Chicago dials 311 for service

Chicago residents now can make service requests through a new 311 non-emergency call center that streamlines what had been a bureaucratic and time-consuming process for city workers and citizens.

Chicago is using SunTRACK 311, a customer service response system from Shalimar, Fla.-based Suncoast Scientific Inc. The system puts service requests immediately through to all responding departments and is fully compatible with the city's response processes.

In Chicago, city departments created scripts for more than 450 service request types so that 311 call takers can create and complete work orders for citizens' requests for non-emergency services.

"The old system always had different requests being logged in, but we didn't know how long it took to fulfill the request," said Beth Boatman, Chicago's chief information officer. "Now we can see where in the process it is...check if an inspector or worker has been out there and the different steps are updated throughout. We weren't able to do that before."

The $2 million system is designed to answer just about any question or concern a Chicago resident has, from reporting a missed garbage pickup to reporting a water leak at a fire hydrant, an abandoned vehicle or a pothole problem, said Debbie Caccavale, Chicago's deputy CIO.

When operators field a call, the information is entered into a database that automatically notifies the department that needs to address the request.

"It's basically the city of Chicago's customer service line," Boatman said. "All the departments are part of one database, and people from different departments can respond to a request, like a pothole that keeps getting bigger because of a water leak, and deal with the problem at the same time."

Another way the system speeds up the process is by having work orders that are generated by requests automatically sent to a print queue every 10 minutes. "That way, each department can simply hit the Print button every 10 minutes to see what's new on the system," said Steve Carter, vice president of information systems at Suncoast. This approach also aids departments and personnel in remote locations, Caccavale said.

The Oracle-based SunTRACK system runs on Windows 95/98/NT. Chicago's version is an intranet design, with all of the city's departments having access as well as the mayor's office and the city council.

As yet, most citizens cannot access the system directly. "The first phase of citizen access has started in Chicago through the [Chicago Alternate Policing Strategy] project, [which] allows community members [involved in the program] to enter requests directly at some police stations," Carter said.

However, direct citizen access to service requests through the Internet is planned for the future, Boatman and Carter said.

The Chicago system also use a geographic information system that can identify for citizens all of the parks, hospitals and schools near their homes. That feature will be available in the next month, Boatman said.

Suncoast already has installed a similar system in Tallahassee, Fla., the only difference being that Tallahassee does not use the 311 number. But other municipalities--including Houston, Texas, Los Angeles and Sarasota County, Fla.--are looking into the non-emergency number citywide system that Chicago uses.

Suncoast is planning to bid on the Houston system, which will emulate the Chicago model, Carter said.

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