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Chicago two weeks away from flipping switch on interactive 311 system

Graffiti removal

A Streets and Sanitation graffiti-removal crew works on a building in the 2900 block of West 59th Street. | File photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday celebrated a 16 percent reduction in graffiti removal requests that has cut city response time to “four days or less” and said a new interactive 311 system will only make it better.

Three years ago, a City Council rebellion forced the mayor to shelve his controversial plan to privatize Chicago’s 311 non-emergency system.

Emanuel was forced to find another way to bankroll a sorely needed system upgrade after aldermen argued that services so pivotal to their residents must be provided by Chicagoans who know the city and its neighborhoods.

Now, City Hall is just two weeks away from flipping the switch on an overhaul that not only will allow Chicagoans to text their service requests, along with photographic evidence, but also will let the city text those same residents back to let them know when crews will do the work. Residents also will get a text when work is complete.

And the mayor who made it happen is touting the “modern, mobile, smart” 311 system for its ability to “revolutionize” how city services are delivered.

“Not only will you get better, quicker service. You won’t get confusion when sometimes, somebody thinks that’s graffiti and it’s actually public art. That’s a big deal,” Emanuel told a news conference in the 2700 block of West Chicago Avenue

“If you want to take a picture of a tree trim that you think needs to be done, you’ll be able to … send that in and there won’t be confusion if that tree or that branch is blocking the light. … We’ll be able to go from a landline 311 to a mobile system. That will allow us to also track [requests] and be much more responsive to both the residents and small businesses in the neighborhood.”

In 1998, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley created the 311 system — at a cost of $4 million — to take the load off 911. At the time, 911 was handling 3.7 million calls a year; up to 40 percent were not emergencies.

The 311 system was launched after a massive campaign to persuade Chicagoans to stop doing what 4,000 people did every day: call 911 about routine problems.

Emanuel’s transition report called for an “Open 311” system to provide an “easy and transparent way” for Chicagoans to submit and monitor their service requests on the internet.

The plan to turn 311 into more of a two-way street has been in the works for nearly five years, though the City Council rebellion on privatization slowed the process.

The new system now is being bankrolled by proceeds from the sale to a private developer of 18 acres of riverfront property near Goose Island that houses the city’s largest vehicle maintenance facility.

Its long-awaited debut is less than two months before a mayoral election that will go on without Emanuel for the first time in eight years.