There were 34,522 complaints called in to 311 between September 8 and September 15, 2010. Here are the most common, plotted by time of day.
New Yorkers are accustomed to strong odors, but several years ago a new aroma began wafting through the city’s streets, a smell that was more unnerving than the usual offenders (trash, sweat, urine) precisely because it was so delightful: the sweet, unmistakable scent of maple syrup. It was a fickle miasma, though, draping itself over Morningside Heights one afternoon, disappearing for weeks, reemerging in Chelsea for a few passing hours before vanishing again. Fearing a chemical warfare attack, perhaps from the Aunt Jemima wing of al Qaeda, hundreds of New Yorkers reported the smell to authorities. The New York Times first wrote about it in October 2005; local blogs covered each outbreak, augmented by firsthand reports in their comment threads.
The city quickly determined that the odor was harmless, but the mystery of its origin persisted for four years. During maple syrup events, as they came to be called, operators at the city’s popular NYC311 call center—set up to field complaints and provide information on school closings and the like—were instructed to reassure callers that they could go about their business as usual.
But then city officials had an idea. Those calls into the 311 line, they realized, weren’t simply queries from an edgy populace. They were clues.
On January 29, 2009, another maple syrup event commenced in northern Manhattan. The first reports triggered a new protocol that routed all complaints to the Office of Emergency Management and Department of Environmental Protection, which took precise location data from each syrup smeller. Within hours, inspectors were taking air quality samples in the affected regions. The reports were tagged by location and mapped against previous complaints. A working group gathered atmospheric data from past syrup events: temperature, humidity, wind direction, velocity.
Seen all together, the data formed a giant arrow aiming at a group of industrial plants in northeastern New Jersey. A quick bit of shoe-leather detective work led the authorities to a flavor compound manufacturer named Frutarom, which had been processing fenugreek seeds on January 29. Fenugreek is a versatile spice used in many cuisines around the world, but in American supermarkets, it’s most commonly found in the products on one shelf—the one where they sell cheap maple-syrup substitutes.
Fifteen months after the Maple Syrup Mystery was solved, mayor Michael Bloomberg paid a visit to the 311 call center, which is housed in the warrens of downtown Manhattan, just a few blocks east of Ground Zero. With its high ceilings, playful carpet tiles, and dual LCD monitors on every desk, the main call center room looks like a web startup, until you register the steady murmur of 150 to 200 customer service professionals working the phones. Mounted on one wall is an oversize dashboard, with chunky blue, red, and green LED pixels tallying the day’s inflows by city department: calls waiting, maximum waiting time, agents on call—and the most important statistic of all, “service level,” which reports the percentage of calls that are answered within 30 seconds. Bloomberg’s visit this May was in honor of 311′s 100 millionth call, and for the photo op, the mayor fielded one call himself. As it happened, the caller recognized Bloomberg’s voice; he turned out to be a former colleague from the mayor’s investment banking days at Salomon Brothers. Even the biggest cities have small towns buried within them.
There was something fitting in this unlikely connection, since 311 is designed to re-create some of the human touch of small-town life in the context of a vast metropolis. Eighty percent of calls connect to a live rep within half a minute, after a brief recorded message summing up the day’s parking regulations (a major topic of 311 queries) and other relevant news. Also crucial to the 311 ethos is the idea of civic accountability: By giving New Yorkers an easy way to report broken streetlights or graffiti or after-hours construction, the service helps them play a role in solving the problems they see in their own neighborhoods.
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. (At the very bottom of the list, not surprisingly: cable companies.) Executive director Joseph Morrisroe attributes 311′s stellar scores to its advanced technology, relentless focus on metrics, and employee training, which ensures that “customers will speak with a polite, professional, and knowledgeable New Yorker when they need assistance.”
If anyone still wondered whether the 311 concept was here to stay, New York’s 100 millionth call should have dispelled all doubts. So, for that matter, should the other 300-plus public call centers now in operation across the US. For millions of Americans, dialing 311 has become almost as automatic as 411 or 911. But—as New York learned in the maple syrup incident—the hundreds of millions of calls also represent a huge pool of data to be collected, parsed, and transformed into usable intelligence. Perhaps even more exciting is the new ecosystem of startups, inspired by New York’s success and empowered by 21st-century technology, that has emerged to create innovative ways for residents to document their problems. All this meticulous urban analysis points the way toward a larger, and potentially revolutionary, development: the city built of data, the crowdsourced metropolis.
Illustration: Pitch Interactive | Source: Wired