NYC's 311 information service is headquartered downtown
What do you do if you have a question about when garbage is collected in your neighborhood? Or to report a leaking fire hydrant? Or if you'd like to know how to volunteer at your local park? Call 311. As of March 9, 2003, 311 is the hub of New York information and government services -- and the one-stop shop for getting answers to virtually any city-centered question.
The person in charge of 311 is Gino Menchini, commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT). LowerManhattan.info pulled Menchini away from the floor of 311's 500-person call center located at 59 Maiden Lane to learn more about the service, and how his team handles more than 25,000 calls each day.
LowerManhattan.info: How does 311 work?
Gino Menchini: 311 is a universal directory assistance and transfer service. In order to make the service work, we have established more than 7,000 items in our knowledge base that are accessible via keywords, and they indicate to our call agents how to respond to a call. When a call comes in, the agent may process the call a number of ways depending on what the caller needs. In some cases the call taker transfers the caller to the appropriate agency. In other cases the caller needs directory assistance and the call taker assists them directly. The system also has a set of frequently asked questions and answers -- which are compiled through cooperative work between the agencies and 311 staff -- that call takers use to respond directly to the caller. In some cases the system allows call takers to process a service request which is then electronically transmitted to the suitable agency. The caller will be given a tracking number so they can follow up on the status of their request.
LM: Has 311 been successful in your opinion?
GM: I think 311 is the most successful technology project I've ever seen. We're providing an extremely high level of service that directly affects the public, and have extensive access to information about and from city services.
I'll give you an example of how it works: Say a noise complaint comes in. The caller chooses to remain anonymous -- no problem. The call agent asks about the type of noise that's happening, when it happened (or when it began if it's still happening). The caller can say it hasn't happened yet, but that they expect it will happen tonight because every Saturday night it happens. The agent will then ask you where it's happening, and you give the address, for example, of 59 Maiden Lane.
Through our geographic information systems the agent validates 59 Maiden Lane as a legitimate address, pulls up the latitude and longitude of the location so we know exactly where it is on the map. Then, geographical boundaries like police precinct, community board, school district are immediately evident in that record and the complaint is logged and automatically routed to the local police precinct. The precinct then responds to the complaint, indicates who was assigned, what the outcome of it was, and any comments or any issues associated with it. And that is all tracked through our systems by precinct commanders, the police borough commanders as well as One Police Plaza. The caller can call back, and using the pre-assigned service request number, track the status of the complaint and learn what action was taken as a result.
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LM: What happens when someone calls 311 with an emergency, instead of calling 911?
GM: When a call comes to us for 911, a "hot transfer" is initiated immediately by the 311 call agent clicking a button on their screen that conferences in a 911 agent. Our agent stays on the phone until the call is completed. On the other side, at 911, if someone calls for a non-emergency item there's a console button that their agent pushes to re-route the call to a recorded message advising them to please hang up and call 311 for this and all other non-emergency matters -- the 911 agent is instantly disconnected so they can take the next emergency call.
We transfer more than 200 calls over to 911 every day -- which is a small fraction of the 25,000 calls 311 gets per day, and the 33,000 calls 911 gets per day.
LM: Have you taken a call yourself?
GM: Yes, I've taken many, many calls myself. I'll come in, grab a headset, and sit down next to the call agents. It's hard work -- it's very hard work. You have to be courteous; you have to listen, and you have to use the system.
LM: Is the idea to give everyone a firsthand experience as a call agent?
GM: There's discussion about having 311 as a prerequisite to being a city manager, as a possible way to help them build experience dealing with the public and understand what's going on around the city, and also to get an understanding of the scope and breadth of city services.
LM: Have you called it yourself?
|Lower Manhattan call center is located at 59 Maiden Lane
GM: All the time. I actually call probably most often as I'm driving around and see a traffic signal out or something transportation related. I also call often to get information about alternate side of the street parking.
LM: Are you happy with the service you've received?
GM: Absolutely. I haven't had an instance yet where I've been disappointed with the service. I've had instances where my personal experience has led to changes in how we handle certain subjects.
We do a lot of test calls. There's a group here that does nothing but listen to the way agents are handling calls. That results many a time in new training for our call agents or modifications to our 7,000-item knowledge base. We do three updates a day to our knowledge base, and typically more than 40 updates overall per topic.
LM: Has Mayor Bloomberg called?
GM: The Mayor calls in a lot. He might mention his name, but he won't distinguish himself, and most of our call agents don't know when it's him so they treat his as a regular call. He also comes by the office. He was just here a few days ago, talking with the staff. This summer he held two barbecues for the staff at Gracie Mansion.
LM: What's been the busiest single day so far?
GM: We handled 175,000 calls on the day of the blackout. A lot of things affect our call volume -- cold weather (which means more people call in about problems with the heat in their buildings), major events in town, like the marathon. Sunday we regularly get a lot of calls about double-parking near churches.
We have more than 200 call agents in this office and in our Long Island City call center, and calls are routed equally to agents in each office.
LM: Are most of the call agents multilingual?
GM: We have a number of multilingual agents here, but each call agent is able to bring in an interpreter on a three-way call at any point. This means we are available in over 170 languages.
LM: In what ways do you think you can improve 311 service?
GM: In the spring we'll have the 311 software available through our website -- NYC.gov -- also, so you'll have the choice of calling in or accessing 311 online. And if you want to find the status of something you've already called in for, you can look it up online using your original service request number.
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In the first quarter of next year, our reporting will be improved because we're going to make a lot of the knowledge base public on our website. And there are many other capabilities we're going to be adding, including an activity and event listing, which will allow agencies to insert details about their upcoming events directly into the system. Visitors and callers will be able to get information by topic, or by location of the events, as well as by what agency is hosting the events and other cross-references.
LM: You recently announced a new program that will help eliminate cell-phone "dead spots" around the city. People can call 311 to report locations where their cell phones don't work. How's that gone so far?
GM: We've gotten tremendous response -- we received over 3,000 calls in the first four days. We plan to analyze continually updated data, and to work with the appropriate companies to provide better service, and decide how to share accurate and useful data with customers.
LM: Is there anything about 311 that you're particularly proud of?
GM: I'm proud of the entire project. We created 311 on schedule and on budget, within a tight timeframe, and I think the overall service level is extremely high. The ability for us to manage what's happening in city agencies continues to improve. The call agents do a great job. I mean, they're on the front lines, and they're consistently courteous, responsive, they take ownership of issues, and they do an excellent job of handling the call volume they get and do it in a considerate way.
311 service is available outside of New York City by dialing (212) NEW YORK (639-9675). For more information, visit www.nyc.gov/html/311.