Complaints, Campaigns and Conspicuous Flaws: Chicago’s 311 Calls by Category

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For the past two articles I've been looking at Chicago's 311 non-emergency service hotline data from the past year with a focus on snow removal complaints. But that is only one of 96 separate categories used by 311 to sort the many calls they receive in a year. Today I pulled a list of all of the complaints from December 6, 2018 through December 6, 2019. I then grouped them by rough umbrella categories and added up the calls within each category to see the types of things that will spur Chicago residents to pick up the phone (or open an app) and file a complaint with the city.

Looking at the numbers, it becomes clear that there are two main factors that influence 311 usage: visibility and publicity. Things that occur behind closed doors are less likely to lead to a 311 call than problems observed outdoors such as litter, graffiti and potholes. As more people observe a problem the chances of someone reporting it to the city increase.

But even a highly visible street cave-in the size of a city block can't hold a candle to the impact of signage and advertising. From mandatory signs in cabs to a dedicated non-profit campaign focused on collecting and filing 311 complaints about one particular topic, it's clear that regular reminders about 311's existence are necessary for the program's success.

Before I get into this list I should note that I only ranked the complaints for this article. Standing head and shoulders above all of the complaint calls are the folks who only call in for information, totalling 541,668 over the course of the year.

The Top 5

1. Aircraft Noise: 337,427 complaints

This is the only single-item category on the list. It's also by far the most popular complaint. I suspect this is an outlier from the personal/public breakdown we'll see on the rest of the list for several reasons. Everything else on the list is location-specific. At most maybe a handful of people might notice a pothole or a blown streetlight, but if a plane overhead is being noisy it could prompt complaints filed by every person under its flight path.

Additionally, the highly vocal and active FAiR campaign has provided residents living directly under popular flight paths with one-click handheld reporting buttons that fit on a keychain, which allows them to skip over the lengthy questionnaire that 311 requires to file a complaint manually. The complaints sent in by the clickers are then filed by FAIR instead of by the actual complainants. This makes me wonder how the numbers would shift if other public interest groups took a similar "collate and batch report" route for their own causes.

Seeing this at the top of the list reminds me to repeat once again that correlation does not imply causation. If you were to ask the average Chicago resident about the city's biggest problems, airplane noise would probably not enter into the top 10. But if you look at the 311 call data it certainly seems like we should add "City That Never Sleeps Because of All These Flipping Airplanes" to our list of city mottoes somewhere in between "City of Big Shoulders" and "City in a Garden".

2. Sanitation: 317,692 complaints

13 separate line items combined to form my Sanitation umbrella group. The most common complaints within this category were for graffiti removal (77,544), weed removal (73,027), replacement of garbage carts (49,215), tree debris cleanup (19,120), and general sanitation code violations (13,585), with the rest trailing very far behind. Unlike the aircraft folks there is no dedicated non-profit pushing people to call 311 about sanitation problems. However, the subject is generally of high importance to civic neighborhood groups which may promote 311 on a smaller scale than FAiR does.

The top line items within this category are glaringly obvious problems to anyone who might observe them regardless of where you live and your age. They're also things which if left unchecked could cause harm to the general public. It's understandable why trash sends people to the phone more often than almost everything else on the list.

3. Streets: 189,316 complaints

This group contains 7 line items. Of those the most common calls were for potholes in streets and alleys (107,230), sign repairs (39,751), snow clearing (12,892), sidewalk inspections (11,946) and water pooling in the street (10,691).

Once again we've got a category full of highly visible problems. However, many of these problems are only going to be apparent for people with cars, who are technically not allowed to contact 311 about problems until they're done driving, at which point they may forget where they were or that a problem even occurred. Pedestrians aren't going to care much about potholes.

4. Lighting: 158,421 complaints

With just 5 line items, I could have bundled street lights category together with the streets category, but as these problems are more readily apparent to pedestrians I broke them out into their own group. The most common calls within this category were for burned out street, alley and viaduct lights (125,986) and broken traffic lights (23,954) with the other sub-categories pulling less than 5,000 calls each.

Given that streetlights are only on during half of the day, it's interesting to me that the city gets almost twice as many complaints about street lights as they do about graffiti. I would suppose that this is because graffiti isn't really hurting anyone while a blown out street light could cause a lot of problems for anyone in the immediate vicinity. I also think it's neat that if you add up the pothole complaints from drivers and the sidewalk complaints from pedestrians you get a number that's very close to the broken street light complaints from everybody.

5. Wildlife: 88,348 complaints

Rounding out the categories with over 50,000 annual complaints are the ones sent to Animal Care and Control. 10 separate sub-categories make up this group, with the most common calls focusing on rats and rodents (44,508), dead animals (12,076) and stray animals (11,055).

Many problem animals are usually going to be outdoors, plainly visible/audible/smellable to many people. However, rats and other rodents are exceptions to the "highly visible problem" rule. Most rodent problems are a personal matter. The fact that rat-related calls are almost over the 50k mark on their own tells me that Chicago's nickname as the "Rat Capital of the US" is still valid despite all efforts to combat the little menaces.

Of course the prominent signs in alleys reminding people to call 311 about rat and rodent problems probably don't hurt.

Interesting but trivial data point: there were 3 times as many people calling to discuss their interactions with coyotes than there were to discuss the removal of bees or wasps from their property.

