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The Role of 311 and Social Media During Disasters

By Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal

As Sandy pounded down on the East Coast last year, New York City and other major urban areas did their best to stay ahead of the storm and tackle the many emergency situations arising, from fallen trees to individuals trapped in their homes. But as with any major disaster, there were plenty of unforeseen problems, and plenty of room for improvement. Particularly, cities were having problems keeping the lines of communication open so the most endangered citizens could get the help they need from a force of first responders pushed to the limits of its capacity.

At the height of the storm, NYC’s 911 switchboard was receiving 20,000 calls an hour, many of which were not emergencies. The call volume led to slow response times and a lack of prioritization; there was no way to distinguish calls for downed tree branches from people in life-threatening situations. An important first step for future preparation is better educating citizens about what qualifies as a 911 call and what can be relegated to a non-emergency 311 call, an effort the city is undertaking now. NYC has been running a well-established 311 program for years now to provide a non-emergency line of communication to get faster responses from government agencies about smaller issues. However, at this moment of crisis, many were falling back on the 911 switchboard, considering it a faster and more direct way to get their problems resolved. In these efforts to encourage citizens to utilize 311 services even in the turmoil of a disaster, can we actually incentivize 311 as a more effective way to get certain kinds of problems resolved, and open up additional channels like texting and tweeting as functional reporting mechanisms?

Many cities have started to analyze their 311 calls as a terrific source of data, building a more complete picture of how problems are spread across the urban fabric and how the city might tackle them more efficiently. This analysis is more oriented towards long-term responses. The accumulation of the slow flow of information generated by 311 calls shows patterns emerging that might otherwise remain undetected. So, how can we use data analysis to leverage 311 calls at a time of disaster to determine what kind of patterns and crises are emerging and direct first responders? As part of a public information campaign to inform citizens of their options for contacting the government during times of disaster, improving the analysis of 311 calls and messages coming in could serve double duty by making it a more attractive option for citizens reporting non-emergency situations, shifting some of the demand off of 911 lines.

In these efforts to encourage citizens to utilize 311 services even in the turmoil of a disaster, can we actually incentivize 311 as a more effective way to get certain kinds of problems resolved, and open up additional channels like texting and tweeting as functional reporting mechanisms?

A private-sector solution now being implemented can help serve as a model for this public-sector application. IBM recently started working with Security First Insurance, a Florida private insurance company, to preemptively react to the volume of customer correspondence during natural disasters. When a hurricane hits Florida, the number of claims to insurance companies increases exponentially. For a company, just as for government agencies, it often becomes difficult during a storm to discern relative levels of damage and urgency and to prioritize resources and claims as the calls, emails, and claims start flooding in. With the help of IBM, this company is using text and data analytics to perform a first pass of every form of communication a customer might use to get in touch with the company – email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. – both relieving phone lines and enabling a faster and more efficient claims process to help those affected by a hurricane or other disaster.

Some cities like NYC already allow citizens to text 311 to get answers to their questions and send in complaints. What if this service was shifted to function primarily as a reporting mechanism, especially at times of disaster when city services and 911 and 311 phone lines are becoming overwhelmed? Even if an immediate answer isn’t guaranteed, text and data analytics of 311 texts, calls, and social media posts could allow these services to give first responders a better picture of where to focus their efforts. Citizens should be informed that any communication they send to the government would be registered in this way, bringing attention to their particular problems as well as those of their neighbors, while enhancing the entire city’s response capacity. Disaster response could become a group effort as well as more targeted, responsive, and preemptive, and 911 lines could be kept open for incoming calls that qualify as true emergencies. Data from both 911 and 311 systems could even be synthesized to provide additional insights – completing the picture using both sources as well as possibly providing substance for a behavioral analysis of how and why citizens route their interaction with the government through 911, 311, or other means.

Through additional tools and technologies, cities could refine their disaster response and information-collecting mechanisms by improving the way citizens funnel their communications through 911 and 311 lines. While it has a different primary purpose, 311 needs to be considered no ‘lesser’ of a means of communication, and through data accumulation and analytics could serve as a better means to resolve certain kinds of issues during disasters. Governments need to consider not just how to push citizens to voluntarily route their needs through the 311 line, but also how to pull them to it with a different kind of service rather than simply a watered-down 911 line.

About the Author

Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal

Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal is a joint MPP/MUP candidate at the Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Design at Harvard.

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