311 Helps Support the Republican National Convention
This past September Minnesotans rolled out the red carpet to welcome Republicans attending their National Convention. Nearly 45,000 delegates, guests, visitors, and media converged on the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-Saint Paul to watch John McCain accept his party's presidential nomination. If any of those visitors had questions about where to go or how to get there, they needed only to dial 311 from their cell phones.
Like New York City's use of its 311 system at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in 2004, the Minneapolis 311 system also provided a hospitality hot line for the 2008 convention. The RNC 311 hot line designed for the delegates was loaded with information about the convention schedule and activities, transportation, traffic management, tourist attractions, restaurants, shopping options, and more.
Getting RNC 311 up and running required a stretch of technological and logistical muscle. For one thing, 311 chose to partner with Time Communications, a professional call center, to handle the majority of RNC calls to preclude 311 service levels from being compromised.
Working with subcontractors meant that they would need access to, and training on, the information software used by 311. A T1 line provided the technological connectivity between the two call centers. For the training, curriculum on the Knowledge Base software and RNC fact sheets were developed for Time's agents. Special training emphasis was put on how to stay politically neutral during caller interactions, something that later prove to be valuable.
Then there was the challenge of expanding 311 dialing outside Minneapolis city limits. Although Minneapolis is the only city of the Twin Cities with 311 system service, the convention was located in neighboring Saint Paul and delegate hotels were scattered throughout the entire metropolitan area. To make 311 dialing available from anywhere within the Twin Cities, Minneapolis 311 personnel worked with each cell phone provider to temporarily expand coverage.
Finally, a customized database had to be designed and built to service the callers. The RNC Knowledge Base had more than 50 categories of information that call takers could access in response to questions. Callers could find out everything from “When does McCain speak?” to “Where is traffic tied up from protestors?”
The RNC's Unsteady Start
The Republican Convention blew in on the heels of Hurricane Gustav. What should have been celebratory turned somber as President Bush canceled his trip, the schedule was curtailed, and presumptive nominee John McCain headed for the Gulf Coast. An aura of uncertainty clouded that first day of the convention. With the entire schedule up in the air, no one knew whether the convention would be postponed, or even canceled.
Meanwhile, a different type of storm was brewing in Saint Paul as anarchist groups took to the streets on day one of the Convention. Splitting off from a mostly-peaceful protest march, the anarchists caused chaos—bashing windows and cars, and taunting police.
At the 311 information line, two main topics were on caller's minds: the RNC schedule and the protests. With information changing on both fronts, 311's Knowledge Base administrators had to make constant updates.
Getting updated information about convention schedule changes was challenging. Convention planners were skittish about publishing the daily schedule because of security concerns and now the entire schedule was in flux. Knowledge Base administrators relied on three tools to get information so it could be conveyed to call agents as quickly as possible:
- Getting on the RNC's media advisory list where scheduled updates were e-mailed.
- Monitoring national and local news reports.
- Monitoring live-streamed media feeds from the convention.
It was not a perfect system, but it worked. During the time that the RNC 311 hot line was activated, the top five calls to the 311 RNC Information Line were about protests and police-related issues (265); the convention schedule, meetings, and related events (259); traffic management (142); restaurants and night life (101); and miscellaneous hospitality calls—shopping, day trips, attractions (85).
The top category of RNC 311 contacts were related to the protests because many individuals were upset with how the police handled protestors. They voiced their complaints not only through telephone calls to the 311 system, but through an unexpected communications tool—the Minneapolis 311 system's e-mail address.
No one had anticipated the sheer volume of protest-related e-mails that the 311 e-mail address would receive. All told, 2,138 e-mails were sent to 311 and forwarded to Minneapolis Police. During the convention, there were more 311 system e-mails than registered 311 calls.
Staying in the Know
Although the RNC 311 hot line was targeted to delegates, indexing protest information in the Knowledge Base was important. After all, local residents wanted to know about road closures or areas to avoid. Protestors themselves wanted to know locations and phone numbers for jails and law enforcement. And because incidents and arrest numbers kept increasing, Knowledge Base administrators worked out a system to say abreast of information:
- Daily calls to the Minneapolis Emergency Communications Center
- Daily conference calls with the Joint Information Center
- Regular calls to contacts at Saint Paul's Emergency Operations Center
- Consistent monitoring of news reports and live web streams.
Information updates were also conveyed to RNC 311's supervisors who made sure that call agents were aware of the changes in the Knowledge Base.
All told, there were more than 800 arrests related to the RNC protests. Although it wasn't the most positive aspect of the RNC, at least callers could get accurate information merely by dialing 311.
The City of Minneapolis was awarded funding from the COPS Office to help establish its 311 system and conduct an assessment of the project. The COPS Office has just released a comprehensive report resulting from this assessment, entitled Building a 311 System: A Case Study of the City of Minneapolis. Prepared by the City of Minneapolis in cooperation with the MACRO GROUP, the report is available for download from www.cops.usdoj.gov.