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The 311 Transaction

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, November 10 2010

Steven Johnson, writer and online entrepreneur, has a piece for Wired in which he explains what the treasure trove of data collected by New York City's 311 non-emergency reporting system can tell us about the swirling mass of humanity that is that city. Here's Johnson:

As useful as 311 is to ordinary New Yorkers, the most intriguing thing about the service is all the information it supplies back to the city. Each complaint is logged, tagged, and mapped to make it available for subsequent analysis. In some cases, 311 simply helps New York respond more intelligently to needs that were obvious to begin with. Holidays, for example, spark reliable surges in call volume, with questions about government closings and parking regulations. On snow days, call volume spikes precipitously, which 311 anticipates with recorded messages about school closings and parking rules.

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.

Fascinating stuff. And you should probably click through for the gorgeous visualizations from Wisconsin firm Pitch Interactive alone. (I mean, check it out in print; I want to dive into that thing.)

One thing, though, jumps out when Johnson's piece moves from 311 to other civic reporting tools, like SeeClickFix, and it points to an element that is somewhat less sexy but still helps us understand the success of something like 311. New York's 311 is intimately tied to something that New Yorker's love to do anyway, which is complain, or at least watchdog. Add to that the fact that I'm motivated to call 311, equipping the city with all sorts of delicious data, because I have a reasonable belief that, in Mike Bloomberg's New York, reporting that there are kids incessantly drumming a basketball against the metal garage door outside my house at three in the gosh dang morning is actually going to produce some results. (And yes, the police came.) If I lived in a place where the government was totally incompetent, it becomes a bad deal for me. I might call 311 once or twice, but beyond that I'd probably just descend into the habit of griping about my city, my mayor, my neighbors, my quality of life. There's still a transaction at the core of 311's success, which is something some open government efforts sometimes seem at risk of overlooking. It just so happens to be a win-win one.

(via Nick Judd)