Cities reinvent 311 service as pandemic shifts paradigm

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Yorkers turned to their 311 service for information on making medical appointments, getting a small business loan, or meals for them. closures.

Inquiries entering the city’s 311 service outpaced more mundane concerns about potholes or parking – often the standard for the non-urgent service number – to signal needs the pandemic was placing. in light as the city of some nine million inhabitants was sent into confinement.

“In essence, much more than what you would traditionally think of calling 311,” said Jessica Tisch, commissioner of the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, who is leading the 311 efforts. of New York City.

The new demands for information and the new needs of the residents prompted the department to rapidly increase its capacities, develop new call centers and equip them not only with experts in the various subjects on which the residents inquired. , but also data scientists who can harness the information, research trends, and then share the information with other agencies.

“When they see a type of call start to increase in volume – fireworks [are] a really good example – they call it, ”Tisch said.

Around Independence Day, the volume related to fireworks at 311 in New York City, as well as 911, soared from about 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.

“Our data scientists very early on, when this was just beginning, raised this question [issue.], Tisch said. “On the 311 side, what we were able to do was to staff the staff – they saw the model Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday – so double our staff between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. on those evenings of the week in order to be able to absorb this peak in call volume.

Every day, 311 receives more calls than 911. At the height of COVID, “the volume of calls to 311 exploded,” said Tisch, who noted that within one day the volume had reached nearly 200,000 calls. By comparison, on an average day, 911 in New York City receives about 25,000 calls.

But the solution to the increase was not solved by simply expanding data-driven or telecommunications-based decision making, the department also needed to devote additional resources. He drew more people to call, turning to the ranks of the New York Police Department cadets to step in and personally hear the concerns of New Yorkers.

The NYPD has turned more strongly to “neighborhood policing” and is working more closely with communities to build relationships and trust, Tisch said.

Having cadets in 311 operations, hearing first-hand the needs of the community, served as a kind of real-world laboratory to help the department pursue this larger philosophical goal, said Tisch, who was previously Assistant Commissioner of Information Technology at New York City. Police department

“Having them on these phones, I think, was a very important part of their training for what we want the police to do,” Tisch continued.

Other cities like Austin also saw increased demands on the 311 system. Call volume to the Texas capital’s 311 system in March increased 11.8%, compared to the same month a year ago. year.

“The following months turned to normal volumes and in some cases decreased as people weren’t as active,” said Matilda Sanchez-Vichique, business process specialist in customer relations and information services. for Austin 311.

Like the officials in New York, the operators in Austin were able to route the different types of calls to the respective agency that might be most helpful.

“It helped all parties involved to ensure that we were delivering a unified message to the community and also identified areas that needed to be addressed,” Sanchez-Vichique said, in an email.

Many of the requests and questions that arrive at the Austin 311 center are similar to those the service always answers, however, a number of questions have become specific to the pandemic, Sanchez-Vichique said.

“For example, the face covering, overcrowding and social distancing, and eviction and notice to leave, to name a few,” she said.

In many ways, 311 services need to be data-driven, Tisch said: “It needs to be agile. He must be proactive. Because often you see the first signs of what the community is going through, in the number of calls you make on certain issues to 311.

The service, she added, functions as a sort of unofficial survey, signaling community needs and concerns, and can serve as a broad data collection mechanism to help the city be more proactive in the process. deployment of resources.

“By looking at the data that goes into the 311, you learn a lot about what’s going on in the city, the services that people need,” Tisch said. “And then part of what we’re doing now is proactively going back to the agencies and talking to them about any trends or spikes that we’re seeing.”

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