Chicagoans can now complete most 311 tasks by text

As covered by Government Technology, Chicago has upgraded the ChiTEXT component of its 311 system to allow citizens to complete most 311 tasks via text. Texts will prompt a series of scripted questions to better identify the problem: For a pot hole, for example, you may get asked if it’s near a curb line or looks like a sinkhole.

Perhaps the most interesting feature is that 311ers can track online their ticket’s progress as it moves through the city’s internal departments. This service is unique to Chicago, says the city’s CTO.

Best of all, use of the technology added no costs, because it was already included as a feature by Motorola, the city’s customer-service vendor. Kudos to Chicago for making strides toward more open and efficient government!

How to misuse 311 data

The Bed-Bug (Cimex lectularius)

I read a recent article in the Chicago Reader about continuing bed-bug infestations that inspired me to comment on an easy-to-make mistake regarding 311 data. Here’s what the article says:

The City of Chicago’s Department of Buildings tracks the number of bedbug infestations reported through 311 calls, and reports [an upward trend].

The department started keeping a record in 2006; there were 25 calls that year, 50 the next, and 103 in 2008. Since then the number of calls has increased by roughly 100 each year, totaling 376 in 2011.

(This information was further highlighted in an infographic embedded in the article.)

Here’s the problem: The author seems to suggest that the increase in 311-bed-bug reports is evidence of an increasing bed-bug problem, but the number of 311 calls per year fluctuates. So it’s impossible to know whether there are more bed bugs or whether simply, for some other reason, more people thought to call 311 in a given year. Perhaps a local tv station publicized 311 that year, thus driving up calls. I was unable to find reliable data on the total number of 311 calls for 2006 to 2011, but I know the numbers for 2008 (4,533,125) and 2009 (4,136,505), showing that the yearly call volume can vary by nearly $400,000 year-to-year.

The better metric would be the increase in the ratio of bed-bugs reports to total 311 calls. At least that would account for the possibility that people were just using 311 more in general during a certain year. Based on my research, I still think there is an upward trend, though maybe not for 2010 to 2011, when the increase in bed-bug calls was only 76 calls.

One resource I find particularly helpful on matters like this is Darrell Hunt’s classic “How to Lie with Statistics,” which teaches the reader, in a fun and readable way, to be skeptical of how of the media presents data. It should be required college reading.

My analysis of how often “vacant” buildings are actually in use (from Chicago 311 data)

occupied-abandoned-homesHere is an analysis I did using open data about 311 calls made in Chicago. It shows how often people were found to be using buildings reported as vacant or abandoned. The data file actually lists it as “Any people using property (e.g., homeless, children, gangs).” I’m not sure what they mean by finding “children” in the buildings.

To me, the most striking thing is just how many building reported as vacant were being used by someone. Chicago is a city known for its high level of homelessness, so them living in vacant buildings shouldn’t be that surprising. What is more surprising is that the number varies so little from month-to-month (the high level of “no info” in early ’09 is likely attributable to poor reporting), even given the volatility of the housing market and the variations in Chicago weather; I expected to see higher numbers of squatters in winter months. At the very end of 2011, there appears to be a dip, which I guess could be interpreted as a sign that things are getting better—i.e., more people finding housing outside vacant buildings, less people using vacant buildings for criminal activities—but the dip is far too small to draw any real conclusion.

Please let me know if you have any thoughts on this info.

As a note, I started with calls from August 2009, when there were only 60 calls made (as compared to 400+ in later months). The data before that date is spotty.

Great interview with Chris Vein – Video Wednesday

Check out these videos featuring Chris Vein, who promotes opening up government data to encourage private-sector innovation (including app development)—with the goal of increasing government efficiency. The second video—a lengthy interview—is quite useful. Vein recently moved from San Francisco government to being the Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer for Government Innovation at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Looking forward to seeing what he can accomplish.

Videos after the jump:

Continue reading “Great interview with Chris Vein – Video Wednesday”

Basics of 311

I want to start this blog by highlighting a great article (though dated) about the basics of 311 data collection and how cities are moving from mere data collection to making that data actionable. (For more on that topic see this post by John Geraci of DIYCity.)

In “What a Hundred Million Calls to 311 Reveal About New York” by Steven Johnson, published in Wired Magazine and available online here, Johnson covers how New York is using 311 call lines to solve real problems. As an example, he tells the story of how city inspectors used the location of 311 callers to target the location of what was producing a strange syrupy smell in the New York City (it was a plant processing Fenugreek seeds).

Johnson springboards from that seemingly trivial story into stuff that has a big potential to influence the way cities operate. To me, the most exciting part is revealed by an annual contest held by New York City. As Johnson says it:

“New York has sponsored an annual competition called NYC BigApps, modeled after an earlier program in Washington, DC. Participants design and submit web or mobile apps that draw on information stored in the city’s Data Mine, which encompasses hundreds of machine-readable databases, including a sliver of 311 information. The first BigApps winners, announced in early 2010, were awarded cash prizes of up to $5,000 and a meal with the mayor. One winner, Taxihack, allowed users to post reviews of individual cabs and their drivers. The grand-prize winner, WayFinder NYC, superimposes directions to nearby subway stations over photos that users take on their Android phones.”

This method of drawing on the public (and encouraging competition) is both simple but groundbreaking. The potential to improve our cities is huge. Of course NYC is capable of sponsoring bigger rewards and attracting more talent than probably any other city government. But there is no reason why this model couldn’t be replicated, and, indeed, it already is being replicated (in some form) by other cities. For example, Chicago—which already has an established 311 system—announced this summer that it is trying to establish an App Contest.

Whatever the merits of App Contests, the broader point is that the more data a government collects and makes accessible to the public, the more individuals (and companies) are able to develop tools to improve city life and even government functioning. I plan to continue to follow App Contests through this blog, particularly Chicago’s.