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:
â€œBurning building? Call 911. Burning question? Call 311.â€
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 Philadelphiaâ€™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 â€œApps for Democracy: Community Editionâ€ 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.