View Full Version : The 311 System

December 1st, 2003, 01:30 AM
December 1, 2003

New Yorkers Love to Complain, and Hotline is Making the Most of It


When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that the city was adopting a 311 hot line for public complaints, he promoted it as a way to help New Yorkers navigate the hurdle-strewn path to city services.

But in the nine months it has been active, 311 has become that and much more. In ways large and small, city officials are using information gathered through the 311 system to re-examine how city agencies carry out their jobs.

When pothole complaints started pouring into 311 after a harsh winter, Iris Weinshall, the transportation commissioner, dispatched an extra 150 workers to pothole duty, and the backlog of complaints has dropped to 975 from 3,000.

After irate residents reported problems with noise, double parking, public urination and disorderly youths over the summer, law enforcement officials used 311 technology to map out complaints by neighborhood and track down their source: illegal social clubs.

And after the 311 system made clear that more than one agency was responsible for responding to common problems like missing manhole covers and obstructed signs city officials assigned a primary agency to handle each kind of complaint, eliminating much of the confusion and the delays of the past.

For the first time, the 311 system is drawing together in one place all the complaints, commentary and other myriad bits of information that used to trickle in on scraps of paper and through hundreds of phone lines spread out across city agencies.

The people who run the system are then using sophisticated computer technology to analyze this trove of information provided by the public, churning out reams of data that provide statistical snapshots of city services.

In practical terms, this means that city officials can now look across the broad scope of their operations and allocate their resources more quickly and efficiently to address residents' needs and problems.

"It allows us to do more with less because we can see exactly how agencies are performing and manage our existing assets better and smarter," said Gino P. Menchini, the city's commissioner for information technology and telecommunications, who set up and runs the system. "It allows us to be able to do what we need to do without having to add additional resources. It's cost avoidance, more than anything else."

The 311 data, at the mayor's direction, is also being used much like the Police Department's highly touted Compstat system, to check up on how city agencies respond to the public every month and to hold commissioners accountable for the results.

At a recent social event, for example, Ms. Weinshall was quizzed by the mayor about how many outstanding pothole complaints she had, she said.

"You don't want to say, `I don't know,' and have him say, `Well, I know, you have 975 pothole complaints," said Ms. Weinshall, who spends several hours a month studying the data from 311. "It keeps you on your toes.' "

The 311 system operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, out of centers in Lower Manhattan and Long Island City. On a busy day, it handles more than 30,000 calls, helping to free up the 911 system for emergencies. Altogether, it has taken 3.69 million calls since March.

Similar systems already existed in cities like Chicago, Dallas and Baltimore, some of which are also using their call data to fine-tune city services.

In New York, each call is answered by a 311 operator, who then takes down a request or complaint, or transfers the call to someone else who can. If necessary, a caller is given a tracking number so that he or she can check back on a complaint's status.

The driving force behind it has been Mr. Bloomberg, who seems to relish using the phone line to call in potholes and illegal dumps, and then checking back to make sure they have been addressed. The number is publicized on everything from bus sides to trash baskets, and Mr. Bloomberg touts it at every opportunity so much so that it has become a standing joke. ("Who are you going to call?")

While the overall level of customer satisfaction is still difficult to gauge, Mr. Menchini said that he kept track of comments from callers. He said people praising the service outnumbered those criticizing it by two to one.

But Betsy Gotbaum, the public advocate, said that her office has received a number of complaints from people who say they tried 311 and did not get help. She said she tried 311 herself, but hung up after being placed on hold for 35 minutes. "I think there are always kinks in a lot of systems," she said. "But I do think you need a safety net, something that's going to be a backup to that system when it falls down."

City officials, however, say that 311 has evolved into an important management tool. Just logging in the more than 7,000 services that the city provides from repairing potholes and picking up refrigerators to issuing permits for baker's ovens forced officials to examine how the city operates.

Even as other city departments are cutting back, the 311 system has grown from its original $21 million price tag into a $27 million-a-year operation with a staff of 375. One early effect, though, was to take much of the complaint load off individual agencies.

After the city's tough antismoking rules went into effect last spring, the health department offered free nicotine patches to any New Yorkers wishing to quit. Its hot line quickly became overloaded with calls, and the then-new 311 system kicked in to handle 30,000 more requests for the patches.

The department now uses 311 to distribute information about birth certificates, flu shots and West Nile virus, among other things, replacing dozens of other hard-to-remember phone lines.

