In the 80s and 90s, the 911 system in the US became overloaded with people calling to report things like wayward couches and double-parked cars—not emergencies, yet situations where city officials could help. In 1996, Baltimore successfully tested a system that diverted these requests to a separate number. In 1997, the FCC reserved “311” as a dedicated non-emergency number for US residents nationwide.
At first the plan worked: City agencies began fielding requests independently, and 911 was no longer flooded with noise complaints and graffiti reports. Many large US cities launched their own 311 call centers, and some even turned these requests into an opportunity to collect information that helped to launch preventative efforts.
But this became the big problem with many 311 services: The programs exist, but historically, cities have been disproportionately responsive to these requests, largely because the technology has not kept up with the volume.
A recent audit of LA’s 311 service center showed that about a million calls were placed to the 311 hotline during the 2013-2014 fiscal year, but only about 670,000 actual requests were made. Callers waited an average of 3 minutes and 45 seconds to speak to someone—a full third of the calls were abandoned before anyone answered. Even an answered call did not guarantee a response: four out of ten answered calls were simply transferred to different departments.
Worst of all, the service didn’t track requests. No historical data existed to show which neighborhoods were seeing the same requests over and over—or if anyone was doing anything about it.
This lack of public accountability for 311 programs is what inspired Ben Berkowitz to launch SeeClickFix, a service request app that can be customized or used as-is by any city.
SeeClickFix turns a walk around the block into a mobile scavenger hunt. You can photograph and geotag a service request on the spot, choosing from dozens of customized categories ranging from the mundane (“dead tree in street”) to the horrific (“dead animal pickup”).
After launching in Berkowitz’s home city of New Haven, Connecticut in 2008, SeeClickFix has become the official 311 reporting tool for almost 300 cities and is used informally in thousands of other communities. Just in the last month, it signed up Jersey City, New Jersey (population 257,342), Big Lake, Minnesota (population 10,298) and Wenham, Massachusetts (population 4,875).
SeeClick Fix also has public, quantifiable data that shows it’s working. “The issue is publicly documented and so is the feedback loop,” said Berkowitz. “That means that when you go to report, you feel empowered that the city will show up and that something is going to happen.”
As of yesterday morning, SeeClickFix logged its 2,664,389th issue. But perhaps more impressively, its requests have seen an 86 percent fix rate.
Larger cities like New York and Los Angeles might have the money and resources to build their own 311 apps from scratch, but SeeClickFix can provide the same kinds of services, free, to cities of any size or financial status—and may even give smaller cities an advantage. It behooves a city to use SeeClickFix to make its 311 app more widely adopted than phone calls—or even replace call centers altogether.
Call centers remain incredibly inefficient and expensive to maintain. A study of Philadelphia’s 311 system by Pew Charitable Trusts looked at the US’s largest 311 programs and found that cities were paying $3 to $5 per call. In the LA audit it was noted that even if a request wasn’t resolved, it still cost the city about $6.30 per call. Cost was one of the reasons Detroit discontinued its 311 hotline in 2012. But it was revived in 2015 as the Improve Detroit app, powered by SeeClickFix. In the first six months, 6,500 users filed 10,000 requests. Now about 50 percent of the issues in Detroit are reported via the app.
SeeClickFix collects detailed and nuanced data, including geotags and photos, which can be made publicly available. This can be used for applications that go beyond cleanup. I wrote about a developer who made a tool that displays the 311 history of any New York City apartment listing. Chicago famously puts its 311 data to work, running it through algorithms developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Event and Pattern Detection Laboratory to predict the location of events like rat population booms—before they happen.
There’s also some movement to bring 311 reporting to where citizens are already hanging out online, which can be done using SeeClickFix’s API. San Francisco residents can use Twitter to make 311 requests, for example. An integration with Nextdoor could hypothetically allow neighbors to get pinged when a service request is filed nearby.
Maybe in the near future, we’ll have 311 chatbots that can sort through the incoming data in real-time to let me know that, yes, the downed tree blocking traffic has already been reported, then send me a text when it’s been removed. This lets technology provide accountability that gives citizens new faith in their government. As a 311 evangelist like me can attest, this is why I am addicted: It just feels good.
Yes, I am one of those 311 superusers. In the past week, I have filed ten 311 service requests. I’m personally responsible for graffiti being erased from a nearby sidewalk, repair of a leaky water pipe, plus the expedited elimination of several mattresses, one refrigerator, and an entire sofa sectional.
After a recent storm that knocked dozens of palm fronds onto my street, I conducted an experiment. Palm fronds are awkward, with leathery serrated edges that make them hard to pick up. They’re not as visually offensive as, say, a 35-inch Toshiba TV on the curb. But they’re a nuisance. And after this storm they just piled up in the gutter until the stack was waist-high.
Surely someone who lives in the apartment building will 311 those fronds, I thought. I assumed the trucks that came to empty the green bins next to the giant stack of exfoliated palms would ping the city. Maybe the street sweeper, instead of avoiding them, would alert someone.
Nothing happened. I waited two weeks and those fronds were still there. After a 311 request, they were whisked away in one day.
City workers might pick up our trash, but they can’t spot everything. People still need to be reporting what they see. 311 apps also allow users to report broken sidewalks, dark streetlights, and missing street trees—features that provide critical benefits for accessibility, safety, and shade.
And I think that’s the key to SeeClickFix’s experience. The design and language transform the user experience for someone making a 311 request. Instead of making a user feel like a narc, SeeClickFix rewards them. “The government wants to talk to you,” said Berkowitz. “You’re not being an asshole, you’re actually helping out.”
Try it. You might get hooked. If you’ve got a smartphone, a 311 app, and 20 minutes a day, that’s all it might take to see some serious change in your neighborhood. You can do it during your daily Pokémon Go rounds.