (now-defunct) Twitter account @PATreasury. We also wrote an obituary when the account was slated to be shut down after Treasurer Joe Torsella did not win his reelection bid — RIP. And who could forget the the Instagram account @CTCChairs, which documents the variety of modern, funky seating in the Comcast Technology Center?

When we spotted @Philly311Photos, the Twitter account sending out everything Philadelphians submit to Philly311 — the non-emergency line to request help or information — we had to know more. Luckily, the man behind the account, software engineer and Schuylkill Legit Industries founder Nat Lownes, didn’t have us wondering for too long.

Lownes told us there were a few things that drew inspiration for the account, which runs on “only a little bit of Python” using a Twitter library he wrote, and a Kubernetes cluster in his rowhouse. (The data is pulled from the City’s Carto DB, he said.)

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One of the main calls to action was watching a park near his home in East Falls fill up with debris and building material from nearby developers. He and friends knew it happened all the time, and that dumping was a real problem for the city. Plus, Chicago has a similar bot for its 311 service.

“The only time I submitted something to 311, it was a sinkhole on my street,” Lownes said. “Somebody on my block eventually filled it with books, it was properly fixed about eight months later.”

The account, launched in March, chronicles very Philly goings-on, from broken car windows to an … abandoned boat (?).

Lownes has worked on similar civic tech projects in the past, like this bot that tweets out an image of every new tax-exempted building and this nearly-infinite-scrolling endtheabatement.com, which quantifies the lost tax revenues from Philly’s tax abatement. (It’s also in map form!)

The new projects highlights both the good and the bad of Philly — that some neighborhoods see rampant dumping, alongside fun moments along the Schuylkill River Trail. You can learn that a campaign van for Republican Scott Wagner was abandoned on Ridge Avenue.

“Looking at what people submit to 311 is both fun and depressing, same as living in Philly,” Lownes said.

But the Twitter account’s most important feature is that is highlights the number of work requests the City gets each day.

“I also think it’s important to show the volume of requests 311 has to deal with — they get so many requests and like virtually every other city department I’m sure they’re severely underfunded and understaffed,” Lownes said. “If we want a functioning, clean city with good public services, the city needs to collect taxes and provide those services.”

Irene Contreras, the deputy communications director for the Office of the Mayor, said Philly311 hadn’t heard from the person behind the Twitter bot “but would be open to discussing how we can support it.” She noted that Philly311 directs service requests to City servicing departments, like streets, parks and rec, CLIP and L&I.

The 49-person department handled 748,794 requests in 2021 alone.

“It’s great to see someone reviewing our data and using it for initiative ideas,” Contreras said.

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