Local Governments, Google Band Together to Fix 311

To cut down on the number of non-emergency calls to 911 and boost public awareness, a group of local governments and search engine giant Google have partnered up to create National 311 Day.

by Theo Douglas, Techwire / March 10, 2020
San Jose City Hall Eyragon Eidam/Government Technology

Los Angeles, Oakland, Santa Clara County and its county seat, San Jose, are working with Google and the city of Las Vegas to found National 311 Day, which will be observed Wednesday for the first time.

Their goals in successfully registering the date with the National Calendar of Days, officials at San Jose said, included driving awareness of 311 — which was established as a number by the Federal Communications Commission in 1997 — and how to correctly use it. More than 200 cities now have 311 systems, according to CityLab. But audits performed last year by San Jose and Santa Clara County found city police response times needed to improve and suggested 311 could further reduce 911 call volumes — a general 311 aim since its creation. Among the takeaways:

• San Jose’s 311 project, to automate and modernize call transitions to the system, got underway in earnest in October. The project received assistance from Google.org Fellowship participants including data scientists and engineers as well as from Mission Critical Partners. 311 calls had been available for residents who were AT&T and Sprint customers, Sudheer Vangati, city products-projects manager, told Techwire, but San Jose worked with Verizon and T-Mobile to make those calls available for their customers as well. 311 calls had been handled by police department personnel, but the city migrated those to a city customer contact center to further reduce pressure on emergency personnel. Last week, officials rebranded their 311 from My San Jose to San Jose 311, Vangati said.

• The city expects to receive around 875,000 emergency and about 340,000 non-emergency contacts during Fiscal Year 2019-2020, ending June 30. Recent anecdotal information from police indicates they’re receiving fewer 311 calls to 911, Vangati said.

• Google data scientists and engineers helped San Jose do a complete analysis of its police and customer contact center data as part of the 311 project — and significantly, Vangati said software engineers created a prototype for a “virtual agent, a voice bot” that would be artificial intelligence-based and feature natural language processing, to help sort 311 calls. The bot, he said, still needs to be integrated into the city telephony system but could be targeted to focus on noteworthy or high-volume types of non-emergency calls.

“This is the future. Call centers are being equipped with these voice bots, self-service bots, so it doesn’t inundate call takers at the call centers,” Vangati said.

• 311 has the potential, San Jose Chief Information Officer Rob Lloyd told Techwire, to become the city’s digital front door, and can assist in processing and help create efficiencies as it brings technology to bear on pressing but non-emergency issues. He predicted the likelihood of gains during the next two to three years and said: “311 is where local governments will start adopting advanced customer technologies like you see in use at the top sales, tech, and banking companies. Local governments that cherish their residents are starting to move toward those solution sets, as well.”

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