Similarly, the 311 system has weeded out calls to the Police Department about nonpolice matters and allowed 35 communications technicians who used to staff a quality-of-life hot line to be assigned to other jobs. Police officials said that just having the system meant it could route all calls about noise and other neighborhood issues directly to local precincts. Previously, callers used to dial 911 or the quality-of-life hot line, and were not always referred to the right place.

"It is an efficiency tool, no question about it," said Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. "We used to be the department of first and last resort. People would call us for just about anything, and now the calls are properly allocated."

Not everything has gone smoothly. The 311 hot lines receive between 4,500 and 4,900 calls a week from people trying to figure out how to dispose of an old refrigerator or air conditioner. For a while, the system connected them, wrongly, to the office of the sanitation commissioner, John J. Doherty. "It wasn't the worst thing in the world," said Mr. Doherty, who took down their information and passed it on. "In a relatively short time, they got the system up and running."

Mr. Menchini said setting up the database uncovered a problem with the city's day-to-day operations that had long gone unnoticed: there were overlapping jurisdictions among departments that resulted, at times, in confusion, delays and squabbling over who was responsible for fixing a particular problem.

For example, the Parks and Transportation Departments would both respond to complaints about streets signs obscured by trees. But in one of those oddities of bureaucratic logic, who would fix the problem would depend on what part of the tree was at fault. If it was the trunk, it would be transportation workers. If it was the branches, it would be a pruning issue for park workers.

Similarly, manhole covers had become another source of interagency tension. The Transportation Department repairs manhole covers that are street hazards except in cases where they cover sewer or water lines. Then it becomes the responsibility of the Department of Environmental Protection.

"People would call, and depending on how you described it, you could call D.E.P. and they'd say `Not us,' and you could call D.O.T. and they'd say, `Not us,' " Mr. Menchini said. "So it was hit or miss, and it was always unclear, and it was an inefficient model."

Because of 311, officials said, they started a policy of designating a lead agency to respond to all calls about a specific kind of problem. In the case of manhole covers, transportation workers reported that in 90 percent of the cases, the problem was being referred to the Department of Environmental Protection, so that department was designated first responder to manhole calls.

Ms. Weinshall said that her workers made fewer wasted trips after the change, and have been able to respond more quickly to problems that they can resolve, like potholes and broken traffic lights. "It gives us the ability to focus on these issues, and not go off on wild goose chases," she said.

Meanwhile, city environmental workers have seen their workload double as they now respond to an average of 140 manhole complaints a month compared with 70 before the change. But Charles Sturcken, a department spokesman, said that the 311 system has also ended the unproductive finger-pointing that delayed such repairs in the past.

In the case of obstructed street signs, officials determined that it was most frequently a Transportation Department problem, so that is now the lead response agency.

Mr. Menchini and his staff monitor every call that comes in, compiling the data into increasingly detailed reports. These reports are sent to the mayor every two weeks, and a customized version to the major departments every month.

Each report shows how many calls were received about a particular problem or service, and how many were resolved in that month. If there is a backlog of complaints, the data also tells how long ago each complaint was made.

But 311 can do more than just record and track calls. Increasingly, its sophisticated technology is being put to use in qualitative ways. For instance, the system has taken the calls about illegal dumping and plotted them on a map to pinpoint locations where the problem seems especially persistent. Mr. Doherty said he plans to increase enforcement in those areas.

Similarly, law enforcement officers are mining the 311 data to find illegal social clubs. "It has enabled us to analyze where the quality-of-life concerns are so we're better able to address them in a pro-active way," Commissioner Kelly said.

The 311 data is also being used to set service standards for city agencies. Mr. Menchini said that each kind of service will eventually be assigned an average response time; callers can then expect to have their problems addressed within that time frame.

Some commissioners say that it is already having a profound impact.

"311 really has changed the way we do business," said Thomas R. Frieden, the health commissioner. "It's primarily not a money-saving thing, it's primarily an improvement in customer service. What it allows us to do is reach people or allow people to reach us much more efficiently."

Many political analysts and government oversight groups concur that 311 may be remaking city government in a fashion that is more open, and more civilized. "There's not a strong tradition in New York of city managers taking feedback from citizens," said Charles Brecher, research director for the Citizens Budget Commission. "So I think the direction is a very positive one. The real issue is how well they're implementing it."

In the meantime, 311's biggest advocate, Mr. Bloomberg, said that he was pleased with the progress so far.

"It's not just a citizen service hot line, it is the most powerful management tool ever developed for New York City government," he said. "I can't imagine running the city without it."


