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By Stefanie Le • October 25, 2019

These days, more and more cities are turning to modernized 311 systems, a network that provides “one-stop shopping” for city service requests and non-emergency police services to streamline communication between residents and city governments, as a critical channel for communication with residents—and Chicago’s updated 311 rollout last year is a notable example for the system’s transformation. 

After a process of community outreach, beta testing, and continuous iteration, Chicago unveiled its new and improved 311 service for residents in December 18, 2018. Now dubbed CHI 311, the service has evolved from a call center, dating back to its creation in 1999, to a mobile app and mobile-friendly website (311.chicago.gov) that allow residents to find city information more easily, submit city requests by sending in photos or texts, and track those requests through multiple channels. For residents that prefer to call 311, that option remains as well.

The goal of the new CHI 311 is to give access to city services to as many residents as possible, and to do so the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) sought the advice of the target audience. “We are really proud of the new community-facing component because we consulted our residents. Based on their feedback and their vision, we continue to add new features every few weeks,” said Danielle DuMerer, former DoIT Commissioner who oversaw the 311 system development with managing deputy CIO of DoIT Derrick Brownlee, of the continuing community engagement by city staff with residents. (Since interviews were conducted for this article, Carleton Nolan has stepped in as acting DoIT Commissioner and CIO.)

In order to incorporate community input into their mobile 311 design, DoIT employed a multi-pronged approach to reach different types of Chicago residents. The team conducted design workshops, focus groups with residents, and in particular reached out to communities in Chicago that historically had lower usage of 311 services. They asked residents whether or not they were using the current 311 service, what they liked or did not like about it, and if they were not using it, why they weren’t and what might make them use the service. The team then asked residents what their vision of the new system was and used that input for their design. 

“We learned a number of things from folks through that process. We learned that transparency matters—exactly where something is in the process, how many steps, how long it should take,” said DuMerer. “The ability to remain anonymous for certain request types was important to people, especially if they’re calling on an issue that might be related to their rental units, they may fear retaliation. They wanted the ability to comment, so if something wasn’t done to their satisfaction or if they had a great experience. These are some of the main things we heard from people through that process and we were able to work that into the design of the system.” 

Once the early versions of the community portal and mobile app were created, the DoIT team then tested the product with residents who had and had not been involved in the previous engagement stage, allowing for fresh perspectives. In addition to this, the team was deployed on the ground throughout the city at board meetings, summer events, and other city events to spread the word about the new system and continue to collect more feedback. This time they asked residents how they wanted to interact with the city and what communications methods they preferred.

Some of the improvements to the new 311 system include utilizing personalization software, mapping, and human translation services. The personalization software enables residents to sign up for an account on CHI 311, where they can keep track of the requests they’ve submitted to the city as well as monitor where in the process a request is to be completed. By making an account, residents can also opt in to receive information from the city on areas of interest like sustainability or public health. 

The mobile app and website also have a new mapping function with dual purposes. Internally, the city uses Esri mapping software to geocode requests and identify where city services need to be provided. Externally, the platform can now display to residents where requests have been made on a map, allowing them to see duplicate or nearby issues in their neighborhoods. “We have a feature both in the mobile app and on 311.chicago.gov that lets the user explore the requests around them, so if they see a street light that’s out, for example, they can look at the app and see if someone already submitted it,” said DuMerer. “The geolocation of the service request is critical. It helps the crew because they process requests based on geography so they can be more efficient. That is really a lot of the driving force behind a lot of the ways that the services get delivered.“

Furthermore, the new 311 service aims to serve the city’s diverse and multilingual population with human translation services. If residents call 311, they will be connected to someone who speaks their language of preference. As of writing this article, the CHI 311 mobile app and website are in the process of having their written content translated into five targeted languages and developing two-way notification processing to be available in those languages online in the near future, according to Brownlee. 

After the multi-channel accessible 311 system was launched at the end of 2018, the city has seen an increase in 311 city service usage from areas that historically had not submitted service requests said Brownlee. Since its launch, the CHI 311 mobile app has been downloaded 42,000 times on both Google and Apple store applications and 1.7 million city service requests to date have been made via multiple pathways. 

In order to maintain this new technology momentum and increase civic engagement within communities that historically didn’t make use of 311 services, DoIT also provides digital skills training if residents need support in a program called Chicago Digital Learn. DoIT trained all of the city’s librarians across Chicago’s 80 library branches in digital skills to assist residents. This effort is further bolstered by the Cyber Navigators program, which trained teachers who provide one-on-one visual skills training at 60 library branch locations across the city.

“We also created some really simple videos that were put on the digital skills learning platform that the Cyber Navigators use as a blended model to teach our residents digital skills called Chicago Digital Learn, so we have more than one kind of touch point,” said DuMerer. “We also worked with nonprofit organizations to work directly with many of our residents, especially those that may need access to benefits and other resources to make sure that they knew about the new system and could help connect their clients who are residents to the services as well.”

Even with CHI 311’s initial success, Brownlee and current acting CIO Carleton Nolan say they are not done improving the new system and are consistently collecting feedback to make small improvements here and there. “What we want to make sure of is that it wasn’t just a one and done project where we implement it and then just left it there for use. We want to make sure that we’re constantly improving on the system and that whatever it is that we’re putting out there from an improvement standpoint, continues to meet the needs of the resident,” said Nolan. CHI 311 is further partnering with DePaul University and some of their user experience and design students who are conducting continued testing with residents on the mobile app to provide a variety of ways to interact with people and continually improve the product. 

With diverse planning, feedback, outreach to their community and new technology, CHI 311 has reached a major milestone of utilizing technology to increase community engagement in a quick and easy-to-use way. DoIT is well on its way to achieving its goal of reaching more Chicagoans than ever before.