CB2: Hey 311, Let’s ChaCha!

I have a new guilty pleasure: ChaCha. In a nutshell, text any question you have to ChaCha (242-242) and a human on the other end will Google it and text you back the answer at no charge. While it’s great for folks without smartphones, it’s also addictive for those who do – knowing a real person is on the other end settling debates with my vertically challenged friend such as, “how short must my friend be to legally qualify as a ‘little person’?” (4’10” by the way).

ChaCha makes its money in-part by sending you text advertisements along with your answer. They also have a bit of a search engine optimization (SEO) strategy going on at ChaCha.com. Their employees/answerers make between $5-$10/hr Googling your question from home and are paid immediately via a ChaCha debit card.

All this got me thinking: government needs to get on this. Uncle Sam, it’s time to do the ChaCha. What do I mean? Cities such as San Francisco and New York have impressive 311 services where dialing 311 connects you immediately to a customer service rep to help answer your question. Certainly these city representatives are sitting in front of a computer where, like ChaCha, they can look up a citizen’s question.

Picture asking “I live at 629 7th Ave N. Where is my polling place?” Or, “Is there trash pickup on Thanksgiving?” Or, “What is the phone number for the Tax Collectors Office?” Or, during a crisis when SMS is most reliable, “Is St. Petersburg under a mandatory evacuation?
SMS does come with a higher communication cost than telephone calls (around 2 cents per text), but then again, the customer service agent isn’t tied up with you on the phone while s/he looks up your question. It probably wouldn’t be all that expensive to implement.
How could a city get started on this? If you have your own developers, a basic two-way SMS communication tool could be build on Twilio or Tropo. Or, my team would be willing to build it for your town at no cost to evaluate its usefulness, just as we did recently for schools with a bullying SMS tipline. Perhaps an SMS gateway would help with the 2 cents to build a model (looking at you San Francisco with Twilio in your back yard). Of course, you may be able to strike a deal with ChaCha as well – provided they don’t send texts like “text YMJ to receive daily yo mamma jokes.” (I did, and they’re priceless)
So what do you think about SMS-based 311 for your town or agency? Would it work? Why or why not? Chime in with your comments below.
*Yes CB2 is usually on Wednesdays, but you get it a day early since it’s difficult to send my candied yams as a Thanksgiving treat to you instead.

Read Last Week’s CB2: What TSA Can Learn From the Simpsons

About Chris Bennett (Jump to Online Resume)

Chris Bennett is a self-proclaimed emergency management innovator who is trying to make government better by improving citizen preparedness and crisis communications. He’s a graduate of Wharton with a master’s from Harvard with in “Technology, Innovation, Education.” His portfolio of companies and former projects include OneStorm Hurricane Preparedness, ReadyTown, GovLive, TexasPrepares and America’s Emergency Network. Chris was the recipient of FL Governor Crist’s 2008 Public Information Award. He lives in St. Petersburg, FL, loves to fish, and has been spotted sharing a pint with GovLoop Founder Steve Ressler in Tampa.

What does CB2 Mean? “Chris Bennett’s Crisis Blog.” It was originally CB Squared but the superscript 2 never took, so now we’re rocking the big 2.

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Alycia Piazza

I would love to have this information at my fingertips – being a google-aholic – some recent questions I would have for my area “What time does Trick or Treat start” – “What time does a noise ordinance go into effect” – and “Is ______ road still closed to construction?”

Mark Headd

I’m the Developer Evangelist at Tropo, an open gov fan and a former state government employee (NY and DE).

I think you make some great points about the usefulness of SMS to delivering government information.

I’d love to help out on any project you take on. The tools and support at Tropo are second to none, and I’ve used them to build projects for a number of different municipalities.

Let me know how we can help. Thanks!

Mark Headd

Cheryl Ward

When it comes to quick access to information, Cha Cha is excellent, but you know, the federal govt has been forward thinking on this stuff for more than a decade… Perhaps you did not know that GSA has been operating a similar service for years, in conjunction with other information services aimed at serving the citizen, through the Federal Citizen Information Center.
Check out

brief excerpt from website:The Contact Center & Print Operations Program provides direct telephone (800 FED-INFO), e-mail and web chat services to the public through the National Contact Center (NCC), as well as an array of contact center and print distribution services for several other customer agencies. The NCC answers 1.5 million phone, email, and chat inquiries each year on all Federal government topics, and provides print distribution support for all the publications offered at pueblo.gsa.gov. The Contact Center Program also developed, awarded and manages the USA Contact contract, created for use by agencies governmentwide to quickly obtain their own citizen-centric contact center services.

Teresa Nassif is GSA’s guru on this stuff, and she’s an avid supporter of effective use of social media. I think you should connect with Teresa and discuss ways your company could team up with current contract holders, or get on contract to offer your services.

Cheryl Ward

One last comment — when I saw the headline for this post, I really hoped this posting was going to suggest a meetup somewhere to dance on Thanksgiving or the following weekend…. now that Dancing With the Stars is over, I am itching for some swing dancing…


I have an even wilder idea. Why not get all these questions answered via SMS from your local library? You can get questions like this–and even harder ones–answered by professional librarians. BTW, this service is free and already offered by most libraries.

Chris Bennett

Kyshia – Great idea. When you say it’s already offered by most libraries do you mean SMSing a librarian specifically, or just that they are the community’s free researchers?

Gwynne – Agree completely that the website should be a simple place to find information before getting to SMS. And yes, looking at the questions asked would help refine what’s included on the website to make it more useful.

Cheryl – Thanks for pointing me to the FCIC. I wasn’t aware of the service – hope they’ll looking at adding SMS to that list. I’ll contact Teresa! Sorry about the title – This dancing picture will have to do for now 🙂

Mark – Thanks for the offer! Will let you know if any cities/agencies follow up.

Alycia – Your comment points to where this type of service would be most helpful: at the local level. After posting though I did think more about staffing it. The nice thing about 311 is that most are designed to have extended hours or be 24/7 operations. If Halloween were on a Saturday and the service was staffed M-F/8-5, I’d be bummed that my answer wouldn’t come back until Monday.