Chicago keeps tabs on resources with 311 system

Chicago keeps tabs on resources with 311 system

By Merry Mayer

Special to GCN

The city of Chicago has replaced its customer service complaints system, accessible by dialing 311, with a custom system that tracks and categorizes service requests and responses. The old Cobol system was not date-code ready.

The new system, which went online in May, runs on two Sun Microsystems Enterprise 4000 servers under Unix. The 336-MHz servers have 4G of RAM and 200G of disk space, of which about 100G is available. Suncoast Scientific Inc. of Shalimar, Fla., designed the software.

Chicago will keep three to five years' worth of data in an Oracle database that has about 62G of RAM available, said Deborah Caccavale, deputy chief information officer at the city's Department of Business Information Services.

It's a big system touching 40 city departments, said Barrett Murphy, a director in the mayor's office.

Front and center

On the front end, the system asks callers a series of questions to determine which department their service request will be referred to. The 311 number is also used for nonemergency police as well, he said.

For example, if someone calls about a pothole, the system will ask whether the hole is round, square or jagged; whether it is in the middle of the street, sidewalk or alley; and whether the bottom of the hole can be seen. If they cannot see the bottom and it is in the center of the street, it could be a sewer cave-in, Murphy said. If it is square and the caller can see the bottom, then it isn't a pothole and needs asphalt.

The type of hole determines which department handles the complaint. Once that is determined, a work order is completed with the address of the problem, nature of the problem and the caller's name if he or she wants to leave it, he said.

The work order then goes to the Oracle database from which the department can retrieve the information. The database contains a list of 450 types of service requests. In many cases, the department will send an inspector who will send a work crew. Most departments will assign numbers to work crews and trucks when the work is scheduled as a tracking method, Murphy said.

Some departments even have subsystems of data. For example, the Streets and Sanitation Department enters into the database how much material it uses to fix a problem, which helps it track costs, he said.

Chicago also keeps a running inventory of its property this way. The city has 1 million garbage carts. When someone calls to replace a lost or damaged garbage cart, Streets and Sanitation enters this information into the database.

There is also data on how many trees the city plants. Chicago has a warranty with the contractors that a tree will live at least one year, Murphy said. The city tracks a tree's survival with the system.

Automatic notice

The city also must keep tabs on requests it receives about abandoned autos. Last year the city received 184,000 of them, Murphy said.

Before the city can remove a car to be crushed, however, the city has to send the car's owner a two-week notice and a certified letter.

The system ensures that no step in the process is skipped.'Chicago received just over 1 million service requests in all categories last year.

The new system will have to handle at least that many and route them correctly to keep the city running smoothly.

'Really, it's a tracking system, allowing departments and the mayor's office to track work and resources,' Murphy said.

The old system did many of these functions, but the new system has enhanced capabilities and a better database. It is a more effective management tool, Murphy said.

Installing the new 311 system required buying 343 new computers for city departments.

The computers had to be able to run Microsoft Windows 95, although some desktop PCs run Windows NT.

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