Total staff: 375

Start-up cost: $21 million

Operating cost: $27 million per year

Hours of operation: Never closed

Calls received: 3.7 million

Average calls per day: 22,000

Most calls in a day: 114, 844 (Aug. 15)

Busiest day: Monday

Least busy day: Sunday

Average time to handle a noise complaint: 2 hours

Number of languages for which interpretation is available: 171

Total number of city services catalogued: more than 7,000


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company


March 6th, 2004, 09:42 PM
March 7, 2004




IN a provocative recent essay, the architecture critic Paul Goldberger implicates the cellphone as the latest agent in a series of assaults on the vibrancy of the urban public sphere. The particularity of a Parisian boulevard or a New York street corner is being eroded, he argues, by phone-clutching pseudo-citizens who pretend to inhabit an urban space but are in reality mere nodes on a cellular network.

As Mr. Goldberger puts it, "You are not on Madison Avenue if you are holding a little object to your ear that pulls you toward a person in Omaha.'' In his view, the telephonic degradation of place began soon after cities began to lose neighborhood-specific telephone exchanges (the BUtterfield 8's, the CHelsea 3's) in favor of boroughwide prefixes that eventually led to the terminally vague 917's and 347's.

It is not hard to remember a time when dialing the operator put one in touch with a local switchboard. One could presume a certain level of local knowledge ("Is that the one on the West Side or the East Side?'') and feel a shared sense of space and time. Now, dialing 0 or 411 sends one to some nowhere zone of lower-wage call centers, indeterminate accents and time zones, and anonymous computer voice-prompts. It inevitably feels alienating, even a betrayal, to ask non-New Yorkers for New York information.

All this makes it more remarkable that one of the most profound innovations in New York City government, something that has taken a city of more than eight million down to size and given a human scale to an often faceless and incomprehensible metropolis, should involve the telephone. 311, officially unveiled a year ago Tuesday to a predictably skeptical public, has become something of an institution - before anyone stopped to ask why or how.

"For the first time, we now have a real handle on what troubles New Yorkers,'' said Mitchell Moss, director of the Taub Urban Research Center at New York University, which will soon begin a study of 311. "And New Yorkers have a place they can communicate without having an intermediary. In a city as large as New York, knowing who to turn to is the most difficult challenge there is.''

311, a non-emergency version of 911, may be Mayor Bloomberg's enduring gift to the city. You dial the number and are routed, it is hoped, to someone who can either answer your question, solve your problem, or at least not bite your head off. It brings two elements - G.I.S. technology (geographic information systems that, in this case, can tell where a person is calling from) and the private-sector concept known as customer relationship management - into a hostile environment, the city bureaucracy. (Keep in mind that the city's previous effort at this, Mayor Giuliani's Action Center, lost its director after he wrote an article about his position in which he concluded: "So I take painkillers, sleep a lot and think about killing every citizen and employee of New York City every minute I'm awake.'')

311 has become the urban equivalent of the front desk at a very large hotel, the place one calls to complain about a noisy neighbor or replace a light bulb (or in this case a street light). One woman who lives in Inwood, for example, tells of turning to 311 when she came home after working the late shift one Friday night to find a bat in her apartment. Her boyfriend tried the city's animal control department, but got a recording announcing that because of budget cuts the office was closed until Monday. So they gave 311 a try.

"From my end of the conversation, it didn't sound like they laughed,'' she said, "for which they deserve credit. Instead, they asked him a series of questions that must've been meant to assess the level of the threat.''

With rabies in mind, the 311 operator patched the call to 911 (where the boyfriend's sense of masculinity was diminished with every question). For better or worse, by the time an officer arrived, the bat had left.

311 has even spawned a genre of "only in New York'' stories like the one about the woman who got back the groceries she left on a city bus by calling 311. The 311 operator connected her to the Bronx bus dispatcher, who in turn arranged with a bus driver to take the groceries on his next downtown run to the woman with the "red carnation.'' The bus arrived at her stop within five minutes of when the dispatcher promised; when the door swung open, she gave the driver the flower.

311 is neither new nor novel to New York. The number was allocated by the federal Department of Justice in 1996 to help siphon off a rising number of non-emergency calls to 911. Baltimore was first to adopt the number (with mixed success), followed by more than a dozen other cities, including Los Angeles and Dallas. Martha's Vineyard recently got into the act with what officials say is not only "the first 311 center in all of New England, but also the first rural application of the 311 telephone system.'' But no system rivals the size of New York's, or the complexity of information its operators are expected to deliver.

