Street furniture, scourge of L.A. and frequent generator of 311 calls. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Non-emergency city service hotlines are celebrating their 20th anniversary, and eyeing immersive new possibilities.

Joel Epstein describes his personal journey from normal person to self-proclaimed “discarded furniture vigilante” thusly: As an ex-New Yorker in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, he dwells in one of the Southern California metropolis’s more illegal-dumping-intensive areas. “We have lots of renters. The result is, at the end of the month, we’re plagued with street furniture. The junkmen come through and pick out the good stuff, and the rest gets left there.”

To beat back the tide of abandoned couches, Epstein, a communications strategist and frequent Huffington Post contributor who often writes about urban issues, became an avid user of the city’s 311 non-emergency service request call center, which allows him to summon city trash trucks.

In 2013, L.A.’s 311 system introduced a smartphone app called My311LA, and when Epstein discovered it and downloaded it onto his phone, he found his trash-spotting duties transformed—he just takes out his phone, snaps a photo of the offending heap, and goes on his way. He estimates he’s done this something like 500 times. He’s such a fan of the app that he just starred in a short film about it, El Basurero (“The Trashman) for the New Urbanism Film Festival in Los Angeles in October.

But Epstein’s enthusiasm for 311, and with L.A. itself, is laced with frustration. “We’re a city that seems to accept a level of disorder that wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere,” he says. To him, picking up after its own citizens is “the low-hanging fruit of governance”—something that should just get done. He’s particularly upset when city crews come out to retrieve, say, an old TV he’s called them about, and they leave the moldy box spring or the pile of construction debris right next to it. “They pick up two or three items and leave the rest,” he says. Maybe, he wonders, instead of spending money building flashy new apps, “Would it better to just use that money to hire another guy to go out in a truck?”

The first 311 system in the U.S. celebrated its 20th anniversary this fall: In October 1996, the city of Baltimore established a special phone number for non-emergency city service requests in an effort to ease the burden on 911 operators. As CityLab has chronicled, the idea swiftly spread nationwide, with 311 systems launching in Chicago, Los Angeles, and then New York City. As technology improved, they evolved from simple hotline call centers into elaborate online platforms that incorporate thousands of city services and handle millions of requests, from reporting illegal dumping or graffiti to paying parking tickets and library fines. And many a 21st century “smart city,” big and small, decided to get in on the action, some by integrating SeeClickFix, a private online reporting system that municipalities can use to complement (or supplant) their 311 services. Detroit’s 311 service was shuttered in 2012 due to budget issues, but the city was able to field a cheaper SeeClickFix-powered app by 2015.

The pioneering 311 program in Baltimore, where I live, is still going strong; like many residents, I enjoy following its oddly mesmerizing Twitter feed. City crews shoot snapshots of closed requests, which provides a steady stream of accidental masterpieces of urban decay and dysfunction, from abandoned rowhomes succumbing to overgrowth... haunting images of city wildlife that have met untimely ends on the sidewalk.

The popularity of 311 programs, however, often comes at a steep price. A 2011 Pew Charitable Trusts study of 15 cities’ programs found an average cost of $3.40 per call; New York City’s state-of-the-art system, which lets you zoom around a detailed map and track Gotham’s every pothole, loud party, and untrimmed street tree, costs more than $40 million annually to run.

The expense of staffing large phone centers is one reason why many cities are now trying to automate 311 as much as possible, says Spencer Stern, a consultant who advises municipal governments on their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, such as 311. “It’s more expensive to process via phone,” he says. “I’m seeing a de-emphasis on these big contact centers, and more of a push to self-service.” Integration with social media, such as Twitter, is increasingly popular, with citizens making requests via mobile devices and web platforms rather than talking to live operators.

In Los Angeles, for example, residents can now interact with 311 over the mobile app or the website, but some 80 percent of the 1.5 million service requests they process over a year come via the phone center. “We’re increasing requests every month, but an operator can only handle so many calls a day,” says Jeanne Holm, the city’s deputy chief information officer. “I’m trying to push as much mobile as we can.”

Maintaining the app comes with its own challenges. It’s updated twice a month to keep up with new kinds of service requests (one recent addition: minimum wage violations, to aid enforcement of L.A.’s new minimum wage ordinance). Language issues can be problematic: The app was initially released only in English, limiting its usefulness in a polyglot city. An upcoming update allows Google Translate to work within the app, which Holm hopes will boost its adoption.

To encourage more people to use the mobile platform, Los Angeles is also exploring the idea of “gamifying” 311, allowing users to earn rewards for making service requests or paying their water bills. Such incentives also nudge users to register online to create accounts, which in turn gives City Hall access to a wealth of precise geo-located user data via a vast decentralized network of plugged-in citizens acting as always-on sensors. That can help them target services and anticipate where and what residents will need next. Cities can also push information out on the same network, prompting people to vote or reminding them to put out their recycling. In addition to being a powerful civic engagement tool, 311 can be, Holm says, “a way to manage the social pulse of city.”

The ultimate goal, many 311 experts say, is to allow cities to forge a frictionless and spookily immersive e-commerce kind of relationship with its residents, complete with the ability to predict their wants and needs. “It’s the Amazon model,” as Stern says. “The idea is: The more we know about our citizens, the better we can serve them.”

Ultimately, next-level 311 may outgrow these apps and web platforms and simply get baked into your daily interactions with the city. That’s a scenario that Andrew Nicklin, former head of NYC’s Open Data program and current director of open data at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Government Excellence, describes. “Let’s assume I’m a cyclist in New York City,” he says. “What I want is an app that tells me where the safest routes are, and where the bike repair places are, and where I can get free water. And I want to report when the bike lane is blocked. Right now, each one of these things is provided by a different institution.”

If data from the public and private sources could be better integrated into your online existence, for example, and accessed via the device of your choice, municipal services would simply materialize when you needed them—or even before. “In an ideal universe,” Nicklin says, “your interaction with government would be so seamless you don’t even know it’s government.”

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