- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) — So, what’s a New Yorker to do when she finds a live chicken in her hallway?

Call 311.

That’s the number for a new nonemergency help line designed to answer a multitude of questions and complaints about life in New York — from excessive noise to marriage licenses, trash pickup to animal (including poultry) control — in 170 languages.

With the help line’s launch in March, New York joined a handful of other cities using a 311 system, “the most revolutionary innovation in local government in the United States,” according to Mitchell Moss, a New York University professor who studies urban planning.

Dallas, Los Angeles, Baltimore, San Jose, Calif., Houston and Austin, Texas, also have 311 systems.

Chicago’s system, which drew 3.6 million calls last year, last week won an Innovations in American Government award, sponsored by Harvard University and the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government.

Ted O’Keefe, who heads Chicago’s system, called 311 “one-stop shopping.”

“It helps people without clout or connections improve the quality of life in their neighborhood,” he said.

New York’s center promises to answer calls within 30 seconds. Callers may ask anything, anonymously. However, the case is computerized, with a tracking number to be cited when calling for follow-up. Emergency calls are directed to 911.

The woman complaining about the chicken at her door spoke to an operator who typed into the computer database: “Chicken on stoop.” The results popped up: This was an agricultural issue, to be filed with the city Department of Health. The caller was connected to the department.

Since March, New York’s 311 system has logged more than 600,000 calls. Volume is expected to reach about 12 million calls a year, said Gino Menchini, the city’s commissioner of information technology.

“This is one of the city’s most democratic projects, whether you’re driving a BMW and hit a pothole you want to report, or you’re a homeless person looking for a soup kitchen,” Mr. Menchini said.

The city’s 311 system, at a $25 million startup cost, “changes the way citizens can get access to information and services — directly, instead of spending hours making calls and nobody picks up the phone,” Mr. Moss said.

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