The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Nov 26, 2012

Exploring a sustainable business model with PublicStuff

Posted by Elizabeth R. Miller

Discover PublicStuff for Your City from PublicStuff on Vimeo.

In the emerging field of tech for engagement, there’s a hunger and need to explore sustainable business models. Organizations and startups alike are looking for ways to derive revenue from sources other than their users.

PublicStuff is one startup exploring the possibilities. Funded by the Knight Enterprise Fund, its app allows people to make real-time requests to their local governments around public service issues like graffiti or broken fire hydrants. Its clients include governments that pay for its software to manage those requests.

Philadelphia implemented PublicStuff to build and launch Philly311, an app that ended up being a resource to the city during Hurricane Sandy. It was the 33rd most app downloaded in the iTunes store on Oct. 29, the day the hurricane hit. In the week that followed, over 3,000 service requests were submitted and over 3,000 comments exchanged between citizens and city staff to keep people informed as to the progress of damage reports.

Knight recently talked with Lily Liu, founder and CEO of PublicStuff, to learn more about its business model, how cities are adopting its software and trends in how local residents are engaging with their governments.

How have you seen the app being used for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts?

L.L.: We've seen an enormous response in communities that have been impacted, Philadelphia in particular. To prepare for the storm, they directed residents to download the app to report damage and debris and to also access relevant Hurricane FAQ sections so they could stay updated and informed 24/7. Feedback we got from Philly311 area residents has been outstanding. It's evident that the community overall benefited from this type of engagement and continuous access to city services and news during a really critical time.

A lot of people are interested in successful business models. What were some of the barriers you faced in getting governments to pay for your software?

L.L.: 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. To automate this process it's just $0.65, which is a wealth of savings. Not to mention the time that staff members save from manually having to record a request only to realize much later that the request had already been reported via another channel and staff member. Our system streamlines the process. It's actually much more cost effective for cities to invest in the software to help them manage the workflow. We've seen savings anywhere from $16,000 to $320,000 annually.


Read more about sustainable business models in Knight's Digital Citizenship report

How was PublicStuff able to break down those barriers?

L.L.: The savings really speak for themselves. Once cities are able to realize the cost savings in other cities, they realize that the minimal upfront investment pays off for them in as little as six months. As a result, they're able to do more with less, become more efficient and show their effectiveness more easily to the community and residents.

Have cities faced different challenges in adopting the software?

L.L.: Different cities have different departments that use the system more heavily than others. For example, a city that adopted the system to engage more with residents may have more community-driven projects that they're trying to support through the app and therefore are looking for best practices and tips regarding community engagement through commenting, custom widgets and more.  A city that adopted it to primarily get a handle on vandalism for example, may have their police department use the system to map out graffiti and document the damage. We have a team to support each city and walk each department and staff member through the process.

Are you noticing any big trends in ways residents are engaging with their governments that affect the way PublicStuff operates?

L.L.: We're seeing a surge in community groups and activists such as biking coalitions, environmental supporters and more that want to engage more with local governments. We are here to serve their needs, so we’re working with these groups to see what's important to them. For example, we're looking to create custom groups of interest so people can follow what's important to them. Biking coalitions may ask for biking-related service request types and may also be interested in biking trail widgets. Environmentalists may be looking for request types that incorporate energy savings, water conservation reports and more.

By Elizabeth R. Miller, communications associate at Knight Foundation

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