Gov 2.0 guide to 311 and Open311

311 History and Purpose

311 is an abbreviated dialing designation set up for use by municipal governments in both the U.S. and Canada. Dialing 311 in communities where it is implemented will typically direct a caller to a call center where an operator will provide information in response to a question, or open a service ticket in response to report of an issue. The difference between 311 and other abbreviated dialing designations (like 911) can be summed up by a promotional slogan for the service used in the City of Los Angeles:

“Burning building? Call 911. Burning question? Call 311.”

311 is operated in most large cities in the U.S. and several smaller jurisdictions as well. 311 is also a designated dialing code in Canada, and has been implemented in a number of cities in that country as well. A primary justification for 311 operations it to reduce the volume of non-emergency calls to 911, helping ensure that 911 operators are not burdened with calls that are not of an emergency nature. The first municipality to implement 311 was the City of Baltimore, Maryland (October, 1996). The largest 311 operation is that of New York City, which handles an average of 43,000 calls per day, and provides translation services in 170 different languages. On June 20, 2007, the NYC 311 service received its 50 millionth call.

311 on the Web

A key function of 311 services is to provide easy access to general information from municipal government. A March 2010 report on the City of Philadelphia’s 311 operation by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Philadelphia Research Initiative found that the overwhelming majority of callers to the service were looking for basic information:

“On average in 2009, seven in ten callers to Phillly311 were looking for basic or general information. On average, 19 percent needed to be transferred to another department or line, a rate that Philly311 likes to keep low. Another 9 percent were asking for a service, requiring an agent to submit a formal request to another city department.”

Because the web is an ideal medium for providing standard information in response to general information requests, most 311 operations include a web component with lists of frequently asked questions and information frequently requested by callers. This web presence for 311 helps offload callers from call center operators and provide options for more web savvy and connected citizens. Several 311 operations (including NYC and San Francisco) have worked to incorporate Twitter and other social media tools into their services.

The Rise of the 311 API

The first 311 API was deployed by the District of Columbia, which deployed the first version of its API in May of 2009 to coincide with its “Apps for Democracy: Community Edition” development contest to encourage the development of applications that use the API. The winner of the Apps for Democracy contest was a combination iPhone / Facebook application called SocialDC. DC is currently working with leaders of the Open311 initiative and officials in other cities like San Francisco to standardize the next version of its 311 API on the Open311 specification. In early 2010, the City/County of San Francisco became the second city to deploy a public API for interacting with its 311 system.

The Open311 Initiative

The Open311 initiative is an effort to create a uniform specification for 311 APIs. The goal is create a standard specification for a 311 API that would be deployed in multiple cities, allowing application developers to build applications that would work with any municipal API that conforms to the standard. The API deployed by San Francisco conforms to the Open311 standard, although the standard itself is likely to change as more municipalities and developers become involved in the Open311 initiative. The District of Columbia is working with the Open311 initiative and others to standardize its existing API to the Open311 specification. Other cities like Edmonton and Boston are set to deploy Open311 APIs in the near future.

311 and Open311 Video

More 311 and Open311 links

About Mark Headd

Mark Headd is the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia, serving as one of the first municipal Chief Data Officers in the United States, and was also Director of Government Relations at Code for America. He currently works with civic technologists and open data advocates as a Developer Evangelist for Accela, Inc. A coder and civic hacking veteran, he has worked as both a hands-on technologist and as a high-level policy advisor. Self taught in programming, he holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and is a former adjunct instructor at the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration teaching a course in electronic government.

4 Responses

  1. Mark,

    Very good primer on 311 and Open311. The real benefit of 311 to the citizens is there is now a single number to call to get any and all city services.

    Where once you had to select from hundreds or thousands of numbers in the “Blue Pages” to find what you thought was the correct department to handle your problem (only to be transferred again and again), you simply dial 311 and (hopefully) you get “one call” resolution.

    As you’ve pointed out, we’ve found that up to 75% of calls to 311s are for “General Information” or “Directory Assistance” – leading to additonal benefit to the city government itself – 311 “reengineers” city processes to free up departments to focus on their core businesses – service delivery.


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