When the City of Buffalo, N.Y., began experiencing challenging economic times, officials decided not to scale back and cut city services. Instead, Mayor Byron W. Brown and his staff decided that it was time to connect to citizens.
“We’re taking City Hall and bringing it to the community using technology,” said Oswaldo Mestre, Jr., director of the Division of Citizen Services in the Mayor's office. “The challenge for government is to connect to folks. And technology is so important because it creates equity.”
Under former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, the city started the Operation Clean Sweep program that began primarily as a law enforcement initiative and has since evolved into a collaborative community-based program. On a weekly basis, city, state, county and federal partners, along with health and human service providers, go door to door to talk to residents. During these neighborhood visits, they provide essential information about how to access available government, employment, and health care services. The city brings along teams to seal vacant homes, trim overgrown trees, mow lots, remove debris, remove graffiti, replace and repair street signs and fill potholes.
The city identifies which neighborhoods to visit based on data collected via its 311 Call and Resolution Center. Complaints are verbally taken from residents and then entered into Buffalo's KANA Lagan CRM system for case management and resolution.
“We help the city collect issues,” said Steve Carter, senior director of KANA Software’s Public Sector Accounts. “They can take the info to a map and mash it up with other information. This way, they use the technology to know where to apply resources.”
In 2012, the Clean Sweep Task Force -- which includes 30 to 40 different departments — conducted 27 sweeps citywide. The program’s partners have volunteered 6,075 hours and addressed issues at approximately 5,400 properties.
“This program would not be offered to this level without the 311 data integration,” said Mestre. “We have dramatically increased the amount of Clean Sweeps. Under the previous mayor, we were doing clean sweeps, but the most conducted was seven to eight sweeps. Today, we can pinpoint the neighborhoods more precisely in how we identify Clean Sweeps.”
The Mayor’s Office catalogues various quality of life issues compiled by the 311 calls. Calls include requests for streetlight repairs, property inspections, rodent containment and pothole fixes, to name a few.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” Mestre said. “We go door to door and we collect more information and put it into our CRM so we can monitor that and follow back up.”
In addition to 311 data, the city also uses 911 data and statistics on area poverty levels to identify candidate neighborhoods. Law enforcement officials and various city departments will also contribute additional information on identified areas, and then a task force member drives through the area to confirm that the data matches the composition of the neighborhood.
When a neighborhood is chosen for a sweep, the various city, county, state and federal departments understand the makeup and issues of the area based on the same data sets — as opposed to disparate information. Additionally, the city’s data system allows individual departments to prioritize and respond in a more timely fashion to 311 complaints that fall under their jurisdiction.
“We have a product that lets the city track issues, get locations, categorize and store each department’s issues in one system,” Carter said. “Citizens make a service request and it’s dispatched to a department. The department can prioritize whether the issue is urgent in nature or a normal operations plan. They can decide their service goal and how fast they want to respond to the issue. Every department gets to set that up. And that’s software configuration that can be done by Buffalo staff.”
By using the data to prioritize and respond to the people, Mestre said that the city is empowering residents to be connected to local government. In a sense, 311 creates a direct line to the Mayor.
“311 is more than a number,” Mestre said. “There is a connection. It’s very seamless. Citizens feel that the people who pick up the phone are the people taking the garbage out and fixing the street. It infuses what we do here in government and City Hall and gives us a window of what’s going on in the community.”
Photo from Shutterstock.
Jessica Renee Napier is a California-based writer who began her journalism career in public broadcasting. She teaches yoga, enjoys traveling and likes to stay up on all things tech.