Leah Samuel Gray

By Leah Samuel • April 18, 2019

When cities began instituting 311 services, their main goal was helping citizens get answers to common questions covering everything from trash pickup and snow removal to taxes and new ordinances. In 1993, Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith initiated a very early consolidated contact center in which city staffers answered constituent phone calls; this model of a single access point eventually became the consolidated 311 center in most cities.

An additional early rationale for the centralized 311 call centers was to reduce the burden on 911 operators. This was the main impetus behind Chicago’s launch of its 311 service, which won an Innovations in American Government Award in 2003. Non-emergency calls that once went to police or fire departments — an abandoned car, a dead animal in the street, or a leaky fire hydrant — could go to operators who could connect callers with the proper departments.

With 311 up and running, local governments began looking at ways to enhance customer service.  In 2013, city officials from across the country met at Harvard to discuss 311’s potential. One goal of that meeting was coming up with ways to take 311 from simple call-center-based customer service, to multimedia hub, municipal data source, and community engagement tool.

By that point, some cities’ 311 services were moving away from call centers full of operators to more automated texting and app-driven requests, in addition to streamlining call intake with integrated voice response (IVR) technology. Getting a parking permit sticker, for example, no longer required a long wait on hold — or worse, an instruction to, “Please leave your name, license plate number and phone number for Parking Enforcement.” Instead, callers could, “Press 1 to renew your parking sticker,” and go to a system and punch in a license plate number to pull up the city registration and begin the renewal process. Or they could “Press 2 to register for a first-time parking sticker,” and get on the line with a human clerk to set up their new parking account.

At that time, New York had already commemorated its one hundred millionth 311 call, while seeking to take 311 beyond phone calls. New York took on a project to simplify its call scripts for better service and faster responses, added more translation services. The city launched a dedicated 311 website, with clickable links to the most commonly sought information, listed by category. Detroit had closed its 311 call center and joined other cities in researching online platforms, including text messaging, social media, while 311 websites in other cities became mobile-friendly.

Smartphone apps added more speed and convenience for citizens, helping them send messages and pictures to 311 faster. In 2015, Boston introduced its BOS:311 app as part of a multiple-access 311 system — complete with phone lines, website, and Twitter account — implemented to replace the decades-old mayor’s hotline.

And instead of constantly looking out the window to see if the city had removed that rusting vehicle, closed that dripping hydrant or scraped up that roadkill, residents could go online to follow the process and progress of fixing the issue.

Five years after that initial Harvard meeting, cities are poised to expand the usefulness and value of 311 with new technologies, like artificial intelligence and machine learning. “You can track everything and you don’t have to worry about calling back,” says Danielle DuMerer, Chicago’s innovation and technology commissioner, of Chicago’s newly-upgraded 311 system. “You can get all that on the app or go to the mobile-friendly website.” When developing its new 311, Chicago held workshops and focus groups with community members to ensure the resulting tool met the needs of the community.

In modern 311, the phone call as initial contact hasn’t been abandoned. In fact, artificial intelligence and automation now make 311 phone services even more user-friendly, explains Tony Scherba, co-founder of Civic Chatbots, a company helping local governments modernize their communications systems. “Chatbots are great for challenges like this because they can ask situationally-specific questions,” he says. Chatbots maintain and update thousands of pages of documents, and can quickly access information to answer citizen questions accurately.

Moreover, communication with 311 doesn’t have to move in only one direction. But while cities like Philadelphia are using 311 for informational outreach to citizens, predictive analytics and machine learning can make 311 services more proactive, no longer limited to waiting for a complaining resident to ask for help. Instead, city data analysts can examine 311 systems including the timing and frequency patterns of certain types of calls — such as property tax questions or weather-related closings of government offices or schools —to determine the optimal time to reach out to residents. Then, with an automated call or text, 311 city officials can contact many residents at once with important information such as property assessment deadlines, school closings or storm warnings — preventing an overwhelming flood of calls and texts from residents.

With every call or text to 311 comes data that helps both officials and residents. Databases and maps of 311 calls and responses are open and accessible to residents in Boston, New York and other cities, offering greater government transparency. Anyone can easily learn how many people registered the same complaint, or how often issue has been reported in recent years. And mapping technology already lets users and civic leaders to see where various types of complaints originate, like in Chicago. And long before other cities instituted 311, New York had even gone so far as to use its 311 call mapping forensically. By tracing the timing and locations of 311 callers reporting a mysterious maple syrup smell that had annoyed residents for years, city officials determined that the culprit was a nearby food additive factory.

Beyond those uses, however, 311 can be a data-powered tool for assessing the effectiveness of services, and discovering local needs that might have previously gone unseen. City officials can, for example, find out not only the number and locations of 311 complaints about an issue, but the amount of time between the complaint and its resolution. That information could help cities make wiser investments in upgrading and enhancing services in the long run, make better-informed decisions about funding priorities, and most immediately, put limited resources where they are most needed. New Orleans, for example, has started using 311 mapping not only to track citizen reports on its 72,000 stormwater catch basins, but to send vacuum trucks to the catch basins most in need of cleaning.

In the future, mapping could also help city governments further engage residents, and more advanced artificial intelligence could add specificity and personalization to civic engagement. A 311 map could help neighborhood or ward representatives send informational texts directly to interested constituents, instead of a blitz of mailers to quickly outdated address lists. More sophisticated data mining and AI could work together to scan 311 contact data for looking for comments about services in order to preemptively address them. Complainants who’ve called in abandoned cars or a blighted property might receive information about Neighborhood Watch meetings. This kind of outreach and engagement can also help citizens with similar interests connect with each other.

As one of the key points of contact between city government and its residents, 311 remains a critical tool for cities to be responsive to their residents. New data and technology capabilities offer great potential for the continued development and evolution of this important avenue for engagement.