Photo Credit: City of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s 311 Overhaul Sets Stage for More Responsive City Services

2021 Certification Level: Silver

By Jeremy Gantz

In Pittsburgh, locals quip that if it’s not snow season, it’s pothole season. To prioritize its street repair To Do list, the City’s Department of Public Works (DPW) relies in part on residents flagging problems via the 311 Response Center. 311 operators field tens of thousands of nonemergency requests each year via phone, mobile app, and social media channels. Pothole repairs are among the most common.

“In some ways, 311 is the city’s first line of defense,” says Trever Stoll, Civic Innovation Specialist in Pittsburgh’s Department of Innovation and Performance (I&P).

The 311 system worked well for more than 15 years, but service request data the 311 team shared with relevant city departments wasn’t perfect. A resident might misspell an address or include a phone number in a format the software couldn’t parse. A person’s complaint about a neighbor’s illegally parked vehicle might include personal information about the alleged offender. Multiple residents might submit requests about the same brutal pothole, creating separate repair tickets in the system that then all needed to be reviewed, addressed and closed.

The legacy system’s data quality issues were all consistently adding up to more work for staff. And they often posed obstacles to the responsive delivery of services from the DPW and other departments. In a deeper sense, unreliable data makes it harder for the City to understand residents’ needs and make equitable resource allocation decisions, says Heidi Norman, director of the I&P department. “We knew better data could provide the foundation for our entire government to better match the services we provide to the needs of residents.”

With this in mind, the City’s 311 system last year got a major repair of its own.

Cleaner, Faster Data Streams

The overhaul project’s goals included upgrading the system to automatically fix spelling and other errors, anonymize requests, redact objectionable material (such as profanity), and link related tickets. The I&P department’s engineering team found solutions through a mix of its own custom-made code and off-the-shelf software tools incorporating machine learning and natural language processing.

Another big aim of the 311 project was to integrate the system into the City’s open data portal, says Chris Belasco, who led the change effort as the I&P department’s data services manager. “It’s about transparency, about building trust with people by giving as real-time of a look into city operations as we reasonably can,” he says. Another open data benefit: Outside groups can leverage city data sets to build and publish useful apps and tools.

Photo Credit: City of Pittsburgh

The I&P department has also built data-driven tools for both internal use and public engagement. Last year, it launched Dashburgh, a data dashboard detailing city services. The latest 311 data, including pothole repair requests, are broken down by neighborhood. Another I&P-built tool: a new internal 311 dashboard for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS). By analyzing ticket volume, type and location, the tool enables ONS staff to flag emerging issues and better respond to constituent requests and coordinate with City departments.

I&P’s team is currently developing a pothole dashboard for the DPW to help it more efficiently prioritize and act on pothole repair requests. The internal tool’s functionality includes automatically linking multiple requests to the same ticket and flagging when a resident’s request doesn’t include precise location details. “If the address is just “Main Street,” we now flag that as imprecise,” says Valerie Monaco, a senior data analyst in the I&P department.

When it launches, the pothole dashboard will be a win-win: The DPW will be able to do its work more efficiently, and drivers will see potholes disappear more quickly.

The Big Picture

When it comes to data-driven governance, knowing which pothole to fix first is the micro level. Those decisions matter to residents, translating into tangible outcomes and improved quality of life.

But Pittsburgh’s leaders see big potential to prevent bumps at the macro decision-making level as well. The I&P department views building a solid data foundation — in part through the 311 data upgrade — as a crucial part of helping the City’s various operations departments understand if they’re effectively and equitably delivering services, Belasco says. The I&P department sees a range of data-driven governance upgrade possibilities that could set the stage for insights into costing, resource allocation and performance.

An example of how better data supports performance management can be seen in the realm of procurement. Pittsburgh is now using 311 data as a criterion for measuring procurement outcomes. The City has put out an RFP seeking contractors to maintain vacant city properties. One performance expectation is defined via the number of 311 complaints received about the properties. (What Works Cities’ expert partners, including the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University, the Behavioral Insights Team, and the Government Performance Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School, have supported Pittsburgh’s capacity-building around procurement and data governance and evaluation.)

Photo Credit: City of Pittsburgh

The 311 work is indicative of the City’s momentum toward more data-driven governance, Norman says. At a basic level, “our work is about ensuring that everyone has access to the data and information needed to make the best possible decisions. Where are residents’ needs not being met? Where are we seeing challenges? Those are the kinds of questions we’re looking to answer, to break down barriers and improve the lives of residents.”

The road ahead may not be perfectly smooth, but Pittsburgh is clearly moving forward.

Jeremy Gantz is a communications consultant with What Works Cities who has more than 15 years of experience as a newspaper and magazine writer and editor.

As a member of the nationwide What Works Cities (WWC) network, the City of Pittsburgh has received technical assistance from WWC’s expert partners to strengthen data-driven governance capacities.

Pittsburgh is one of 55 cities to achieve What Works Cities Certification, the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government. Read stories from other Certified cities here.

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Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.