PublicStuff Gets Answers for Local Citizens, Even in Chinese

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public stuffLocal publishers have long served their communities by shining a light on municipal issues until the folks at City Hall take notice and fill in those dangerous potholes. But in the past few years we’ve also seen several startups pop up that want to make an even more direct connection between citizens’ complaints and government action.

One of the first of this new breed was SeeClickFix, which empowers citizens to get non-emergency issues in their neighborhood fixed — a richer, more user-friendly version of the 311 service New York City pioneered. SeeClickFix also sells software services to local governments that make it easier for citizens to connect with them.

PublicStuff, Another startup aimed at these kinds of local problems, helps citizens get potholes and other non-emergency issues fixed. And, like SeeClickFix, it is also selling software as a service (SaaS) to local governments that has the double benefit of cutting the cost of municipal transactions with citizen customers and improving outcomes.

But as a true disruptor, PublicStuff is adding new features to the citizen-City Hall relationship. For example, it recently introduced “One Voice,” where a government service center gets instant translation when communicating with a citizen who speaks a foreign language. A “smart-learning” system auto-corrects for words that are initially mis-translated or figures out, through an idiomatic phrase, that the citizen is talking about “graffiti,” a term which doesn’t have a direct translation in Chinese or Vietnamese. “One Voice” translates between 16 foreign languages.

PublicStuff’s CEO Lily Liu, who earlier worked on special projects in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office, says government clients are discovering that citizens, more than anything, just want information, like “What day is my trash day?”

“Seventy percent of calls to local governments that we process are information-based,” Liu says. But even a call for information can tie up a government staffer long enough to cost up to $9, which is why municipalities buy PublicStuff and SeeClickFix’s Saas software, which can  lower the cost of the average call to less than a dollar.

According to Liu, citizens, regardless of what they want, are often grateful just to make a successful connection with their version of City Hall: “The feedback we’re getting from citizens is often, ‘Someone listened to what I had to say. Even if my problem can’t get fixed, someone listened.’”

PublicStuff’s biggest client is the City of Philadelphia, where the site reports it has closed 8,841 requests that originated with citizens. Pending requests, all of which are online, include everything from graffiti to fallen trees to a manhole cave-in, with a satellite photo pinpointing the location of the problem. The status of every request is spelled out as “accepted,” “in progress” or “closed.”

Liu sees a “huge untapped audience” with the Millennial Generation, born between 1980 and 2000. To reach this audience, which spends more time on smartphones than computers, PublicStuff is seeking a grant from the Knight Foundation News Challenge to develop “gamification” features for its mobile platform. Borrowing incentives from earlier community space disruptors like Groupon and Foursquare, PublicStuff would introduce a “points-and-badges” system to encourage users to prod their friends to get engaged with the site.

PublicStuff has more than 200 client local governments, but it will process requests from citizens in neighborhoods or communities that aren’t clients, send those requests to the right government departments and then report back to citizens with the results.

PublicStuff, though, isn’t equipped yet to handle the myriad K-12 education-related requests, which keep school districts busy year round.

SeeClickFix offers its features in widget form to partnering community news sites, but PublicStuff does not, in deference, says Liu, to its client local governments. “They may not want all that information floating out there,” she said.

Launched in the fall of 2010, Public Stuff has raised $6.5 million in two rounds of financing. Its clients, besides Philadelphia, include medium-sized cities like Oceanside, Calif., and smaller ones like North Miami Beach, Fla.

Asked if PublicStuff had yet achieved profitability, Liu said: “We are doing well!”

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.