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Cities Reimagine 311 Service as Pandemic Shifts the Paradigm

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, New York City’s 311 service reached nearly 200,000 calls a day, prompting significant changes in business as usual and a new reliance on data-driven decision-making.

New York City
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic New York City’s 311 service reached nearly 200,000 calls a day, prompting significant upgrades in staffing and technology.
Shutterstock/Ryan DeBerardinis
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Yorkers turned to their 311 service for information around making medical appointments, securing a small business loan, or meals for shut-ins.

The requests coming into the city’s 311 service reached beyond the more prosaic concerns about potholes or parking — often the standard for the non-emergency service number – to signaling what needs the pandemic was bringing to light as the city of some nine million residents was sent into lockdown.

“In essence, so much more than what you would traditionally think to call 311 for,” said Jessica Tisch, commissioner of the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, who leads New York City’s 311 efforts.

The new information requests and needs by residents prompted the department to quickly ramp up its abilities, developing new call centers, and staffing them with not only experts in the various topics residents were inquiring about, but data scientists who were able to mine the information, look for trends and then share the insights with other agencies.

“When they see a call type beginning to increase in volume — fireworks [are] a very good example — they call it out,” said Tisch.

In the days on and around Independence Day, fireworks-related volume to 311 in New York, as well as 911, shot up from about 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. 

“Our data scientists very early on, when this was just beginning, raised this [issue.],” said Tisch. “From a 311 side, what we were able to do was to staff up — they saw the pattern Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday — so double our staffing between the hours of 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. on those nights of the week in order to be able to absorb that spike in call volume.”

On any given day, 311 receives more calls than 911. At the height of COVID, “the call volume to 311 went through the roof,” said Tisch, who noted on one day volume reached nearly 200,000 calls. As a point of comparison, on an average day 911 in New York City receives about 25,000 calls.

But the solution to the increase wasn’t fixed by just expanding data-driven decision-making or telecommunications, the department also needed to dedicate additional resources. It brought in more call-takers, looking to the ranks of New York Police Department cadets to step in and personally hear about the concerns of New Yorkers.

The NYPD has been shifting more strongly toward “neighborhood policing” and working more closely with communities to build relationships and trust, Tisch explained.

Having cadets in the 311 operations, hearing firsthand the needs of the community, served as a sort of real world laboratory to help the department further this larger philosophical goal, said Tisch, who previously served as deputy commissioner of information technology at the New York City Police Department

“Having them on those phones, I think, was a very important part of their training for what we want police officers to be going forward,” Tisch continued.

Other cities like Austin also experienced increased demands on the 311 system. Call volume to the Texas capital city's 311 system in March grew 11.8 percent, compared to the same month a year ago.

“Subsequent months have settled into normal volumes and, in some cases decreased, as people were not as active,” said Matilda Sanchez-Vichique, business process specialist in Client Relations and Information Services for Austin 311.

Like officials in New York, Austin call-takers were able to funnel the different types of calls to the respective agency that could best be of help.

“This helped all parties involved in making sure we were providing a unified messaging to the community and also identified areas that needed to be addressed,” said Sanchez-Vichique, in an email.

Many of the requests and questions coming into Austin's 311 center are similar to those the service always fields, however, a number of questions have become specific to the pandemic, said Sanchez-Vichique.

“For example, face covering, overoccupancy and social distancing, and eviction and notice to vacate, to name a few,” she said.

In many respects, 311 services need to be data-driven, Tisch said, "It needs to be nimble. It needs to be proactive. Because often, you see the first inklings of what the community is experiencing, in the number of calls you get on certain issues, to 311.”

The service, she added, functions a sort of unofficial survey, signaling the community’s needs and concerns, and can serve as a vast data-gathering mechanism to help the city be more proactive in deploying resources.

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

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.