Not sure when street cleaning or trash pickup is for your block? Want to know what to do with the baby possum you found trapped in a city recycling bin? Is that junkie back on your stoop? Hell, just want to tell the mayor to stop wearing pleated pants in public? Boston's had a 24-hour hotline for non-emergency inquiries for years, but now it's getting much easier to remember the number: 311.
Boston has joined other American cities by adopting 311 as the number to dial for non-emergency city services and questions. The change will replace the classic Mayor's 24-hour hotline, 617-635-4500, with three simple digits.
311 has become known throughout much of the country as the universal non-emergency hotline. Innovative cities modern Boston tries to emulate whenever it can, like Austin, New York and Somerville, adopted the standard hotline system years ago. New York City has had 311 since March 2003 and Baltimore originated the service in the U.S. in 1996, according to the Baltimore Sun.
So what took Boston so long to keep up with the Joneses? Walsh said the response system itself had to be improved to allow for the kind of call volume Boston could expect to see under a 311 program.
Walsh said there needed to be a change in culture and a change in technology to make sure Boston could handle it. The hotline team added redundancies so that department heads and resources from the office of neighborhood services could also add to call capacity.
"As we switch over to this new system, our calls are going to go up, which means our requests are going to go up. So we want to be able to be capable to be able to handle those calls and requests. It's not simply about raising the number of calls, it's also making sure as we raise the calls we deliver the services," Walsh told reporters at a press conference Tuesday.
Walsh and staff kicked the tires of the new 311 system at the Seaport's District Hall, the Northern Avenue "civic space" that's become something of the innovation set's Locke-Ober. Hosting the rejuvenation of the city's aging constituent services system at the Innovation District clubhouse is part of Walsh's embrace of data and connectivity. Walsh has made data collection and sharing a big part of his administration's mission since taking office last year and the new 311 effort could be the first major fruit of Walsh's technocratic efforts.
"Really, it's about switching over a whole system. It's a process and I think that it can be a daunting task and we started working on this, not the first day we came into office, but probably a month afterwards," Walsh said.
That old 10-digit number has been Boston's main connection with municipal services since former Mayor Tom Menino hooked citizens directly up to a City Hall switchboard in 2008. It was the number to call when you wanted someone at City Hall to know your trash didn't get picked up or that there's the mother of all potholes on Dot Ave.
The new 3-1-1 system will also be another way to access the city's "Citizens Connect" system, which mainly allows Bostonians to use a smartphone app to report concerns.
The Citizens Connect app for iOS and Android has become "BOS:311." The Twitter handle is now @BOS311and browser-based citizens can access the service at Boston.gov/311. But don't worry if you've committed 617-635-4500 to memory over the years, the old number will stay up for VoIP users and for calls outside Boston's city limits.
City Hall insists that though the new number will be a great boon to access to constituent services, new technology upgrades to the system had to come first. A Walsh administration spokeswoman said the new system will have the ability to manage calls, more reporting capability and emergency functions. App users now have access to an expanded set of service requests in a new prioritized menu, and right in the palm of their hand.
According to City Hall, the current phone line gets an average of 5,762 calls each week and even more during weather emergencies. The most common requests made through the existing hotline and app are for missed trash collection, burnt out street lights and graffiti, according to Walsh's spokeswoman.
Walsh said he made the decision to move forward with the 311 plan, moved people into place to work on it and guided the transformation. The mayor announced the switchover at his 2015 state of the city address.
Cities that have adopted 311 have seen the number of calls coming in to city halls get much higher.
"That means there's a better connection to City Hall. More people calling with more questions," Walsh said.