Sometimes a new technology has the power to transform an entire sector. This is what co-founders Lily Liu and Vincent Polidoro are working to do with their company, PublicStuff. Their powerful product uses internet and mobile phone technology to facilitate local and state government’s ability to respond efficiently to citizen issues and concerns ranging from potholes to wild animals. By automating both reporting and response functions, they have created a viable alternative to the traditional 311 non-emergency complaint hotline that is both cost saving and efficient, and best of all, it’s being greeted enthusiastically by government offices.
I recently spoke to the company’s CEO, Lily Liu. She explained, “PublicStuff is a suite of online and mobile phone based tools that allows cities to engage their residents.” Individuals may submit service requests through the web and smartphone apps, but also via text and toll free dial-in numbers. Cities can manage through a back end workflow analytics software tool, or use their own, as well. The system facilitates a two-way communication process, allowing for responses and feedback between citizens and government workers.
According to Liu, although the 311 system has traditionally been implemented in larger cities, it requires a call center, live agents to run the phones, and the build up of a knowledge base by those agents – all of which require considerable effort and resources. This is simply not practical for small and medium sized governments who still have the same need to engage with their residents. For them, self service tools make a lot of sense.
But what led her to the idea? With undergraduate and masters training in both business and public policy as well as significant tech coursework, she had always been interested in using technical tools and applying the rules of business in order to make government agencies work better. She met Pomidoro during their undergraduate years together in the highly interdisciplinary environment of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, where he was pursuing a computer science degree. After several years in the workforce including consulting with local governments in New York and California, it was only natural for Liu to reach back to her old friend to help implement the vision that would become PublicStuff.
With seed funding obtained through a variety of programs, groups and investors, they were able to build out their initial pilot phase and develop a group of users. Although it was a challenge trying to prove out initial use cases and amass client success stories, their focus on achievable goals enabled them to slowly build new customer relationships. Making sure their product was in tune with user needs as they continued to pitch to government agencies was key.
Their focus and persistence has paid off. Armed with growing field experience, they’ve been able to continually adapt and innovate their product, presenting their user base with things they had never before imagined. With a flexible, modular format, clients can implement selected pieces based on their particular need or budget. The response has been surprisingly positive. City staff have received a breath of fresh air in the form of tools to help them evolve and change to better meet the needs of their constituents, and in so doing, potentially make their jobs more pleasant and fulfilling.
With the system currently in place in about 130 cities across the nation, the company is well on its way! Just this past week, it was announced that the city of Philadelphia has decided to implement PublicStuff’s system, making it the first big city to use their product. City officials are looking forward to how it will help breach Philadelphia’s digital divide and help bring people closer to their government. Liu also describes another product feature with significant transformative potential – PublicStuff’s “crowd-sourcing and social-media components that will allow other residents to vote on previously submitted requests and network with other users.”
I asked Lily if she had any advice for individuals creating new companies, particularly those interested in working with government agencies. “Do your research first… the value is in understanding if your product fits a need.” She added, “Don’t be afraid to talk to people in the field… to get a sense of how your potential users or clients will be using your product and how they feel about that… and never stop that process, even after you’ve started your business or idea.”
Although there’s a persistent stereotype about the municipal worker who is just marking time until his pension, the reality is that people generally like to feel a sense of accomplishment. Imagine a system that would allow you to do your job well, to solve problems, and receive positive feedback from customers on a consistent basis. This is the future that the founders of PublicStuff envision for our government workers. And with a strong vision to transform the way citizens communicate with local governments as well as each other about municipal matters, they have also created a powerful tool for social change.
Listen to the full interview:
Deborah Oster Pannell, a Smith College graduate, is a writer who specializes in the arts, media, holistic health, advocacy and events. As Director of Communications for the tech start-up eventwist, she also manages their blog. Some of her favorite work is featured on modernlifeblogs.com, lizkingevents.com, and her own blog,She Says Yes. Currently she is launching Project Mavens, a literary, editorial design collective, with partner & writer Lillian Ann Slugocki. On Twitter @projectmaven.