"It's amazing how fast it's become part of the city's culture,'' Dr. Moss said. "New Yorkers are talkers, so it plays off their personality to use the phone.'' Statistics tend to agree: In July through October, the first four months of the fiscal year, the 311 line received about 333,000 complaints, about 48,000 more than the number of similar complaints reported in calls in the same period a year before.

DOES this rise in numbers mean the lines of citizen-government communication are more open, or that the city is becoming a tougher place in which to live? And what good is a call if there's no response?

John Kost, a research director at Gartner Research, a consulting firm, says that 311, by "creating a single point of contact for the city's residents, not only changes the government-citizen relationship in a very positive way, but it makes a large and often unexpected impact on how the city is administered behind the scenes as well.'' Once a city goes down the 311 road, he says, change is almost inevitable because "311 enables fewer handoffs and lost complaints.''

311 by itself is hardly a panacea, of course, and there are already folk stories of its travails: One man called 311 nearly 20 times before the Department of Environmental Protection showed up to repair a broken water main. The most skeptical New Yorkers will be reminded of the city's pedestrian "walk" buttons that actually do nothing to make the traffic signals change any faster.

For the typical citizen, 311 brings at least a psychic shimmer of empowerment. Fredrik Anderson, a Manhattan consultant and an avid biker who lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, has complained to the city about transportation issues, but to little avail. "When I go into the 84th Precinct,'' he wrote in an e-mail message, "they just ignore me. When I call the 88th Precinct, I am usually funneled to the community affairs liaison, and I never get a call back, no matter how many messages I leave. But when I call 311, at least I have a record of my complaint. I may get nowhere, but at least I can pretend that in a basement somewhere, someone's tallying the complaints regarding illegal parking by placard-wielding scofflaws.''

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of "Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America.''

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

June 17th, 2004, 01:22 AM
311, Noise, and Community Boards (http://gothamgazette.com/article/tech/20040617/19/1009)

July 19th, 2004, 01:19 AM
July 19, 2004

311, the Next Generation: Moving Beyond Noisy Neighbors and Pothole Complaints


New York City's 311 hot line operates 24 hours a day, in 170 languages.

The Bloomberg administration is planning a major expansion of the city's information hot line, 311, that will allow callers to find out about concerts, museum exhibits, restaurants, theaters and even last-minute street closings.

The addition of a host of tourism- and travel-related listings to the 311 system is being undertaken just in time to help thousands of visitors to the Republican National Convention next month navigate the city by simply picking up a phone, city officials said.

But the information will also be stored in a new database that will continue to be used after conventiongoers depart.

The Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which operates the 311 system, is working with NYC & Company, the nonprofit organization that markets and promotes the city, to provide the expanded information during the convention. NYC & Company will set up a temporary help desk within the 311 call center in Lower Manhattan to answer calls. It will be staffed from dawn until midnight with 30 convention volunteers per shift .

After the convention is over, 311 operators will continue to have access to the database, as will staff members at NYC & Company, said Gino P. Menchini, the commissioner of the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. Callers looking for information on cultural institutions, concerts and other entertainment offerings will be handled by 311 operators, while those looking for restaurant and hotel locations and the like will be transferred to NYC & Company.

"It's going to be a teeth-cutting opportunity for us," Mr. Menchini said. "People will have more information, and information that will be more accurate and better, so I think it's a natural progression of what we've already put in place."

Convention organizers have begun to publicize the hot line in mailings, advertisements and on the Internet as the one essential number to call for all convention-related matters. "Now any city resident, delegate or member of the media can call for information about topics as wide-ranging as visiting hours at the Met and lost credentials," said Kevin Sheekey, president of the convention's host committee.

But some critics question whether a city-funded information line should be referring callers to restaurants, hotels and other for-profit businesses.

Councilwoman Gale A. Brewer, a frequent critic of the 311 system, said: "311 is supposed to be a government service, and in our city, that's expansive. But I don't think that means restaurant deals, tourism, and boat rides on the Circle Line."

The president and chief executive officer of NYC & Company, Cristyne L. Nicholas, said callers will hear the same kind of tourism information already available at the company's visitors center in Midtown. She said convention volunteers and her staff members will not rate restaurants and businesses, but instead will offer general information, like street addresses or hours of operation.

