Evanston City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz today unveiled a new service that will let residents easily send text messages from their mobile phones to the city’s 311 information center, but said a similar connection to the 911 emergency service may be a year or more away.

At a news conference in the 311 center at the city’s police station, Bobkiewicz said Evanston is only the second community in the nation — after New York City — to have the service that lets anyone use a 10-digit phone number — 847-448-4311 in Evanston — to send a message to 311.

The city has had what its digital services coordinator, Luke Stowe, called a “clunky” tool for texting to 311 for over a year.

But Deputy City Manager Erika Storlie said it was so hard to use that only a handful of people a month bothered with it.

Hey, it works!

In an impromptu demonstration, the city manager texts “Are the beaches open?” to 847-448-4311 …

and in under a minute, from right across the room, 311 operator Yvette Hopson texts back…

“Yes they are.”

Bobkiewicz said that with the popularity of another recent feature — an online-merchant-style customer support chat service on the city website — he’s now convinced the new text messaging service will be quite popular.

About 2,000 people have used the chat tool in the past six months, Storlie said, compared to over 70,000 phone calls to the 311 line in the same period.

Stowe said the city has used OneReach to integrate the text messaging function into the web chat service from SnapEngage so 311 operators can deal with both types of messages using the same interface on their computer monitors.

Luke Stowe.

The new text messaging service is expected to cost the city only a few hundered dollars more per year than the old, “clunky” tool, unless call volume increases substantially. And Bobkiewicz said he believes the improved functionality will be well worth it.

Technology to provide similar text messaging service to 911 emergency centers is also available, but it’s proved more complicated to implement on top of legacy 911 systems.

Deputy Police Chief Joseph Wazny said the city is working to add that as part of an enhanced 911 upgrade. But Bobkiewicz said that’s not likely to be accomplished until sometime next year. 

But wait, there’s more

Bobkiewicz also used the news conference to promote several other new communications tools, including:

  • A city mobile app for 311 that lets users easily attach photos to requests for service — like graffiti removal or pothole repair — which also provides automatic translation of conversations into 14 different languages of the users choosing.
  • A pay-by-phone app that lets users pay for parking meter usage with their phones. Unlike the City of Chicago’s similar application, Evanston doesn’t require pre-loading a payment balance, which Storlie said makes it more convenient for occasional visitors. Bobkiewicz said that within a few months he hopes people will be able to use either city’s app to pay for parking in either community.
  • A parks and recreation app built in-house by city staffers that’s expected to launch next month. Stowe said it will provide links to summer camp registrations and an “around me” function to tell people where the nearest park or beach or other facility is to their current location.

Editor’s note 2:15 p.m. 8/15/14: Some cost figures and call volume numbers included in this story have been updated to reflect revised information provided by the city this afternoon.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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