Listen Up: PublicStuff Makes It Easy For Cities And Residents To “Talk”

Taking cities’ 311 hotlines to version 2.0 got PublicStuff off the ground. Now the company’s launching a set of new tools to make it even easier for citizens to talk to local government and make their communities better.

Listen Up: PublicStuff Makes It Easy For Cities And Residents To “Talk”

Graffiti, potholes, gushing fire hydrants, even that weird gassy smell wafting from the sewer just got easier to report, thanks to a host of new tools from PublicStuff.


If you don’t know them yet, the three-year old New York City-based PublicStuff is a digital communications system for residents and local governments that’s designed to facilitate reports like those, as well as provide access to city services. Think of it as 311 version 2.0.

So far, over 200 cities are using the platform, but residents of any municipality can download the app for free and plug in their request, which PublicStuff will route to the appropriate city agency. CEO Lily Liu tells Fast Company she hopes the new features take PublicStuff beyond resolving inquiries about trash pickup or alternate side of the street parking and into motivating residents to get more involved in improving their communities.

Lily Liu

Along the path to achieving its community goals, PublicStuff has stumbled upon a novel way to bridge communication between speakers of different languages–through its One Voice instant translation technology. “As a person who came from a household where more than one language was spoken, if your city makes you try to navigate a phone menu or website in English, you won’t communicate as much,” Liu says. The service offers real-time translation for 16 languages, which Liu says took about six months to develop and refine. For instance, there’s no word for graffiti in Vietnamese, but users can input the closest colloquial term and still get the right result.

Push notifications give city officials a way to make residents aware of events, emergency alerts, or updates on the status of their service requests. And speaking of requests, cities can comb Twitter to locate custom search terms and those tweets can be pulled in and directed through the PublicStuff platform.

Though concerned citizens have reported (and resolved) a range of issues including the neighbor’s dog who farts and what to do about too many crossfit runners, Liu’s most excited by the potential of PublicStuff’s Community Catalyst Program. Inspired by the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality that’s motivated residents to compete for the lowest energy usage, Liu says the program offers citizens a chance to earn bragging rights by sharing the stories behind their service requests and having them broadcast across PublicStuff’s social media channels, newsletter, and website.

For all its usefulness, PublicStuff has attracted two rounds of funding for a total of $6.5 million and signed up cities such as Philadelphia and Oceanside, California.


What’s surprising (especially given the fact that Liu once worked for Mayor Bloomberg) is that New York City doesn’t subscribe and big metro areas like Los Angeles are either using a competitor’s platform or like Chicago, developed one themselves. Houston, for example, just released its own 311 smartphone app which isn’t currently offered in Spanish, even though 43 percent of the city’s population is Hispanic.

Part of the problem, says Liu, is that each city government has its own set of requirements and a massive volume of information and requests at any given time–even though state and local agencies are projected to spend $61.5 billion per year on information technology by 2015. Factor in a multi-layered approval process and you need technology just to streamline the bureaucracy. (Liu laughs when we suggest she develop an app to deal with that.)

It’s not for lack of savings. Liu reports that the average cost for a city staff member to record a service request from a walk-in is $9 and $5.30 from the phone. Automating it costs only $0.65. Cities using PublicStuff have saved between $16,000 to $320,000 annually. During Hurricane Sandy, Philadelphia saved $6,600 and 120 hours in three days.

Rather than worry about the cities that don’t subscribe, Liu prefers to keep a laser focus on refining PublicStuff’s offerings. Though not profitable yet, she’s confident that the company’s revenue model is on track to put them in the black later this year. “We want to focus on users and local businesses and make sure they have the tools to interact with government and each other.”

[Image: Flickr user Mr. Nixter]

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.