Lisa Chow is the economics reporter at WNYC. She tries to explore in her stories surprising aspects of New York’s many economies—in plain view or hidden, in neighborhoods or sectors.
The 311 call center fields all manner of calls as New York City's non-emergency lien and veritable citizen help desk with inquiries that vary widely — depending on factors such as time of day and the weather — and with the goal of answered 80 percent of questions within 30 seconds.
"That's the objective we have," said Joe Morrisroe, executive director of 311.
At the nerve center of the operation located on the 14th floor of a building in Lower Manhattan, about 200 operators sit in front of double computer monitors and tap key words into a database to find answers while they work phones.
The vast majority — 85 percent — of the calls that come into the city's non-emergency help line are questions that operators can answer right away such as inquires about street closures or park hours. Right now, Morrisroe said he's hitting the 80 percent target, but in 2008 97 percent of callers had answers within 30 seconds.
The remaining inquiries are routed to other city agencies.
When it comes to tracking whether the problems that are forwarded to city agencies get solved, Morrisroe said 311 doesn't measure agency performance.
"We're sort of the facilitator. We're making sure the customer's request or the customer's complaint is getting to that agency so they can action that," he said.
Barbara Locurto dialed up 311 when she spotted a chicken being prepared for sacrifice near Inwood Hill Park in northern Manhattan. "It was really very upsetting," she said.
Locurto said within 20 minutes of her inquiry, an agent from animal control came by and rescued the bird.
But not everyone's call to 311 gets such a speedy fix.
Irma Ramirez, a mother of three who lives in the Bronx, said she called 311 several times during the December blizzard because she had no heat or hot water.
"It took a couple of days for them to come," she said, referring to the city's housing inspectors.
But in 2008, callers rated the city's help line better the customer service they got from hotels, insurance firms, and cable TV companies.