TagRFP

Updated: 311 is back in the spotlight after 3 years

Updated October 21: Rahm has dropped the plan to privatize 311, but explained that the offer was less about saving $1 million annually than it was to upgrade the tech. I still don’t think it was explained well enough – or challenged enough by City Council – why a privatization was the “only” way to get an upgrade worth $25-50 million, or why the upgrade would cost that much. Then, there’s still the open question as to what happened to the RFP in 2014, looking for bidders to create a new 311 system. I’m also curious if any of the nascent civic-oriented CRM and Open311 startups would have a reasonable chance at responding to an RFP or privatization effort, or if the RFP process would largely exclude new or small players. 

Last week, for budget “season” in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed privatizing the 311 system – where citizens and aldermen request services from any city department, and citizens get information about city services – as a way to pay for the technology upgrade the system desperately needs.

There are over 300 service request types (codes), of which many are available to the public (the rest being for internal or aldermanic use). Here’s the full list of codes and the department that administers or manages the requests.

The topic of analyzing 311 data came up tonight at ChiHackNight, and I talked to a DePaul University Student interested in using their predictive analytics study on this rich (maybe) dataset.

I brought them up to speed on the changes made to the 311 technology system and created this “status” document to demonstrate the wild and whacky year of changes in 2012, and the stagnation since then. I’m publishing this because I also want to collect ideas and feedback about things I don’t know regarding the progress in redeveloping the tech that powers Chicago’s 311.

311 technology chronology

2012

Code for America fellows come to Chicago and work with DoIT to develop 13 service request types (codes) for Open311, a layer on 311 that enables third-party apps to submit new service requests – with photos. See what other cities have adopted Open311.

I pled with the Chief Technology Officer at the time, John Tolva, holding a new position in the mayor’s office, to enable 5 of the bicycle and pedestrian-related codes in the Open311 system, so that I can build apps for Grid Chicago, and later, Streetsblog Chicago, readers to request city services that impact the safety and quality around walking and biking.

Ben Sheldon, one of the four Code for America fellows, made SuperMayor.io, and it’s one of the few Open311-based apps that’s still working (most of the apps linked to from this Smart Chicago Collaborative blog post are dead).

2013

The City of Chicago releases an RFP to remake the 311 system (September). One aspect of operating the system I noticed that better tech could probably have a big impact on is the number of service request taken by phone: 74%!

Channels through which 311 service requests are submitted

According to the RFP issued in 2013, 74% of service requests are taken by phone. Only about 6% are done through the web.

2014

Companies respond to the RFP (I assume). Are these responses hosted anywhere? Smart Chicago Collaborative made Chicago Works For You, a dashboard that’s also  the only Chicago + Open311 map.

The RFP never made it past “Step 4” in the Bid Tracker, or, “Short List Determination”. The Bid Tracker is really unhelpful at this point, though, because it doesn’t mark the date at which Step 4 was reached.

Bid tracker for the 311 RFP

The helpful (to a point) Bid Tracker for the 311 RFP.

2015

Mayor Emanuel announces a proposal to privatize the 311 system, including the technology and the staff, to be able to pay for the tech upgrade. Emanuel says it would save the city about $1 million annually.

Aldermen don’t like this. While I haven’t read up on their specific complaints, I believe they have to do with the quality of the jobs that would exist under a private operator.

Currently the 73** employees work for the city and have benefits like healthcare and probably some retirement assistance. The new jobs could be, well, anything, and if they’re like other call centers, probably pay less and could have worse benefits.

There’s also the question of whether anyone else can actually do the same (or better) job for less money (a question that 6th Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer raised). That means someone other than people in the mayor’s office need to be able to get a detailed look at the expenses of the 311 call center and tech.

Andy Shaw questions why the privatization proposal is coming up now: “The timing is odd because the administration recently sent an enlightened privatization ordinance to the Council for approval, so it’s logical for the city to wait until it’s analyzed, and then adopted, before embarking on new privatization initiatives” and “the ordinance has 40 aldermanic co-sponsors but hasn’t been heard in committee yet, so it’s premature to consider privatizing 3-1-1”.

Shaw suggests using the do-nothing legally-separate-entity Chicago Infrastructure Trust to upgrade the service. (The new board members Emanuel installed this year have “set an ambitious goal”, Shaw said, to convert the city’s streetlights to something more energy efficient. It would likely work by splitting the cost savings with a private contractor.

** The city’s salary dataset on the open data portal lists 56 employees with “311” in the job title. They collectively earn $3,519,732.00 annually.

