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Can You Text Your City?


October 22, 2014

Can You Text Your City?

Home > Blog > Can You Text Your City?

Can you text your city? You could if you lived in Evanston, Ill.

Just north of Chicago, Evanston is one of the most tech-savvy cities in the country. Ever since they launched long code texting a couple of months ago, they’ve been able to reach out to community members as well as allow the community to reach out to their city.

Luke Stowe, digital services coordinator at the City of Evanston, spoke with OneReach to talk about how texting is transforming their community outreach efforts.

First Time Isn’t Always a Charm

Evanston is a city ahead of the curve. They introduced shortcode texting as early as 2012, asking citizens to text the word “Evanston” to 311311 with questions or concerns.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go exactly as projected.

“It was a little bit clunky for people to use,” admits Stowe. “It didn’t get the adoption we were anticipating.”

Stowe cites a difficult-to-remember short code and having to send a keyword as factors that deterred constituents. He also said people weren’t sure how to text a short code, and that it looked unusual compared to a regular 10-digit phone number.

“It never quite took off,” says Stowe. “We asked ourselves, ‘Are there other ways?’”

Luckily for Evanston, there were.

Truly Out and About

After working with OneReach on a long code text messaging program, Evanston quietly launched their new system in late summer. Residents can text the city’s 10-digit 311 phone number (847-448-4311) no matter whether they are.

Stowe says they’ve already had dozens of text messages come in to 311, and he thinks he knows why: people want to report events as they’re happening.

“Being able to SMS directly to 311 is even more real-time than web chat,” says Stowe. “Web chat could be about an issue that has already occurred, but with texting you’re truly out and about in the city.”

Evanston believes text messaging is helping the city better respond to events in real-time.

“The other day, someone sent a text message saying there were a couple of cars parked illegally,” says Stowe. “They were texting in the moment, at that particular place, and 311 was able to immediately assist them.”

How You Can Text Your City

So far, Evanston has been using SMS for both inbound and outbound messaging. Citizens can opt-in to receive emergency notifications, or they can text in to report issues or ask about different events in the city.

But that’s not all Evanston is capable of doing with texting. They also use texting for:

  • Outbound messages – Traffic updates, snow alerts, beach status updates
  • Inbound messages – Report broken traffic lights, inquire about park activities
  • Surveying their residents to help improve services
  • Automated updates on events like such as art fairs, festivals, concerts, etc.

Back to the Future

Texting may be about 20 years old, but Stowe thinks its staying power will contribute to its success.

“This technology has been around for a while,” says Stowe. “I think it’s safe to say that SMS texting isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

Still, the city has a few ideas about updating text for a modern audience.  “We’ve been working with our restaurant inspection software vendor on setting up a OneReach number provided by Twilio,” says Stowe. “We want to create something where residents could text a restaurant name to the 311 phone number and it would send the latest inspection score.”

The city also recently went live with restaurant inspection in the popular app and website Yelp.

“It’s ‘Web 3.0’, where you get the right content at the right time on the right device, like when you’re walking into a restaurant and want to see inspection scores,” says Stowe.

On Being One of a Kind

Evanston is part the growing trend of cities offering a 311 service, joining the ranks of bigger cities such as New York and Minneapolis. However, Evanston is one of only a handful of cities in the U.S. that has live 311 operators responding to a customer’s text message.

“As far as true, live texting with 311 services, I have only initially found New York City as the other comparable agency offering a similar service,” said Stowe.  Despite the rather open texting frontier (for now), Stowe thinks more cities will adopt texting going forward.

“I think in government, we have a responsibility to go where our residents are.  If they prefer to text, call, web chat, use social media or email — we will respond.”

Interested in text-enabling your own city? Visit onereach.com to learn more.


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