Philly’s 311 app is on the fritz, and the city is redirecting users to an unsecured website
Philly 311′s app has been on the fritz for some users for at least a month. City officials confirmed two problems so far.
Christopher Sherman is a self-described “superuser” of the Philly 311 app. Graffiti removal, missed trash pickup, abandoned cars — the Fishtown resident says he’s reported 408 incidents to City Hall to date.
“It’s a wonderful app when it works,” said Sherman, 40, who works in IT. “I don’t have to know the right department to call or be friends with my councilperson because the streetlight’s out.”
Now a decade old, Philly 311 is a powerful tool for residents to request basic city services. But when Sherman opens the app on his Android phone now, he gets an unfortunate message: “Whoops, something went wrong.”
The source of that “whoops?”
Philly 311′s app has been on the fritz for some users for at least a month. City officials confirmed two problems so far: The Facebook login function for users has been broken since December and, as of this week, an unknown number of Android users like Sherman now have no access to the mobile app at all.
“Unfortunately, we cannot quantify how many Android users have been affected,” said city spokesperson Irene Contreras-Reyes.
And while it’s unclear how many of the app’s users were impacted, The Inquirer has heard numerous complaints from residents who say they’ve been having problems logging into the app since last month and could not find easy explanations.
Responding to The Inquirer’s questions, officials also inadvertently revealed another cyber security issue: The online 311 portal sits on an unsecured website.
With problems piling up on the mobile app, officials have been referring frustrated users to the city’s online 311 site to file their service requests. But the link takes people to a webpage that browsers identify as unsecure, meaning user data could be vulnerable to hackers.
Officials on Friday could not explain why or for how long the government-run site had been using an unsecure connection, but a “multidisciplinary team” was assigned to investigate the issue after The Inquirer asked questions.
“We’ll get answers to this question by next week since this involves multiple areas, not only 311,” Contreras-Reyes said.
According to 311 data, residents lodged at least 50,000 complaints per month since March of last year as quality-of-life issues continue to besiege residents across the city. Trash pickup delays have been relentless through the pandemic. Last fall, a lapsed contract caused complaints about city streetlight outages to skyrocket.
An unsecured website generally means it may not be encrypted, leaving it far more vulnerable to hackers. Generally speaking, cybersecurity experts caution people not to use unsecured sites — and definitely don’t enter any personal information while you’re browsing on one. (Note: if you enter the 311 portal from a phila.gov domain, Google Chrome will list the connection as secure.)
But city officials have nonetheless urged app-struggling residents to use the unsecured website and log in with email addresses and passwords. Alternatively, users may submit anonymous requests, which cannot be easily tracked for progress updates. The 311 call center also remains fully staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., officials said.
Officials did not make a public announcement about the Facebook login issue, but rather responded to some individual comments and referred users to alternative ways to file complaints, like dialing the 311 call center or using the unsecured web portal. Earlier this week, after The Inquirer asked questions, officials also included a notice on the website advising users about problems with the mobile app and the Facebook login feature.
City officials said they asked the app vendor, Accela, to remove the sign-in option with Facebook in December, but the vendor said the city has to “wait until the next release to remove the Facebook login option.” However, the issue may be resolved by then, officials said.
Notably, many 311 users report the app works just fine, and the agency continued to receive tens of thousands of calls in the last month.
For Android users experiencing problems with 311, it’s not clear how long it might take to fix. Some users told The Inquirer that uninstalling and reinstalling the app appeared to fix the problem.
For others, not so much.