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Councilors probe improvements to 311 system

Discussion includes language barriers, expanding access to app

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City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George led a working session Nov. 24 to assess potential gaps in everyday assistance to the city’s residents, both in the kinds of issues reported and the kinds of people who have access.

The 311 line was established to divert non-emergency calls away from the city’s 911 emergency line. The city’s 311 services come in three formats: The 311 phone line, 311 information on Boston.gov, and the 311 smartphone application. Each can provide a different level of help, and they may differ more now that COVID-19 has allowed some city departments to work from home.

Though 311 provides several non-emergency services, 311 representatives say not enough people are aware. In addition, there are more non-emergency issues that the councilors in the session brought to light.

Edward McGuire, chief of staff of the mayor’s Civic Engagement Cabinet, said, “There’s a lot of back-end things that people aren’t necessarily aware of, that we usually take into consideration when establishing and creating a new format. We’re always willing and trying to expand services.”

McGuire expressed that there are limitations, because if they add a service, they have to first make sure that they can get results for the residents who use it. Right now, residents can request to fix potholes, clean up graffiti, pick up large items, pay a parking ticket and more.

Councilor Julia Mejia inquired about how 311 could be used for mutual aid in the future. Essaibi-George wants to explore how 311 can be expanded to other non-emergency situations, like ongoing domestic violence and mental health issues.

“How do we move to add things like voter registration, or the SNAP application to help families access food? I want to make sure that if they’re on the app … that connection can be made,” Essaibi-George said during the working session.

The councilors also asked about language barriers. The app is only available in English, which abandons a large segment of the population. According to the last census, 65% of Bostonians speak only English, while 35% also speak some other language, and English might not be their dominant language. If they call in, they can access several other languages, but cannot do the same on the website.

Including new languages is on the horizon for 311. Chief Digital Officer Jeanethe Falvey said the city is aware of the cost to expand the app and website to multiple languages, and they’re ready to do so.

“[With] the app vendor that we’re working with, we do know that multilingual services will be available in future updates,” Falvey said. “This will all be for next fiscal year planning.”

The city will consider new staffing costs alongside costs to expand the technology itself.

Councilor Andrea Campbell brought up 311’s ties with the Boston Police Department, and how that connection may be improved. The 311 line is not the same as 911, and McGuire reiterated that 311 operators are not trained to take emergency calls.

“We always try to make sure, if it’s an emergency call, that it goes to the emergency personnel,” he said. When expanding to more police-related issues, he said, he wants to make sure that 311 operators can have proper follow-up with the caller, so that serious issues aren’t abandoned.

To learn more about 311 and to direct constituents to the proper services, Essaibi-George and her staff will be taking a 311 training in the near future.

“By expanding 311, we think that’s a real opportunity to improve city services,” Essaibi-George told the Banner, “Especially with the changing nature of city services during the pandemic.”