If you live in the US or Canada you probably know that you can dial 911 for emergency services and 411 for directory assistance. However, did you know that many communities in these two countries offer 311 service as well?

The Open311 project promises to bring 311 services into the digital age.

What is 311?

The 311 service, where it's offered, routes people to a call center which in turn connects them with the appropriate non-emergency municipal service. For example, if you see an armed person entering a bank, you would call 911 as that's an emergency, but if you saw a big pothole in front of the bank you would call 311 to report it and ask that it be fixed.

These non-emergency calls are often handled by 911 call centers but on a lower priority, so that 911 calls are always answered immediately but 311 callers might need to hold until someone is free to assist them. The city of Chicago won an Innovations in American Government Award for their implementation of 311 and the benefits they gained from it.

Why Open311?

The Open311 project aims to extend existing 311 services. Rather than the many-to-one model of funneling calls to single points, Open311 aims to let people report, track and discuss non-emergency issues through a web API.

Let's take a look at the pothole issue again. With phone-only 311, you call, report the pothole, someone takes the information down and you may never hear about it again. Ten other people might also report the pothole, not knowing it's already been reported or even giving conflicting information.

With Open311, you might take a picture of the pothole with your mobile device and then use an app to attach the photo to a report filed with 311 online. The information is still routed to where it needs to go, but if another member of the public sees the pothole and does a search, they'll find it's already been reported. Maybe they noticed that there's another one forming next to it and that wasn't in the report, so they add that information.

Meanwhile, if someone else calls about the issue, the call center has access to the existing reports and can annotate further. When the pothole isn't repaired for six months, the data is there to bring up at the next town council meeting.

Transparency, accountability and collaboration ... Open311 is an excellent example of the practical semantic web.