The Rest

There's a huge gap in numbers between the top five umbrella categories and everything else. In fact if you add up the calls for everything in the remaining groups they would still only come in fourth place in the list above with a total count of 133,322.

There's clear reasons why these are less common complaints, but my guess is that the existence of fewer complaints does not equate to the existence of fewer actual problems. People are less aware that 311 can handle these topics. Many can be more easily addressed by having civilized, adult conversations with the offending parties without dragging the government into it. But most importantly, many of these problems occur behind closed doors where the chances of them happening to someone with the werewithal to call 311 are much lower.

6. Buildings: 36,099 complaints

Building complaints are the mainstay of RentConfident's business, but as far as 311 goes they're a minor demand on resources. This umbrella category holds 5 line items, the most common of which being building code violations (22,350) followed by abandoned building reports (7,117).

Building code violations tend to be a problem only for renters, as homeowners can fix their problems on their own. I am guessing that homeowners are far more likely to contact 311 about anything at all. Renters aren't around long enough to develop the sense of hometown connection required to make a 311 report worth the effort. Maybe RentConfident needs to take a cue from FAiR and come up with a building problem Batsignal button.

7. Water/Sewer: 35,147 complaints

This is a rather unique category, pulling some of its line items from highly visible problems and some from issues that tend to only happen behind closed doors. Unsurprisingly the top sub-category is for blocked sewer drains (14,988), which can lead to obvious flooding after heavy rains or melting snow, followed by the equally obvious sewer cave-ins (9,483).

But the category of "no water service" calls is the only indoor complaint type to exceed 5,000 calls in a year, with 5,552 separate calls. Within the apartment industry "No water" is one of the few problems that's categorized by the city as an emergency that must be corrected by a landlord within 72 hours as opposed to the customary two weeks. Personally I'm surprised that 311 is fielding any calls at all for the "no water" category, as I'd consider it to be more of a 911 issue. But given that water outages can affect an entire block in the same way that noisy planes can affect everyone under the flight path, I'm not terribly surprised that "no water" is such a common city ailment.

8. Vehicles: 31,524 complaints

Five line items are in this group with the most commonly reported being abandoned vehicles (26,553) followed by cars parked in bike lanes (2,600) trailing far behind.

This points out to me how one-dimensional civic reporting is. It's easy to notice that something is broken at single location on a single day. It is far more difficult to notice that a car has been parked in the same spot for several weeks in a row. We can notice a dot, but it's much harder to spot a line between two dots.

I wonder how the shape of civic improvement would change if we were somehow able to spot problem trends as easily as we could spot one-off glitches without the help of statisticians and spreadsheets.

9. Businesses: 30,152 complaints

With 21 separate sub-categories this is the most diverse group. Fly dumping complaints (9,389) lead the list followed by cab complaints (5,530), construction/building permit complaints (5,144) and restaurant complaints (3,727). For those unfamiliar with the term, "fly dumping" is the act of disposing of your waste in someone else's trash bin, which can be a real problem for owners who use third party dumpsters and pay by the cubic foot of garbage. It tends to crop up most frequently at buildings that are situated next door to construction and demolition sites.

Some of the line items within this group registered less than 100 calls in a year, including complaints about door-to-door soliciting (58), outdated merchandise (54), and licensed pharmaceutical representatives (5). I didn't know that 311 even fielded complaints about these topics but I did know that they take complaints about cab drivers because there's a sign about it in the window of every cab. When you combine this with the FAiR campaign results and the rat control signs it's becoming obvious that the only way to improve 311 reporting is to shove reminders in the face of every resident on a near daily basis.

10. Employment: 218 complaints

This is a tiny umbrella group that didn't really fit with business complaints, as those come from consumers rather than employees. The two line items are minimum wage complaints and paid sick leave violations, with a nearly even split in the number of calls received.

Personally if I were to have a problem that fit into either of these two categories my first calls would be to legal aid and other potential employers rather than to 311, provided that I was a citizen or documented immigrant. (Many of the people facing these problems aren't.) It's clear that these categories and the time spent training 311 staffers to handle them are pretty much wasted, although it's nice that the city is tracking them.

11. Tobacco: 182 complaints

People really don't give a flying whosit about enforcing tobacco rules in this city. For that matter, they don't really seem to care much about reporting air quality problems at all. General complaints about tobacco (178) far exceeded complaints about people dipping smokeless tobacco at sporting events (4). I should note here that two other sort-of related complaints went into other umbrella groups: petcoke dust (4) was in Sanitation group and sale of tobacco to minors (148) was in the Businesses group. Even if I had bundled all of the air quality/tobacco/smoke/dust line items together it still wouldn't have amounted to much.

If someone is smoking in your general vicinity and you don't like it, you can always walk away or wait 15 minutes for the smoke to dissipate. This is another example of people having trouble noticing recurring problems over a long period, since that's what really needs to happen for a tobacco problem to escalate to the point where a 311 call is needed.


Did any of the numbers surprise you? What would make you call 311 if the service were available in your city? Do you think I'm on the right track in finding a correlation between visibility and reporting? How would you make it easier for people to file reports or track recurring problems that may not be so obvious when viewed as single instances? Do you think it would help improve the quality of apartment buildings if landlords had to install 311 signs just like cab drivers do? Would you like a building problem Batsignal button?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments or by tweeting to us @Rentconfident.

Published by

Kay Cleaves