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I Can't Stop Looking at Photos of Poop and Garbage on Government 311 Apps

Behold, the government-sponsored Instagram for extremely gross stuff.

All screen grabs via the author

For better or worse, there are virtually no photos of human shit on Instagram. Or at least they're very hard to find. Try to search for them. Under #poop (over 680,000 posts) it's mostly photos of emoji and selfies. Similarly, #diarrhea (over 35,000 posts) is mostly memes, while #turds (roughly 20,000 posts), #crap (400,000+ posts!) and #buttchocolate (a disappointing 50-ish posts) are all mixed, feces-free bags.

But what if there were an app specifically designed to share poop photos? And also photos of garbage, dead animals, and bloody hypodermic needles? And what if it was made by the government?

Behold, the revolting world of 311 apps.

The apps, now offered by most major cities in the US, provide an alternative to calling 311. Users can anonymously request non-emergency city services—things like street light repair, tree maintenance, potholes, and sidewalk cleaning—all without having to look up from their phones. In addition to the standard details, users are encouraged to provide a photo. The best part is that it lets users view everyone else's complaints.

A search for "311" in the app store reveals dozens of apps, all with cheesy logos that resemble the title card of an early '80s public access show. Download one—say, San Francisco, Baltimore, or Philly—open it, tap the "recent requests" button, and click the "sort by photo" icon. A photo feed appears, except instead of photos of eggs Benedict with hashtags like #icouldgetusedtothis, it's bags of garbage and piles of human turds.

(These apps are not to be confused with the iOS app offered by the reggae-rock band 311, which according to a post in the band's forum regarding its sudden disappearance in ~2013, allowed fans to "track Nick & P-nuts tweets" and "crashed and never worked.")

That the government has effectively offered an Instagram full of only terrible, gross stuff is purely unintentional. 311 apps were designed as a more efficient way for cities to handle 311 service requests. The app first appeared in Boston in 2009, and was designed by the company Connected Bits. Since then, they've built over two dozen of them.

Connected Bits works with cities to build the apps over the Open311 infrastructure that they also helped implement. A portion of workers at 311 call centers in each city are then diverted towards responding to app requests. According to San Francisco's 311 Customer Service Center's Deputy Director Andy Maimoni, the apps have been downloaded 24,178 times, and 195,863 requests have been submitted.

It seems that, much like ordering food or calling a cab, people prefer reporting issues on the apps, rather than over the phone. According to Connected Bits co-founder Dave Mitchell, "Within a year or so, 30 percent or more requests came through mobile alone."

Photos are a crucial feature of the apps. "Providing the photo and position via mobile instead of a phone call may aid departments in identifying the problem and assigning the correct resources," Maimoni told me. "For example, the sign repair team can see the damage to the sign and ensure they have the correct materials on hand."

The ability to view other's complaints turns the apps into bizarre local social networks. Each city's grid functions like a photographic census of the irritations of its citizens—or at least, certain plugged-in, cranky citizens.

The common themes in each city's grid vary. For example, in Baltimore I saw a lot of abandoned cars.

In Philly, piles of garbage.

And in San Francisco, a whole bunch of shit.

Browsing through the grids is surprisingly entertaining. This isn't to say that looking at excrement and dead animals itself is fun, but the photos of them reveal Dickensian tales of civic frustration.

They offer peeks at neighborhood drama, like this photo someone took of their neighbor hanging a dead deer in their backyard, "in plain sight of children."

There are contemplative moments regarding the tenuous nature of "trash."

And moments of existential despair.

Aesthetically, the photos are amateurish, with crappy lighting and focus. There are no filters to give the poo a nostalgic yellow glow. But what they lack in technical ability they make up for in expressiveness. They are taken in moments of quiet rage. The shit pics offer a venting opportunity for those with little power in a city jammed up by bureaucracy, decaying and corrupt like a city in the beginning of a comic book for adults.

The apps show a grim version of the city that is often invisible, at odds with the rosy mirages typically depicted on social media. Scrolling through 311 photos feels like anti-tourism.

Not to be a huge buzzkill, but it would be irresponsible not to mention some of the apps' darker aspects: That 311 requests (both via app and telephone) are potentially an indication of gentrification. And that many of the problems photographed indicate severe desperation due to a shameful lack of services. And that the ability to report "homeless concerns" makes criminalizing homelessness more efficient. The apps also depict a distressing view of our collective intolerance to witnessing the many indignities caused by our inability to help those in need.

If the photos offer vivid depictions of a hidden city, their captions offer beautifully concise, poetic commentary. Imagine an alternate history, in which Hemingway is a virulent NIMBY:

311 Requests: The Collected Poems

Boxes, human feces, 2nd request.
— #5249591

Someone left bags of trash on sidewalk,
Looks like lots of glass.

— #5241798

Poop bandit returns.
— #5266535

Homeless woman has been screaming and shouting,
at someone named "Marvin" for at least an hour.

— #5266477

Feces, hypodermics, clothing, cardboard, condoms, etc.
— #5263859

I would very much like to spend a chilly fall Sunday curled up with a good book of 311 poetry.

If any app consists of shit and garbage pics, it's interesting to think about what moderation, if any, is required. What images are forbidden when the worst images are permitted? Is it even possible to troll such a system? According to SF 311's Andy Maimoni, they get few, if any, false complaints. Curious, I submitted a photo reporting halloween decorations.

A few hours later, they were promptly closed and labeled "invalid" and removed from the grid. I suppose I'll just have to post them on Instagram.

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