Skip to content
April 4th, 2016
Cities • Technology

Accessing Boston’s non-emergency services via BOS:311

The city of Boston had long recognised that it needed to emulate other North American cities by adopting 311 as its non-emergency number. In 2015, the city rebranded its renowned Citizens Connect app to BOS:311 and brought many other services under the umbrella of Boston 311, a system which enables citizens to report incidents using smart apps, texts, tweets and phone calls.

The initiative

The first of Boston's initiatives to make full use of mobile technology was Citizens Connect. “Launched in 2009, Citizens Connect is a mobile application that empowers residents to be the City's eyes and ears, engaging them in the process of maintaining their own city neighbourhoods. Residents report public issues directly from their smart phones into the City's work order management system so that it gets immediately to the right person in City Hall to fix the problem.” [1]

The main council agencies involved were the Department of Innovation and Technology and the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM). The technology was developed with the involvement of “innovators from inside and outside of government, helping them incubate and scale their ideas”. [2] This new system enabled the city council “to manage calls, add additional reporting capabilities, eliminating redundancy as well as the ability to easily add additional resources in an emergency”. [3]

On 11 August 2015, Mayor Martin J. Walsh “launched Boston 311, a platform to better enable residents of Boston to report non-emergency issues to the City, such as graffiti and broken street lights, and access City services”. [4] This provided a further step in the process of updating 311 to integrate available technologies and encourage citizens to use the non-emergency services.

The main 311 platforms are:

  • Telephone - Mobile and Landline (“311 can be accessed anywhere within the City limits”). Boston's existing mobile app “Current Connect” was automatically upgraded to BOS:311. [5]
  • Online - via the web URL ( and social media (tweet @BOS311).

The challenge

In 2005, Boston had a long-standing 10-digit “Mayor's Hotline’”, which was a 24-hour call centre that city officials had been describing as obsolete for some years past. It increasingly failed to serve local citizens adequately and had not kept pace with technology. In December 2005, the Boston City Council passed a nonbinding resolution urging the mayor to replace the hotline with a 311 system.

The public impact

The administration has developed a number of mobile apps around the 311 service. “The ‘City Worker' app allows government employees to access service requests while they are in the field and officially close out cases without ever returning to the office.” [6] It was piloted in 2011 and “takes all of the service requests made by citizens for potholes, graffiti, streetlight outages, and even recycling stickers, and routes them to the Android-based mobile device of the nearest work crew from the responsible department”. [7]

The connection to social media has had a significant impact on the relationship between government and citizens. “Citizens Connect ... has been a primary beneficiary. Its Twitter account uploads all open service requests to its feed and posts updates when cases are closed. Its smartphone app [BOS:311]—the first in the country and still the most emulated—allows users to read recent submissions, look at accompanying pictures and even view their location on a map.” [8]

Stakeholder engagement

Efforts have been made to engage citizens in the transition to the revised 311 service and the project has resulted in higher engagement.

The mayor of Boston has been engaged with all 311-related developments, including the 2015 launch of Boston 311. The Department of Innovation and Technology and the Office of New Urban Mechanics are the main agencies involved in building and updating the 311 services.

There had been some initial resistance from internal stakeholders to the move from the 10-digit number to the 311 number that had been adopted elsewhere in the US. “Last year, [city councillor, Stephen] Murphy revived his push for 311 by co-sponsoring an order for a public airing of the issue. At an ensuing April 2005 hearing before the Council's Public Safety Committee, the city again dug in its heels against 311, saying its own system was working just fine.” [9]

Local tech firms have also been engaged in the development of 311 services. In 2009, the city of Boston “partnered with a local technology company called Connected Bits developed Citizens Connect for iPhones, using a fast-paced, iterative and collaborative design process”. [10]

This has been a guiding principle for the council. “When cities farm out innovation to private developers, they save money and stimulate business development in the civic-tech sector … In Boston, the Department of Innovation and Technology and the Office of Urban Mechanics work with innovators from inside and outside of government, helping them incubate and scale their ideas.” [11]

There has also been engagement from academic institutions. “The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics partners with universities, including Worcester Polytechnic Institute, MIT, and Harvard, and the Boston Area Research Initiative (BART), an interuniversity research initiative that connects Boston area scholars and practitioners for cutting edge urban research.” [12]

An experiment conducted by Harvard in which Boston-area residents interacted with a website that visualizes the service requests submitted by members of the public and the City's efforts to address them has revealed that the use of Open311 is deepening civic engagement. [13] By introducing the mobile app, Boston has engaged a population that really was not engaged before, as evidenced by the doubling of service requests coming into the city.

