City communications, straight to your cell phone: Effective SMS in Detroit

Today, text messages are as ubiquitous as cell phones. They don’t require a potentially expensive data plan, and many people use them more often than voice calls. Text messages can serve as a great way for municipal governments to reach their residents.

This year at Code for America Summit, I sat in on a session hosted by Ben Parks of Twilio and Beth Niblock , the CIO of the City of Detroit. Twilio, a popular text and photo messaging API, also has an impact initiative: , a program where non-profits and social enterprises can access to Twilio services at a reduced rate and apply for grants.

Beth Niblock, Detroit CIO.
Image from Twitter profile.

When Beth Niblock took on the role of CIO for Detroit in 2014, the city was in turmoil and its residents were hurting. Detroit had just gone through the largest municipal bankruptcy in the country. Streetlights throughout the city weren’t working. Residents would need to physically come to City Hall to do business with the city. One-third of residents were dependent on public transit. Survey data showed that between 40% and 60% of residents didn’t have access to broadband internet, and 45% of residents didn’t have data plans on their cell phones. There were 40,000 vacant and abandoned homes scattered throughout the city.

Detroit’s blight problems have become a national story, with photo essays of dilapidated properties going viral. But for Detroit residents, the impact is felt daily. When a building is demolished, the entire neighborhood must contend with the noise and debris. And so Beth’s team built an SMS alert service for upcoming demolitions. Residents and business owners can text their address, and whenever a demolition is scheduled to occur nearby, the service will alert them. The service is built on top of open data: the address, parcel ID, contractor name, and demolition date are all published daily . During the session, Beth stressed the importance of open data. Without it, these SMS-based projects would be much harder to implement. When the Detroit Land Bank Authority wanted an SMS service to share information about properties for sale , that too was relatively simple to set up.

Beth’s team at the Office of Innovation & Emerging Technology (IET) is modest: there’s a GIS analyst, a back-end web developer, a front-end web developer, and an Internet of Things developer. But a small team can have a large impact by smartly using open data, open source software libraries, and popular APIs like Twilio.

Screenshot of

SMS services in Detroit also improve daily quality of life. In 2010, Code for America fellows in the city developed TextMyBus , which is still operational today. Residents can also subscribe to trash pickup reminders . During the harsh winter months, the city provides warming centers spread throughout Detroit. In just a few hours at the beginning of this past winter, the IET team was able to create a multi-lingual voice and SMS hotline that announced warming center locations.

To get new ideas for SMS services, Beth has a strong relationship with the main switchboard operator at the Mayor’s office. Some potential upcoming SMS services include requesting dead animal pickup and reporting the cleanliness of city buses.

Each service on its own is a small win. Stepping back, a larger picture emerges of a city working toward delivery-driven government. This is how trust is re-established between municipalities and their residents: slowly but surely, and through a cell phone.