By Mary Velan
The city of San Francisco was facing a significant graffiti problem which was costing taxpayers an estimated $19.4 million annually to remove the markings and track down offenders. This money being spent on graffiti could easily have been allocated to fund nearly 100 affordable housing units, put 30 new hybrid buses on the streets or pay for the city’s Department of Public Works’ street maintenance budget for four years. Therefore the city put plans in motion to curb the graffiti problem and reclaim some of this lost money.
The first step was to put new legislation into effect last year that aimed to strengthen graffiti regulations and codify new procedures to put a stop to the graffiti problem. The legislation was also designed to transfer the cost of graffiti abatement to the offender whenever possible, rather than placing the burden on taxpayers or property owners.
To support this legislative move, San Francisco leveraged its Verint Engagement Management 311 CRM platform via a mobile application allowing residents, police and city employees to submit photos of graffiti in the community directly into the system. The 311 customer representatives are then able to open graffiti abatement service requests from each photo submitted to pinpoint exact locations of the markings. From there, the appropriate departments – typically the San Francisco Department of Public Works or the Police Department – will receive notification of the incident and proceed to:
- Deploy resources for cleanup
- Collaborate to track down offenders
- Monitor task completion and issue resolution notifications
So how did San Francisco turn its 311 system into a crime-fighting tool? Through mobile optimization.
In an interview with EfficientGov, Andy Maimoni, Deputy Director of the San Francisco 311 Customer Service Center, and Carson Chin, Information Services Project Manager for the San Francisco 311 Customer Service Center, explained how the city was able to evolve its 311 system to more effectively meet its needs.
The city first adopted its 311 CRM platform in 2007 and continually added new services and capabilities – such as a self-service portal – over the following years. By 2010, San Francisco decided to launch a mobile platform for the CRM system to increase accessibility and convenience for both city departments and local residents. Following up to the mobile platform was the 2013 launch of the mobile compatible app that provided users with a better experience and encouraged the public to interact with the local government through preferred channels – specifically mobile, Maimoni explained.
By 2014, Carson Chin had started working on a solution that would allow the Public Works Department and Police Department to collect pictures of graffiti, review the images and organize them to improve graffiti abatement.
“Prior to doing this, all we had was a public safety mobile app with all service requests in a single place,” Chin told EfficientGov. “There was a need to document the graffiti in order to consolidate the information for the SFPD to analyze. Before the new app was created, information was everywhere, in different systems, with no single point to look at.”
The city was constantly searching through systems to find whatever graffiti images they could find to, always unsure if every graffiti image had been located and reviewed. This was not only time-consuming but also expensive. The goal of refining the 311 mobile app was to allow departments to map graffiti incidents throughout the city and better identify hotspots of activity. When the data is aggregated effectively and mapped out, the San Francisco Police Department can focus its efforts around the fine-tuned data and track down offenders, Chin explained.
San Francisco was able to add a feature to its existing mobile app that allows the 311 system to identify specific city devices as those owned by employees. When an employees logs into the app they are presented with an additional service type and they are able to upload the image, share the dimensions of the graffiti, direct a specific removal type and input the exact location. This upload can then be used to help the city estimate the cost of graffiti cleanup based on historical projects. All this information is then automatically generated into a single report for the Police Department to review, Maimoni told EfficientGov.
“The SFPD will review each photo and identify the monicker, or the signature of the vandal,” Maimoni explained. “Because offenders typically use the same signature throughout the city on all their projects, the data from the app can be used in the courts when pursuing civil charges.”
While graffiti may seem like a trivial crime, the persistent markings have been extremely expensive for the city. One famous tagger known as Cryst has created enough graffiti throughout San Francisco to cost the city more than $50,000 in property damage and cleanup. The mobile app allows the city to capture key information via automated forms and tie the data into a comprehensive intelligence suite not that only triggers followup procedures but aggregates and archives the information for long-term tracking trend monitoring, Maimoni explained.
Like with any new technology roll out, San Francisco encountered a few bumps in the road with the new mobile app. The city had to get all participating departments coordinated and on the same page with the cost model to ensure consistency. Prior to the app, there were separate departments with their own material costs and salary rates. The city asked all departments to come up with formulas based on square footage so the app could include cost averages per square foot for each graffiti removal project, Maimoni explained.
“The challenge was to make it pass the common sense test,” Maimoni told EfficientGov. “Some departments would have free labor – such as police working off tickets – so the cost per square footage was much lower. We had to account for these variations between departments when bringing teams together to pull in a single direction. We had to get everyone to agree on one cost matrix.”
While the service is just a year old, the city has already seen some measurable outcomes from the enhanced mobile app. The system has encouraged more back-end users to the mobile platform to submit data and generate service requests. Pictures can be loaded when graffiti is found, as well as after the removal is complete so users can see actual results for each project. This enables everyone to see what is happening.
“I think it definitely adds a proof of concept,” Chin told EfficientGov. “This is a flexible platform where you can design something from scratch and say I will address this problem with a creative solution. This shows the dynamic functionality of the platform itself.”
According to Chin, all the tools are available to create a customized solution for a city’s needs.
“Once you see a city has done it right, you can use your imagination and make it work for your community,” Chin said. “You can save your city so much money with a very small investment of time.”