Thank you to Derek Eder, Eric Sherman, George Nakhleh, and Dan O’Neil for the discussion and links.

Updated Monday, Oct. 12 to add quotes from Better Government Association’s Andy Shaw (a former investigative reporter for a TV station).

Exploring Pace’s locations for mysterious Arterial Rapid Transit bus stations on Milwaukee Avenue

intersection of Touchy and Milwaukee in Niles

This is the semi-urban scene at Touhy and Milwaukee Avenue. The police station is ahead on the right. The water fountain (described below) is behind the bus on the left. There are multi-unit buildings to the left and across the street on the right. Image: Google Streetview

Update, Jan 21, 2015: Pace unveiled their plan for ART and their request to Congress to make the ART plan a project of regional significance to attract more funding.

Pace, the suburban bus operator in Chicagoland, is constructed an Arterial Rapid Transit bus route on Milwaukee Avenue from the Jefferson Park Transit Center in Chicago – a busy intermodal station where Metra and CTA buses and trains stop – to Golf Mill Mall in Niles. Both of these are major transfer hubs.

I’ve never looked into ART bus systems before but it seems to resemble what many call BRT Lite. Pace has minimal information on its website. Daniel Hertz, notable bus transit supporter, pointed me to an RFP [PDF, 10 MB] that describes the location and scope of Pace’s first (of many) ART corridors.

The RFP describes this project as one of 24 corridors outlined in its Vision 2020 document “to provide a regional network of premium transit services”. It appears that premium is relative and that bus riders will have a more comfortable and easier-to-find bus station at which to wait – bus travel time will not change.

I’ll try to paint you a picture of the built environment going north to south at the eight intermediate stops.

Dempster Street, Niles

Milwaukee has six general purpose lanes here and Dempster has six, four of which go under Milwaukee; buildings are set back far from the curb and land uses are low-density and optimized for arriving in a car

Main Street, Niles

Milwaukee has four general purpose lanes and one wide parking lane here; Main is a two-lane street; there is some residential on both streets

Oakton Street, Niles

Milwaukee and Oakton both have four general purpose lanes

Harlem Avenue, Niles

this intersection has decades-old buildings that have limited parking up front and smaller setbacks; there’s a Dunkin Donuts here with a drive-through between the building and the sidewalk (that’s novel but awful)

Touhy Avenue, Niles

This intersection may be the most urban, despite its immense size. Touhy has six lanes here meaning pedestrians must cross 100 feet of pavement in a faded, stamped-asphalt crosswalk; there’s a massive police station building on one corner, a large multi-unit building on another, a strip mall that actually has entrances onto a  sidewalk plaza instead of just in the parking lot behind it (the Subway and Starbucks here even have sidewalk cafés), and a fountain rounding out the junction – I recommend demolishing the fountain in favor of selling the land to a developer who can build more of the multi-unit buildings like the ones behind the fountain while also getting rid of the pointless cul-de-sac

Highland Avenue, Chicago

This is one block south of Devon Avenue, in Norwood Park. There’s a conventional bike lane here but the Chicago Department of Transportation has noted that there just enough cars that reducing the number of general purpose lanes from four to two – part of a road diet that would add buffered or protected bike lanes – but many residents don’t support the project so the alderman has decided against supporting it.

The land use and design is a blend of what came before it and what’s typical in Chicago: old buildings up against the sidewalk, closer-built single-family homes, some multi-unit buildings.

Austin Avenue, Chicago

Like Highland but now seeing fewer surface parking lots.

Central Avenue, Chicago

Like the rest of the junctions we’re still in motordom; four of the six “first in line” motorists seen in Google Streetview are blocking the crosswalk while waiting for the light to turn green.

About the stations

Pace has established a $6 million budget for the station construction. The station platforms will span 40 to 110 feet, a raised platform that’s 12 inches tall, a new shelter, real-time bus tracker*, a common vertical marker, a single bike rack to hold two bicycles, and associated roadway, curb, and drainage improvements.

It’s unfortunate to learn that the RFP mentions that shelters in Chicago may have to be the insufficiently designed kind JCDecaux operates for the city as part of a very long advertising contract.

Pace ART station design

Pace shows a rendering mocking up a typical station design. I’m concerned the handrail at the rear of the bus will preclude using longer buses in the future, but that would be the least of Pace’s worries.

* It appears that Pace will be using NextBus‘s real-time arrival information services (page A-6 of 14); they’re a company founded in 1996 and now owned by Cubic, which operates Ventra.

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