Collecting Better Data to Drive Smarter Spending, L.A. Style

Andrey Bayda/

City residents will be able to have something like an Amazon purchase history of their interactions with the city.

This is the second interview with LA Information Technology Agency programmer analyst Eduardo Magos and the city’s MyLA311 mobile app project manager Jennifer Baños. The first interview about the development of the MyLA311 app appeared Nov. 14. The transcript was edited for length and clarity.

The second phase of your 311 project is a customer relations management system that will collect all the data from city service requests into a centralized place for the city and for citizens. Tell me about those plans.

Magos: The most requested feature is that people want to see real time status tracking of their service requests. Things like graffiti removal have a turnaround time of 24 to 72 hours whereas a sidewalk replacement could be a multiyear wait. A tree trim could be many months to a year. People want to be able to track that.

They also want a record. They want history. When we launch the new Web portal it will also correspond with an enhanced 311 mobile app so they’ll be able to have something like an Amazon purchase history of their interactions with the city.

As part of our [customer relations management] system, we’re also opening up our knowledge base, which is a repository of 1,700 different city services with a keyword search and Frequently Asked Questions. The cool thing about that is we’ll be able to track that and prioritize based on what people are searching for.

For instance, we get these Santa Ana winds that come through and knock down palm fronds and people start searching how to get palm fronds removed. We’ll be able to put cookies on what people are asking so we can have better metrics around what’s going on now and what people are interested in.

Is this going to result in cost savings?

Magos: We’re looking now at systems that can be turned off. Once the CRM is plugged in, it will be able do a lot of the things that we have one-off systems for now. So we can turn those off and not pay for licensing and for servers and stuff like that. We have four systems we know will be shut off so far. Another piece is looking at how having this affects the 311 call center and their workloads. It isn’t about reducing the call center but about keeping the call center sane and keeping reasonable wait times.

As you start trying to make more of this data public, what kind of data are people asking you for?

Magos: People want to see mashups of maps, they want to see overlays. A couple years ago, the LAPD released crime maps and people loved that. They wanted to see their neighborhoods and know what crime was going on there. People keep asking ‘why aren’t there crime maps for graffiti or for potholes?’ They say ‘I know it’s bad in my neighborhood. It should get more attention and I could prove it to you if you could just show me the data.’

We also hear a lot from third party developers who want to create their own apps that can be updated with city data.

Will all the data be in one place?

Magos: A parallel track project is Build LA. That’s more for permits and inspections. If you’re a developer in the city of LA, that crosses five sub-agencies. They’re trying to streamline it so, if you’re building a restaurant, your liquor permit and your fire permit and all your inspections are in one place. It’s similar to what we’ve been talking about with city services but from a developer’s perspective.

Our other big project is citywide Wi-Fi. It wouldn’t replace your Comcast or your Charter. It’s more targeted to lower-income areas where it will be set up so that people who can’t have Wi-Fi in their homes for financial reasons would have access to a rate-limited basic city Wi-Fi. It would also be available in public parks, say, and to work crews.

So, five or 10 years down the road, what do you expect to be the next project?

Magos: This may be too service request-focused, but the truth is we have a lot of bottlenecks still. We made it easy to enter requests now. Before, some people couldn’t find the service request form because it was several links into the website. So you’re naturally going to have fewer pothole requests, but it doesn’t change the number of potholes you have, there are just fewer people reporting them so maybe your crews feel like they can keep up.

Now, we’ve moved the bottleneck to fulfillment. So you have to go through the circle and keep moving that bottleneck further down until its eliminated and then you have to do it again.

We also need to gather data on where those service gaps are so you can properly budget and fund and staff crews. We should be able to do overlays and say ‘why are we sending trucks over here when they’re not needed?’

That sounds like data-driven government?

Magos: Yes, we want dollars to be allocated based on what we learn from data and we’re just not there yet. We want crews to be updating requests from the field using Wi-Fi or on their cells. Right now they’re sending it back to a clerk, so maybe something is done on one day and it’s not entered until the next day and that’s not very good data.

Baños: We also want to make it easier for contractors. If a company has a contract with Department A now, they’re required to provide all kinds of documentation for compliance and the same company can go to a different department and have to provide that same documentation again and that creates a lot of work and costs a lot of money for vendors.

I’d love to see the city improve the entire contracting process to make it easier for vendors. I’d like to centralize all the documentation, so they could go to one place and make sure everything’s up to date. We should serve the city as one city and not as different agencies. That’s one vision for the CRM project.

Magos: People's expectation is ‘you’re the city, do something’ and our answer can’t be ‘but wait, that’s 50 percent housing and 50 percent planning, don’t you know that.’ They don’t care. So we're trying to use technology to abstract our own bureaucracy and at least soften it for people.

(Image via Andrey Bayda/