Aleksey Bilogur— Blog


New Yorkers called (or tweeted, wrote to, or texted) 311, the city's non-emergency service hotline, over 2 million times in 2016. Thanks to NYC Open Data, the metadata of each and every single one of those calls is publicly available.

I put together a visual explainer of what they wanted. Click on any of the cells below to drill deeper, or on the title to go back up a level. Caller categories too small to be displayed are included in the footnotes.

We can see right away that 311 is dominated by calls falling in one of six categories:

  • Noise — Noise is the most common complaint fielded by 311. Two in ten calls is a noise complaint: almost 400,000 calls in total, split approximately evenly between residential and non-residential (or unspecified) origins. Calling to complain about noise is a famously pointless use of your time, and mostly originate from the same serial complainers every time.
  • Heat or Water — 15% of 311 calls are about one of two utilities, heat or hot water. Over half of these complaints are entered into the system without more specific information as to their cause, which makes sense: most of the time residents don't know what's causing the problem, their landlords do (and if they own, they wouldn't be calling 311).
  • Illegal Parking — About 12.5% of calls are about illegally parked vehicles. There are over 100,000 blocked driveways and 50,000 derelict vehicle reports every year—a call volume I find astonishing.
  • Street Conditions — About 12% of calls concern street problems. Damaged street lights are by far the most common issue, with over 80,000 calls last year.
  • Sanitation — Just over one in ten calls reports a sanitation problem. Again, most conditions are entered as being unspecified.
  • Building Maintenance — One in ten calls reports a building problem. Paint or plaster, door or window, and electrical problems, in that order, are most common.

311 calls are organized according to a fairly well thought-out system, but like any real-world ontology it's one with a lot of quirks and operational carve-outs. For that reason it's a bit difficult to read more deeply in the data: we learn that there are 200 complaints a year specifically about sanitation truck noise, for example, but the data says nothing about complaints about train service, say, or about police reports.

Indeed, a friend of mine who worked as a 311 operator remarked once that not the most common calls, but certainly the longest-lasting, were simply old folks needing someone to talk to. Where do you classify that? It's not as easy as you might think, and even what you see here required a lot of clean up by your author. Nevertheless, we can still make some interesting smaller observations:

  • Lead beats asbestos — There were approximately 11,000 lead calls last year, and only 2,000 asbestos ones. Either or would net you a building inspection, and quickly.
  • Helicopter noise — 2016 saw approximately 1,000 helicopter noise complaints. NIMBYA "intervention" recently got the city's heliport traffic allowance cut in half.
  • Public toilets — ... almost don't exist in the city. Case in point: they drew just fourty calls in 2016.
  • Taxis really do suck — There were 18,000 taxi calls last year, but just 6,000 ones on for hire vehicle (read Uber), even as FHVs overtake yellow cabs in passenger volume in the city. Ask anyone who swears by ride-hailing apps and they're sure to tell you that quality of service is a big part of why they switched.
  • Crime reports — Graffiti netted over 12,000 311 calls last year. Open-container alcohol consumption drew around 1,500 calls, while public urination (!) got 464.

Find something interesting yourself? Leave a note in the comments if you do.