Mapping Scooter Issues Using 311 Data
We at the Lower Polk Community Benefit District (CBD) are proud to have created the first geomapping application that uses 311 data to notify scooter-share companies when their scooters are broken, discarded, or otherwise causing quality-of-life issues. Bonayo means “one who sees” in Xhosa. We are hoping to leverage Bonayo in such a way as to cause positive social change. Our first client is Scoot, which is one of only two companies permitted to operate a dockless scooter-share service in San Francisco.
I am the Executive Director of the Lower Polk Community Benefit District here in San Francisco. We are a 501(c)3 non-profit tasked with making our 22-block neighborhood a cleaner, safer, more livable place for everyone. We do this through a variety of programming. For example, we sponsor the SF First Thursday Art Walk, the seasonal Lower Polk Wine Walks, and the Polk Street Blues Festival. We also work with local artists to install murals in our unique alleyways. We even created a free Tenant Landlord Clinic that works to keep people housed in their current places of abode (via mediation and conflict intervention). This winter we will open a public art gallery and community space where people can take classes to learn computing, arts, crafts, and other interesting and useful things.
However our main job, when you get right down to it, is the mundane and never-ending task of cleaning up trash, discarded needles, graffiti, and yes. . .feces.
And this is where geomapping comes in.
About 18 months ago, I realized that our workers were spending a lot of time walking around looking for things to pick up and clean. It was like a really nasty Easter egg hunt. Yet, the exact location of some of these “eggs” had already been reported to SF311 and was available in a crowdsourced, free, and open data set. This data set is called “Open 311.”
If you have never heard of 311, it’s available in most major cities, and it’s the number to call when you want to report a quality of life problem, or you have a question or request for municipal services. There’s also a free smartphone app available in many cities, including San Francisco. It’s like 911 for non-emergencies. Here’s an easy way to distinguish between the two services… If there’s a burning building call 911. If there’s a burning question call 311.
These services keep non-emergency calls from impeding emergency response times and resources, and create a workflow process and records for public workers. For example, when a citizen makes a 311 report, a human operator (or the app software) gathers the relevant information, then passes that information to the pertinent city department. Here in San Francisco, this routing is done via an API known as “Open 311.” See http://www.open311.org/ for details about Open 311. Some cities use another related open API known as “SeeClickFix.” See http://dev.seeclickfix.com/ for details.
The result of all of this is that every 311 service call in San Francisco exists as public, open data. Interestingly, nobody that we know of (outside of San Francisco public officials) had easy access to these data or was using this information to make decisions about their policies or business operations.
This is where we came in.
When I realized that the Open 311 data could be used to dispatch our workers, I worked with a developer and created an application that constantly pulls in all this 311 data and maps it in real-time.
This simple application allows us to see the location of every citizen 311 request in our district and respond if appropriate. It’s located at https://311.today and is free for non-commercial use. Go ahead and check it out. The app also allows users to automatically generate text or email reports any time there is a 311 report in a given area. These reports can be assigned to multiple individuals and devices to accommodate the operational needs of organizations at any scale.
Some of you may now be wondering why our workers are essentially duplicating the cleanup work that the San Francisco Department of Public Works already does.
Community Benefit Districts (sometimes known as business improvement districts) are established by property owners in a given area who agree to tax themselves to provide supplemental services over and above what a city can provide. Because we are laser-focused on our neighborhood, we get to know the people here, the merchants, the workers, and the general flow of the community and apply this knowledge to our efforts to keep the area clean.
As residents and visitors inevitably notice, there are still serious issues with trash, needles and feces in San Francisco. CBDs exist to focus on these and other issues in commercial corridors, and we work in concert with our Department of Public Works (DPW) to address the homelessness, opioid, and mental health issues on our streets. We use our app 311.today to see what has been reported to DPW in our district, what has been resolved or closed, and what still needs a response. When we have an opportunity to resolve an issue we do so and communicate our efforts to DPW staff so they don’t duplicate our work. They can then move on to the next service request. Our relationship is symbiotic and has resulted in significant improvements in our neighborhood cleanliness and social cohesion.
So at this point you are probably asking yourself: What does mapping trash, needles and feces have to do with mapping scooters?
In March of 2018, the scooter frenzy engulfed San Francisco. I realized that people were using 311 to report scooters tossed in the Bay, blocking handicap access, deployed in inappropriate places, hung in trees, or otherwise disturbing the peace. The scooter-share companies operating in SF (at that time, Bird, Lime, and Spin) had no way to access this important data and the City was using this information to impound rogue scooters.
Sensing an opportunity, we quickly set up a version of 311.today that was designed to map 311 calls that related to scooters and bike-share vehicles. We then began to reach out to the scooter companies and educated them about our software as a service (SaaS) offering, and there was instant interest as fines and bad PR began to roll in to the early disrupters. Our solution provided them a way to see just how disruptive their services were and how they could begin to address some of the issues.
As mentioned above, that app is called Bonayo and is at https://bonayo.com. Bonayo is free for general non-commercial use, so please check it out.
Because most major cities have a 311 API, we are hoping to expand Bonayo nationally in the coming months. Our mission is to empower people in other communities to harness the power of real-time geomapping of data to inform public policies and build business intelligence.
The companies granted permits in San Francisco during the pilot year recently announced they will limit their services to certain neighborhoods, mostly in or near downtown. This would not include the Lower Polk, and many other so-called communities of concern. We hope that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) will increase the arbitrary cap on scooters next year to allow for a more equitable distribution of vehicles.
“Transportation equity” is the concept (and reality) that access to public transportation is a basic civic right, just like any other right. This may seem spurious, but a recent Harvard study showed that access to transportation is the single most important determiner of upward mobility. (See: Bouchard, Mikayla. “Transportation Emerges as Crucial to Escaping Poverty.” The New York Times, 7 May 2015.)
Scooter-shares, bike-shares, and other similar modes of transportation are part of what is called EMS (emerging mobility services). These new services have the ability to revolutionize transportation, especially the pernicious “last mile” problem. However, these new technologies can also exacerbate existing inequities if not deployed in a rational manner. We are therefore hoping to use a significant part of the revenue from Bonayo’s paid commercial users to establish a foundation that will address these potential issues now, and in the future.
In summary, what started as a way to help our workers be more efficient using open data and geomapping, became a platform to help scooter-share companies maintain good community relations. We hope it will continue to evolve in ways that build equity into the public and private policies in the EMS space. That’s our ambitious dream at least.
If this sounds interesting to you, please contact me and I can provide additional information. We are always looking for mentors, volunteers, and partners who see the future.
Christian Martin is the Executive Director of the Lower Polk Community Benefit District in San Francisco, California. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fall 2018 Volume 11 Issue 2