At a press conference at the 3-1-1 office (5th Floor, 611 Walker St) on January 29, Mayor Annise Parker formally introduced a versatile new application for smartphones for contacting the city's 3-1-1 help line for non-emergency calls.
The 3-1-1 help line was introduced in 2001. It centralizes calls for all services, whether reporting a pothole or water leak or requesting a birth certificate. Calls are transferred to the appropriate department. The 3-1-1 service also has a page on the City of Houston website to receive requests by e-mail. The service was a “cutting edge” innovation when it was first introduced, and many cities have followed Houston's example ever since.
However, as Mayor Parker explained, the telephone service had limitations and the website was not user friendly. It required the user to understand a great deal about how the city was organized and the functions of each department. In the last 10 years, as smartphones have become popular, a substantial number of people now carry a small computer, the smartphone with them, and can connect to the Internet at any time in addition to making phone calls. This makes it possible to offer a much more thorough, interactive service to citizens while assuring the that the City can better document and track service requests. With the new application, owners of smartphones can report issues such as potholes, provide the location using GPS interactive maps, record service request numbers. The application also allows users to see active service requests, so that they know if the same problem has been reported before, and if so, when. The application can be downloaded for free. However, users must register with a user name and e-mail address the first time they make a report. Easy-to-follow instructions are available on the website of the 3-1-1 service.
The new service will allow the city to provide more contact with citizens at a lower cost. For most years, all calls were handled by office staff 24 hours and 7 days a week, In Fiscal year 2012, budget cuts required layoffs and the service was operated only Monday through Friday. With the new application, many calls will be managed automatically, so the city has been able to restore 24/7 service while saving $600,0000 a year.
The Mayor stated that each department has established internal deadlines for responding to each type of service request, depending on the urgency of the issue and resources available for repairs. Since the service was formally launched only this morning, it is yet too soon to determine how many residents will use it and whether reports will exceed the city resources. Mayor Parker said she hoped that would happen, since it would help the city assure that it knew much more of the needs of citizens.
After the Mayor's presentation, Houston Media Officer Chris Newport presented a slideshow of screen views and an example of how a user might report a pothole and track the service request.
Answers to frequently-asked-questions about the application are available at the City website or by clicking here.