Rethinking 311: What Winnipeg and other cities are doing (and why)

Wed, 2013-08-28 06:04 -- Liz Enbysk

311 call centersWith some two million 311 calls a year, another 65,000 emails annually and a 311 website, you'd think the city of Winnipeg would feel pretty connected to its citizens. But as Governing reports, Winnipeg isn't alone in rethinking its 311 service. A recent gathering of leading 311 officials had a lot of discussion about converging technologies and the future of 311 services. The bottom line shouldn't come as a surprise though: People want more than one way to communicate with city hall – a phone-based system alone isn't adequate.


The Governing article by Stephen Goldsmith, formerly a two-term mayor of Indianapolis, asks readers to try an exercise about what 311 is. The possible answers are:

  • A centralized customer service call center?
  • A multimedia hub for residents to communicate in any way they wish -- via a smartphone app, texting, a phone call or a dedicated website -- with their governments?
  • A platform for community engagement that connects residents with others of common interest, "listens" to social media comments and no longer is limited to waiting for a complaining resident to ask government for help?
  • A rich source of open data that can inform residents about issues in their communities and provide them with the information they need to better understand those issues?
  • A data-powered tool for augmenting performance-focused stat programs and for grading and enhancing government's customer service efforts?

Winnipeg 311The answer is all of the above and more, which is why so many cities are expanding their 311 systems. Winnipeg expanded it's already robust 311 service earlier this month to include a mobile app for iPhone and Android. Just 10 days after its launch the app had been downloaded 5,000 times and 300 work requests submitted.

"We're getting more photos and it's certainly advantageous to our work crews," Winnipeg's 311 Manager Melanie Swenarchuk told Government Technology, "as they can immediately see at a glance the nature of the service request and adequately prepare. On the phone, we're relying on the citizen providing really detailed information as to the location, the curb lane, which direction, whereas the app has the actual GPS coordinates ... so the citizen is actually selecting the location on a map."

Here are a couple of other examples of evolving 311 technologies, as reported by Governing:

  • In Boston, Citizen Connect is an app that allows residents to submit geo-coded photos of problems (potholes, graffiti, etc.) and track the city's response. Meanwhile, public works employees use the City Worker app to find problems and open new cases in the field.
  • In Philadelphia police officers have access to 311 data from laptops in their patrol cars, allowing them to see location-based information and communicate details to the community.
  • Chicago, meanwhile, is integrating 311 with other data and adding analytics. It's found, for example, that calls about garbage correlate to more rats in the future and use the information for proactive rodent control.

"Dozens of local governments now are in the process of upgrading and rethinking their 311 approaches at a time when the social web and ubiquitous technology tie people together as never before," Goldsmith writes. He suggests the process will be difficult, yet "breathtaking" in how it will enhance government responsiveness.

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