100 Million data points

There have been 100 million calls to 311 in New York, the hotline for complaints. What have we learned? Interesting graphic here broken down by hour and category of complaint. Noise and taxi complaints are greatest at night, and rodent complaints are insensitive to time of day (except they don’t happen overnight, really), but streetlight complaints are greatest right before noon? Odd, that.

Launched in March 2003, 311 now fields on average more than 50,000 calls a day, offering information about more than 3,600 topics: school closings, recycling rules, homeless shelters, park events, pothole repairs. The service has translators on call to handle some 180 different languages. City officials tout a 2008 customer satisfaction survey, conducted by an outside firm, that compared 311’s popularity to other call centers in both the public and private sectors. 311 finished first, barely edging out hotel and retail performance but beating other government call centers, like the IRS’s, by a mile.

And it provides insight into patterns that dispatchers and public officials can’t immediately understand. The “maple syrup smell,” which many of us started noticing on certain days in the early 2000, was one.

But the service also helps city leaders detect patterns that might otherwise have escaped notice. After the first survey of 311 complaints ranked excessive noise as the number one source of irritation among residents, the Bloomberg administration instituted a series of noise-abatement programs, going after the offenders whom callers complained about most often (that means you, Mister Softee). Similarly, clusters of public-drinking complaints in certain neighborhoods have led to crackdowns on illegal social clubs. Some of the discoveries have been subtle but brilliant. For example, officials now know that the first warm day of spring will bring a surge in use of the city’s chlorofluorocarbon recycling programs. The connection is logical once you think about it: The hot weather inspires people to upgrade their air conditioners, and they don’t want to just leave the old, Freon-filled units out on the street.

The 311 system has proved useful not just at detecting reliable patterns but also at providing insights when the normal patterns are disrupted. Clusters of calls about food-borne illness or sanitary problems from the same restaurant now trigger a rapid response from the city’s health department. And during emergencies, callers help provide real-time insight into what’s really happening. “When [New York Yankees pitcher] Cory Lidle crashed his plane into a building on the Upper East Side, we had a bulletin on all of our screens in less than an hour explaining that it was not an act of terrorism,” Morrisroe says. After US Airways flight 1549 crash-landed in the Hudson in 2009, a few callers dialed 311 asking what they should do with hand luggage they’d retrieved from the river. “We have lots of protocols and systems in place for emergencies like plane crashes,” Morrisroe explains, “but we’d never thought about floating luggage.” This is the beauty of 311. It thrives on the quotidian and predictable—the school-closing queries and pothole complaints—but it also plays well with black swans.

 

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