Annoyed citizens, unite! PublicStuff helps your city help you

If only PublicStuff worked with the federal government, Americans might feel a little less angry about our current system. The New York startup connects residents to governments so requests are heard and answered in a timely fashion. Sadly, John Boehner would never see your PublicStuff request—otherwise, we could surely crowdsource solutions to this whole government shutdown and fiscal cliff crisis.

So the federal government isn’t so great at listening to the people, but city officials kind of have to be more responsive. They campaign on fixing the small-scale complaints we all have about our neighborhoods—loud music, potholes, poor street lighting. If you ever wished there was a better way to tell your city about your woes than the oh-so-inefficient phone tree, well, there is. PublicStuff is a Web forum with apps for iOS and Android that let you report issues you see around town and submit documents and photos of your claim. The files are geotagged and routed to the appropriate city departments, who take a look and respond with updates or explanations.

A smarter city

PublicStuff is a smart 311 system that founder Lily Liu created after building a 311 center for the city of Long Beach, Calif. The software was expensive, and the city didn’t have money to continue working on the project, so Liu decided to branch out on her own in an all-too-common case of a startup solving a problem that the public sector couldn’t.

Find your city and file a complaint on the PublicStuff iOS app.

“There was nothing in the market to serve the needs of government agencies without spending hundreds of millions of dollars on software and call centers,” Liu said.

PublicStuff launched almost three years ago. Residents use the platform to file complaints, but cities can also use the company’s paid tier of products to manage work orders and control the back end of the 311 system. More than 200 cities are active on the site, meaning people who live in those cities are using the system, and more than 50 are paid users. New York, the startup’s home base, signed on as a paid city in September.

“In most of our cities, previous methods we might be replacing are having to navigate a phone tree, going to City Hall, or being the person to stand up at a council meeting and voice your opinion, which requires people to be comfortable speaking to the council and other people in the audience,” Liu said. “Our platform allows people who might not be comfortable doing that to do it online, or on their phone, using some of the same user interface and interactions we’re all used to seeing at this point. It completely changes the experience somebody has with the city being extremely inefficient to something sort of delightful.”

OK, so reporting an irritant probably isn’t exactly delightful. But the fact that 98 percent of issues are “completed”—answered, solved, or otherwise addressed—in the PublicStuff system is a pleasant surprise.

PublicStuff lets you rack your complaint's progress and receive notes from city officials when the issue is resolved.

A social space

The real reason PublicStuff is so, well, public, is to keep duplicate complaints from clogging up the system. If a tree is blocking the road, the city only needs to hear about it once. But cities can decide if a certain type of issue is private by default—say, if you want to report your neighbor for violating local lawn-watering laws.

“You might not want others to know you are reporting somebody on your block,” Liu said. “These kinds of requests can be made private.”

But the real meat of PublicStuff is the public part. It started as a civic platform, but the site encourages people to get to know their neighbors—like NextDoor on a mission. If you file a complaint, it defaults to public so your fellow residents can see the issue and cosign if they agree.

Liu hinted at more social features to come.

“We are about to launch a new resident experience for citizens—really rethinking how to engage citizens even more in the platform,” Liu said. “What does it mean to really connect with your city, beyond service requests? We’ll be building on top of that momentum. A beta version of that launches soon.”

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