Capturing the whole story in Chicago

This weekend the Code for America fellows shipped out. As one of the four members on Team Chicago, I arrived at O’Hare on Saturday night with a month’s worth of luggage in tow and caught a taxi to what would be my home for February. As a fellow serving with the City of Chicago, our focus is on the city’s system for responding to resident inquires and service requests and—as luck would have it—this taxi ride would be my first interaction with that system: Chicago 311.

After exchanging pleasantries, Sayid, my driver, asked me what I was in town for. I explained that over the coming month, I’d be interviewing city staff, residents, businesses and community organizations to learn about how new technology tools and processes could improve the city’s 311 system. Sayid nodded knowingly and pointed back at the sign posted in front of me: “This is cab No. ###. All compliements or complaints should be directed to the Dept of Consumer Services 24-hour hotline. Call 311.”

Sayid explained how the system did—and, from his perspective, didn’t—work for taxi drivers: when customers use the number to complain, 90 percent of the situations are the customer’s own fault. A typical negative interaction stems from a driver failing to live down to a customer’s rudely pre-conceived notions about the driver’s class, Sayid said. I asked Sayid about the compliments; he replied that customers thank him in the cab and with their tip, not by calling the city. If someone tells you to make it easier to complain about cabbies, Sayid said, that would make it easier for him to lose his job.

The situations Sayid described reminded me of something that San Francisco Mayor Chief of Staff Steve Kawa said when the fellows visited San Francisco City Hall. Kawa explained the difficulty of governing by statistics at a city scale: while San Francisco has an unemployment rate of 7.8 percent (less than the national average), that still means 60,500 residents—real people—are without work and living within San Francisco’s just 7 x 7 mile borders. At the scale of a city every constituency is personified and the city must be accountable to them.

Connecting these two perspectives—of my taxi driver Sayid and San Francisco Chief of Staff Kawa—makes me realize how important it is that the technology I build as a Code for America fellow meets the needs of all residents: accessibly, efficiently, transparently, and importantly, fairly. Building something that captures just one perspective or one side of the story can have an impact on real individuals—not just statistics—like one of Chicago’s 6,951 taxicabs: Sayid’s.

Prologue: I called Chicago 311 to register a compliment for Sayid. I hope he receives it.

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