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What Is 311?

Cities have benefited greatly from the merger of technology with a three-number hotline. The result: better service delivery for citizens and more data about how to run local government.

What do you call 311 for?

311 is a non-emergency phone number that people can call in many cities to find information about services, make complaints, or report problems like graffiti or road damage. Even in cities where a different phone number is used, 311 is the generally recognized moniker for non-emergency phone systems.

Since its inception, 311 has evolved with technological advances into a multi-channel service that connects citizen with government, while also providing a wealth of data that improves how cities are run. 

What was the first 311 system?

The first 311 system, adopted by Baltimore, Md., in 1996, coincided with a sentiment among government that the public sector can and should be more closely connected with citizens and their needs.

At the same time, 311 had the additional impact of collecting reams of data about government operations. Its back-end system, Customer Relationship Management software, captured details about every phone call, query, complaint and request, generating insight into how workers delivered city services, as well as the problems that bothered citizens the most, from too much noise and streets in need of repair to trash in abandoned lots and illegal parking. Instead of gassing up the truck and searching for things like graffiti and potholes manually, citizens became the eyes and ears of the city, assisting government's mission with each call or online request over the Internet.

When was the creation of Open 311?

In 2010, former federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra announced the creation of Open 311, an application programming interface (API) that would allow for greater standardization of modern 311 systems across jurisdictions. And many cities used it to build mobile 311 apps, a further evolution of the concept, which reduced loads on call centers and made connecting with citizens cheaper and more versatile.

Mobile 311 Apps

Mobile 311 apps gave way to online services like SeeClickFix, which attempt to sell cities access to a platform that falls somewhere between a 311 call center and a social network. Some city governments monitor what SeeClickFix users are saying about the places they live, while others take things a step further, integrating the platform into the city's back-end systems.

Today, things have gone a step further. Seeing how well mobile reporting apps work for citizens has made governments realize that if it works for citizens, it can work for internal operations too. From SeeClickFix to custom purpose-built reporting apps, what began as a humble call center has evolved into a nimble and reliable way for government to target scarce resources on its most vexing problems.

"Where cloud-based request management tools were really thought of as a citizen-sourced experience initially and as an add-on to an existing 311 department, they've really in a lot of cases become the primary way of documenting service requests," said Ben Berkowitz, CEO and co-founder of SeeClickFix. "And in many cases they have replaced the need for a standalone 311 call center, which has huge cost benefits."

Along with traditional 311 call centers, the use of mobile applications and digital platforms to track and monitor service requests in cities continues to yield huge volumes of data. That data has the favorable side effect of enticing data scientists to turn their talents toward government's problems, and also provides fuel for other major public-sector trends, such as the adoption of artificial intelligence and data-driven decision-making.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.