But NYC & Company, which has a $6 million contract with the city to provide tourism-, business- and convention-development services, is also supported by 1,600 member businesses that pay yearly dues ranging from $500 to $5,000. And its listings emphasize member businesses, Ms. Nicholas said. For example, she said, a caller seeking restaurants in a particular neighborhood would generally be given the names of NYC & Company members first, though information would be given about a nonmember if the caller requested it by name.

"Restaurants that have joined NYC & Company have made clear that they are very interested in welcoming tourists," she said. "I think they should be rewarded as good civic boosters."

Many of the changes to the hot line are already under way as part of an upgrade, begun in April, to 311's technology, Mr. Menchini said. The system now keeps a running calendar of concerts and street festivals. and can alert callers to last-minute cancellations. For instance, it informed more than 1,000 callers last week that concerts the New York Philharmonic had scheduled in Central Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn had been rained out.

Increasingly, the system is also able to identify cultural institutions and recreation areas by location so that an operator can, upon request, direct a caller to the nearest museum, center for the elderly or public swimming pool, tennis court or golf course. More than 18,000 callers so far have taken advantage of the hot line's enhanced capabilities, according to 311 records.

The transformation of the 311 line into a one-stop source for cultural and entertainment life comes at a time when cities across the country are seeking to draw more visitors and businesses by setting up local travel and tourism hot lines on a three-digit number, 511, that has been set aside nationwide for that purpose by the Federal Communications Commission. But in New York City, Mr. Menchini said, there are no plans to create a new number, because 311 is available.

The system went live in March 2003 as a municipal clearinghouse for even the most mundane government services. Without so much as flipping through a phone book, callers can inquire about alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules, request pothole repairs and lodge complaints about noisy neighbors.

Since then, 311 has received about 10 million calls and has grown into a $27 million-a-year operation. It takes calls at any hour - in at least 170 languages - at a current rate of about 33,000 a day. If callers need more assistance, operators forward them to the appropriate city agencies. They assign tracking numbers to unresolved problems so that callers can check on progress.

Much of this growth has been driven by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who exhorts people to call 311 at every turn and has been known to reach for the phone himself to report potholes and illegal dump sites. Increasingly, the mayor has also used 311 as a management tool to assess the demand for certain types of city services and to better deploy administration resources.

As the system expands, it will gradually absorb many tasks once handled directly by other city agencies, Mr. Menchini said. For instance, this fall, 311 operators will begin taking tree-removal requests that used to be forwarded to the Department of Parks and Recreation, and scheduling plan inspections for the Buildings Department. They will also enroll people in a Health Department program that provides free nicotine patches, and place follow-up calls to make sure the patches are being used.

City officials said the expansion of 311 next month for the convention would not cost any additional money because it would be largely carried out in-house, using technology that is already part of the system's normal operations.

These officials also dismissed concerns that 311 could be overwhelmed with calls during the convention, pointing out that the system handled as many as 175,000 calls in a two-day period during the major blackout last August. Mr. Menchini said he expects a much lower call volume during the convention.

In the past few months, Mr. Menchini and his staff members have developed a vast database from all of NYC & Company's tourism guides, pamphlets and brochures. It includes listings of restaurants, theaters, churches and dog runs, among other things, that can be easily searched with a few quick keystrokes.

During the convention, the 311 system will also be programmed to give up-to-the-minute advisories about street closings, bus and subway schedule changes and alternative travel routes in case of unexpected demonstrations. This information will be culled partly from briefings at emergency operations and command centers. Mr. Menchini said that after the convention, traffic updates will continue to be offered, using information from various sources, including the Police and Transportation Departments.

"We are using the convention as an opportunity to get more agencies and more entities to provide us with additional data," Mr. Menchini said. "It's going to be a value to us for the RNC, but it's also going to be there forever."

Tim Zagat, the publisher of the popular restaurant survey that bears his name, said the expansion of the 311 system to include dining and cultural information was an added convenience for restaurant patrons that would benefit the city as a whole. "If they don't have a Zagat guide in their pocket,'" he said, "they'll still be able to call a number and find out where things are."

Gene Russianoff, a senior attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group, a government oversight organization, cautioned that NYC & Company should be as "fair-minded and neutral as possible" in dispensing information about competitive businesses like restaurants through the city-funded 311 line. But overall, he also supported the system's expansion.

"I think it's the role of government to make the city a welcoming place," he said. "It helps spark the economy, and it's a service that people want. And it provides benefits to residents as well."

Sharonette Porter at the 311 line, which receives 33,000 calls a day.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company