Evanston unveils new texting information feature

Are the beaches open today?

What about that snow last night – are snow-parking regulations in effect?

When is tree trimming planned for my block?

Evanston residents now have a new outlet for answers to those questions, and more.

City officials unveiled new software Friday that will allow residents, visitors and others to go no farther than their smart phone, to tap out a question and get speedy answers.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz demonstrated the method at the police station, 1454 Elmwood Ave., where the city’s non-emergency 311 center is headquartered.

Soliciting reporters for questions, Bobkiewicz tapped the question about the beaches on his smart phone, and then sent it through direct texting to the city’s texting number, 847-448-4311. A ping sound announced it had arrived at one of the dispatcher’s consoles.

Faster than you can say – “Pass the sunscreen!” the city manager had already received an affirmative, “Yes, they are open,” from one of the dispatchers.

Case closed. Grab the beach towels.

The city already had several other ways in which residents could use the popular 311 service, in place since March 2011, to get answers to questions: calling either 311 or 847-448-4311, and Web chats through the city website, cityofevanston.org.

The Web chat’s popularity convinced Bobkiewicz that direct texting would also be an effective communication channel.

When Deputy City Manager Erika Storlie and her team first mentioned web chatting as a possibility, Bobkiewicz said his initial reaction was “Who in the world is going to web chat?”

As it turns out, “it’s lots and lots of people,” he said.

E-mail, in a sense, is passé.

“People want this very short-versed message feature. More and more people are coming away from the desktops and onto their smart phones.’’

Web chats have been “very heavily utilized,” added Storlie. Of the 73,236 calls which came through 311 over the first six months of the year, 14,495 were for service requests, officials said.

Of the service requests, 1,965 were handled through web chats, statistics show.

Storlie predicted the new text feature will be heavily used. Evanston is believed to be the first city outside of New York that allows anyone through the 10-digit number to send a message to 311.

The text feature will cost the city approximately $1,500 per year, increasing to roughly $3,600 per year if texting volume increases substantially, officials said.

That could surely be the case.

“We hope this will be much more utilized throughout the city, for residents, for visitors, for anybody who wants to get a quick answer to a question they might otherwise have called for,” Said Storlie.

The tech-conscious city manager and staff indicated they have several other new features which will gain speed over the next few months.

A parking application, which allows motorists to pay by cell phone, “has been widely adopted and heavily used with very little marketing or promotion behind it,” Storlie said.

Officials are now looking at adding a feature where commuters can pre-load payments onto their phones.

Luke Stowe, the city’s digital services coordinator, and staff are working on a parks and recreation application, soon to go public. It will have all kinds of features, including a listing of parks, links to summer camps, quick answers to where the nearest park and where the nearest beach is, he said.

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