Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans earlier this month to overhaul the city's noise code for the first time in over 30 years, the proposal was at least partly thanks to 311. By analyzing the complaints to the 311 hotline, city officials have gained a better understanding of the magnitude of the city's noise problem.

In many ways, 311, a non-emergency number for information and services, has become the digital pulse of the city, a barometer of our problems and priorities. Bloomberg's proposal illustrates how 311 can be used to solve city problems.

The hotline has received more than 7.5 million calls since it was launched in March 2003, an average of 30,000 calls per day. Officials say they expect to get 12 million calls during the next year.

There is no question that 311 has been a success. The Department of Information Technology and Telecommunicationshas met a daunting challenge, managing to integrate the majority of the city's 120 agencies and 40 specialized hotlines into the current system. The service operates 24-hours a day, is staffed by live operators, answers 94 percent of calls within 30 seconds and is capable of handling calls in 170 languages.

But while 311 has been a boon for the city in terms of streamlining calls, it has also had some unintended effects in individual communities. In some cases, it has decreased the number of complaints lodged directly to community boards. According toAnthony Borelli, district manager of Manhattan's Community Board 4, Community Board 4 receives less complaint calls today than it did before 311 was launched. Since then, the overall number of monthly complaints has dropped by about a third.

This would not matter if these calls were directed back to the community boards. But they are not.

I have had personal experience in enlisting my community board in the fight against noise - in my case, an East Village bar in the courtyard of my apartment building that kept me awake until 4 a.m. Monday through Sunday for an entire season. There was no 311 then, but I did call the city's "Silent Night" hotline on an almost nightly basis to dispatch the police. Finally, I turned to Community Board 3.

I attended a community board meeting, and learned that I was not the only one suffering through the nightly midnight serenades. A sizable group of similarly disgruntled neighbors showed up to air their complaints. We found that solving the noise problem was going to be a complex task involving a number of city agencies including those in charge of environmental issues and building codes, not to mention the State Liquor Authority.

In then end -- as a direct result of repetitive complaints and testimony at meetings by area residents -- the establishment was forced to comply with city noise and building codes and the community board decided that it would not approve any more liquor licenses on the problematic block. The severity of the noise has lessened significantly since then, although it will never be the peaceful courtyard that it was when I moved in nine years ago.

Now, community boards are seeking access to more detailed 311 data so that they can better understand local problems, just as Bloomberg has done with the city's noise complaints. To this end, the City Council has proposed a lawrequiring DoITT to make periodic reports of the 311 data available to the public on the city's Web Site, and to share with community boards any information essential for solving local issues ..

The Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications has a strong history of working with community boards to improve their technological capacity. Last year, the agency gave the boards computers, free high-speed Internet access and technology support for their offices. However, the community boards' desire for greater access to 311 data raises a number of technological and logistical challenges.

First, the city often lacks the names and addresses of the 311 callers since they are not required to disclose it for reasons of privacy. Second, even when they do collect such information, the rigorous 311 privacy policy prevents them from sharing it. (However, when applicable, they do collect location information about the problem or service needed for the service calls, which amount to 17 percent of all calls). Third, a number of city agencies are using different databases to track problems that are referred to them through 311.

But the community boards and their supporters see any obstacles as worth overcoming.

"The advent of the 311 system is an incredible opportunity for New Yorkers and New York's communities," says Micaela Birmingham, director of the Municipal Art Society Planning Center, which has been working with community board members in every borough to map local problems and complaints. "The city now must seize this opportunity to fully leverage the power of the 311 system, by effectively linking it [to community boards] ... Having the ability to also make use of the data collected by 311 would greatly enhance the decision making process for local communities."

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.