Political commitment

There were doubts in 2005 about Mayor Merino's commitment to a new 311 service. “Some inside City Hall believe Menino may be reluctant to give up a [10-digit] number that's become part of his own urban brand.” [14]

Political support from the current mayor have been strong, though. With the launch of Boston 311, Mayor Walsh has taken another step to better streamline City services for Boston's residents. He was quoted as saying that “‘by streamlining communication to City Hall, we are building on our priorities to create a City government that is efficient and accessible to all of Boston's residents'." [15] The 2015 initiative was backed by an extensive public awareness campaign.

Public confidence

There was strong criticism of the mayor's hotline but also a reluctance to transition from the previous system within the administration. The recent 311-based initiatives have in greater transparency and therefore greater citizen support.

Citizens connect has engaged citizens and given them greater confidence in 311 service. “‘We firmly believe that government is better when citizens are firmly engaged,' [Justin Holmes, director of constituent engagement for the City of Boston] said. ‘We suspected there was a population that was either unaware of our 24-hour call service or the process of dialling a 10-digit number was a barrier to their engagement. So by introducing the mobile app, what we've done is really engage a population in Boston that really was not engaged before.'” [16]

BOS:311 has been praised by citizens, with web posts citing examples of how the system works, and encouraging fellow citizens to use the app and help improve their city. [17]

Clarity of objectives

When the non-binding resolution was passed in 2005 to institute the 311 protocol, the city adopted the tenets of the system without using the number 311. The number and system underwent a full revamp as envisaged in 2015 as BOS:311. The current objectives are clear: for citizens to be able to report on-emergencies on one of four platforms and for city workers to respond quickly.

Strength of evidence

Boston's implementation of 311 and the apps related to it has drawn on comparable models in other cities and from the previous system Boston had in place, the ‘mayor's hotline':

  • The first use of 311 as a non-emergency number was by Baltimore in 1996 as an alternative to the emergency 911 number.
  • It was adopted by other North American cities, such as Minneapolis and New York City. “‘This thing is working in other cities,' said City Councillor Stephen Murphy, who's watched as more than two dozen other communities - from mondo New York to mighty-mite Somerville.” [18]


The technical feasibility was well established, as Boston's 311 uses an API platform that has been widely adopted. “311 services in several cities are leveraging open source data and the capabilities of mobile computing to better serve residents and increase accountability among government Agencies.” [19] The City worked with several tech companies and with academic partners such as MIT to develop the technology and mobile apps.

The 2015 relaunch of 311 built on previous developments. For example, “from Citizens Connect we have a current install base of over 60,000. With the rebrand we're aiming to get more people using the app and increase the functionality”. [20] Part of the push to acquire more users was a 2015 public awareness campaign with advertisements going up throughout the city. “They're going to be on bus shelters, BigBelly trash cans, and some less cheeky ones on billboards too.'' [21]


The development of BOS:311 was led by the Mayor of Boston, who has recently announced further development of the app by introduction of translation into 6 languages. [22]

The city of Boston has a specific department, The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, which aims to maximise how technology can strengthen the relationship between citizens and governments, and have a positive impact of citizen's lives. Furthermore, the local government of Boston also has a chief information officer and chief data officer who are both involved in managing the use of technology in public policy. [23]


Boston city council is proactive when it comes to using collected data, to improve services to citizens. There is a dedicated data team which monitors and collects data. The BOS:311 website clearly states the number of reports that have been made using the app (980,867 at the time of writing), and lists which reports are currently ‘open’ and which have been dealt with. This provides a very transparent and clear measurement of the effectiveness of the app. [23]


The various actors involved are also working effectively together to deliver outcomes, at the same time enabling transparency through an open data initiative:

  • The council has collaborated with private tech companies and universities to develop apps.
  • Service request data is publicly available on the open data portal and appears on the mayor's dashboard in his office.
  • Workers from the public works, transportation and parks departments are using the 311 mobile app to go out and resolve issues on the spot.
  • Citizens collaborate with the council through the rebranded Citizens Connect (now BOS:311). “The 311 Twitter account uploads all open service requests to its feed and posts updates when cases are closed. Its smartphone app—the first in the country and still the most emulated—allows users to read recent submissions, look at accompanying pictures and even view their location on a map." [24]

The Public Impact Fundamentals - A framework for successful policy

This case study has been assessed using the Public Impact Fundamentals, a simple framework and practical tool to help you assess your public policies and ensure the three fundamentals - Legitimacy, Policy and Action are embedded in them.

Learn more about the Fundamentals and how you can use them to access your own policies and initiatives.

Explore the Fundamentals