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Local governments in Utah pioneering interest in mobile phone apps

Published: Sunday, Sept. 25 2011 11:03 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Municipal governments interacting with city residents are increasingly saying, "We have an app for that."

Salt Lake City recently launched Salt Lake 311, an iPhone and iPad application that lets residents submit requests for weed abatement, report inoperable vehicles and illegally posted signs or construction projects under way without a permit.

The city has been working for the past six months with software developer Accella to create the mobile phone app, which is an extension of the city database that tracks building permits and plots data with a mapping program. Residents can download the app free of charge, register and then report problems, complete with a picture taken with the mobile phone. The phone's GPS capabilities note the exact location of the phone when the complaint or request was submitted.

"They're the types of cases we enforce already," said Craig Spangenberger, the city's civil enforcement manager. "It's just a different mechanism so we can act on them quicker."

The introduction has gone smoothly.

"It's been a nice, steady, soft start," said Craig Weinheimer, the city's legal investigator for civil enforcement. Salt Lake 311 formally launched Aug. 25. "We were afraid we might get 100 or 200 people using it on the first day, but it wasn't like that," he said.

The city hasn't seen any abuse of the app, and users have given the city helpful comments about improving it, Weinheimer said. The city knows the identity of the person submitting each claim, though only a court order would give a person who is the subject of a complaint access to information about who reported them to the city.

Once Salt Lake 311 has been through its paces, future development could expand the kinds of services residents can pursue, and future releases of the app would include Android phones.

"Our only concerns are don't use it while you're driving, of course, and don't trespass to get that great picture of the problem. I don't really suspect any of that to happen," Weinheimer said.

University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell said he likes the concept, and added that such mobile apps don't appear to be prone to misuse. Someone could steal a phone and use it to make a complaint — in effect stealing the identity of the phone's owner. "But they could be writing a letter or making a phone call in someone else's name," he said. "The problem of misusing tip lines has existed for a long time."

"The upside is the rapid way information is presented in a way it can be corroborated," Cassell said.

Ogden's iOgden App, launched about one year ago, also lets residents report problems with street lights and potholes and graffiti. It includes an events calendar and sponsored content, like restaurants and shopping deals.

Users can make anonymous complaints, but the city has not seen abuses, said Chief Administrative Officer Mark Johnson. "We were worried about that a little bit, but it hasn't been the case." Users can include their contact information with a complaint if they want the city to follow up with them.

Johnson was among the presenters at the Utah League of Cities and Town's midyear convention in Salt Lake City in April. Cities' digital resources will also be a focus at the annual convention next week.

Nationally, software developers also have their eye on the public school and university communities, where registration, access to grades and other activities are the focus of mobile phone app development. Weber State University has turned students loose on the development for apps the university would use.

Not all smartphone uses involving public entities require users to download special programs on their phone. The Morgan School District has a new system to allow parents to track their children's transportation on district school buses free at a website or by receiving text message alerts on their phone by subscription.

Email: sfidel@desnews.com. Twitter: SteveFidel

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