Ethics / Municipal government / Philadelphia / Roundups

Five city departments and agencies that could use a Web overhaul

In an informal partnership with Philadelphia magazine‘s new Philly Post daily news blog, Technically Philly will be offering our insight on Philadelphia technology to a broader audience of tech-interested individuals every Tuesday. As is true of so much of our effort, this is yet another opportunity to voice the triumphs and concerns of the community […]

In an informal partnership with Philadelphia magazine‘s new Philly Post daily news blog, Technically Philly will be offering our insight on Philadelphia technology to a broader audience of tech-interested individuals every Tuesday. As is true of so much of our effort, this is yet another opportunity to voice the triumphs and concerns of the community to a broader audience in the city and beyond.
Read this post on Philly Mag’s Philly Post.
The use of technology to transform government has been growing municipal concern in city halls across the country.
Here, the City of Philadelphia has announced its intentions to release a service orientated 311 iPhone application, is applying for ultra highspeed broadband from Google and is in hot pursuit of a funded team of developers and technologists to make our every government transparency dream come true.
The overtures are there, even if the substance hasn’t yet hit the pavement.
As such, a question or three remains as to where the priorities of the newly centralized city division of technology should be. The Web has no limits — of space or time. So we’d think every department’s site should be an open and transparent list of expenditures and salaries, but there are specific goals each agency could reach — and those we wish they could.
Below, we share our hopes for Web openness and effectiveness at five agencies or departments Philadelphians often loathe.

Philadelphia Water Department

Before all city technology services were consolidated, the Water Department had the reputation for having the most formidable IT infrastructure because your water bills give the department its own protected source of revenue — at the end of fiscal year 2009 the water fund’s unrestricted net assets rang in at about $174.2 million [PDF]. Among city insiders, its commercial stormwater billing overhaul is being lauded as innovative and effective, and the department has a system for online billing, so we can shoot higher.
The Dream: What if the site offered real time bill tracking to compare your bill with the average among your zip code to see if you’re on par or an excessive user.
What’s possible: Create a friendlier online billing system that offers automatic payment (and instills enough trust that we’d let it take from our bank accounts on its own)

Philadelphia Parking Authority

The PPA charges a $2.50 processing fee for Web payments of parking tickets. With a price tag that discourages anyone from using a paperless method to pay this cash cow, there’s no questioning that the state-operated agency is still built for the paper age.
Our Dream: The PPA rolls out a geo-location-based smart phone application that can alert drivers that they’re parking illegally and has an alarm integrated into a parking meter network that tracks open spaces and, to help the PPA, tracks expired meters. A dynamically updated hot map that tracks from where the number of violations come is publicly available and details how much revenue comes in.
What’s Possible: The PPA overhauls its collection system so online payment is easy and free, and, for anyone who has ever woken up to have their car towed because they didn’t know their street was getting paid that morning, a zip code or neighborhood-specific alert system that plays nice with RSS protocol.

Licenses and Inspections

Credit where credit is due for a department that is completely rewriting its foundational code. The facts are aplenty on the website of L&I — without having to queue up a PDF at that — but for a department that deals so much with public information, like why is my neighbor adding three floors to his rowhome, there isn’t anything in the way of transparency.
Our Dream: A mobile accessible site that offers the following: a dynamically-updated map of on-going zoning hearings, variance proposals and permit requests for the entire city; a search-able data base of historical property alterations and requests approved by L&I and community organization opinion. Of course, all the facts and figures on trends can be downloaded into spreadsheets — so we could see that, say, the number of fish-shaped bay windows has grown by 50 percent in the 19125 in the last year.
What’s Possible: The department starts by investing in digitizing a past decade of its approvals and denials and works toward posting online all new requests, the progress of which can be tracked with RSS feeds.

Board of Revision of Taxes

Remember these guys? The seven-member board that Mayor Nutter says is crooked enough that short of dismantling the whole damn thing, he’s at least going to work with City Council to slash their pay?
It was nothing short of a miracle that their site added a property owner search, but for an agency shrouded in confusion, we don’t have much more.
The Dream: A site that clamors of transparency and encourages payment of back taxes by listing what each property owner owes the city. Integration with Streets and L&I to lodge a complaint for nuisance or otherwise problematic property, historical ownership information and RSS feeds of changing property ownership specific to zips or neighborhood.
What’s Possible: Web forms to request appeals, abatements and exemptions and set up appointments are a small step, as would be enhancing the site’s property ownership searchability to allow for reverse look-ups by name.

Streets Department

The Streets Department website has added options to request pothole service and lodge other complaints, but there’s no transparency or follow up.
The Dream: Each complaint gets a tracking number that can be updated by e-mail blast or RSS feed to be tracked in where the complaint goes. Dynamically updated maps by complaint should open up where the problem areas are and what neighborhoods are getting the treatment versus the level of complaint. Trash, maintenance and snow removal trucks would all be retrofitted with GPS and be able to be tracked by residents — honey, bring empty the trash can, the truck is heading our way.
What’s Possible: Offering a trackable ticketing number for a complaint seems like a given, but can we at least get RSS updates on where work will be done and when trash collection is coming during the next blizzard?
Read more at Philly Mag’s Philly Post.

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