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311: tracking the trackers
Soon after David Miller was first elected as mayor in 2003, he took a trip to Baltimore. He came back with stars in his eyes, a convert to their 311 information system. 311 was the central number you could call in Baltimore to report a pothole or a slummy house or a broken park bench. 311 was backed by a system called “citistat” described as ''“an ‘executive information system’ like those used by corporations such as Frito-Lay or Mrs. Field’s Cookies.” The idea was to get as much data as possible and enter it into a system where it could be continuously analyzed by management. The system’s boosters described it like this: “Tracking citizens ‘ complaints, requests, tips, and comments can provide a wealth of information about service levels, employee interaction, and neighbourhood conditions and trends. Baltimore’s 311 telephone line provides a comprehensive system for gathering this kind of ‘soft’ data.” And the gathering of data would somehow lead to tremendous savings – officials in Baltimore say they have realized over $40 million in financial savings since they put in this system.
Wow! Mayor Miller came back and made sure that Toronto got one of those 311 systems as well. And since then, every few years there have been reports to the council committees about how well the staff feel 311 is working and how much money they assume it's saving.
But we have to give it a big bad raspberry for ice rink information. Before 311, skaters could look in the phone book and call their local outdoor rink to ask about ice conditions. Then they could decide if they ought to get their skates and come down, or not bother until the ice was better. But in 2006 the order came to make individual rink telephone numbers unavailable to the public. Skaters were instructed to call one convenient number for rink information: 311.
As of January 2014, the CELOS-sponsored website CityRinks.ca has been tracking 311 for about five years. The 311 outdoor rink information is wrong more than 50% of the time; during storms it goes up to 90% wrong. No wonder. Toronto has more municipal outdoor compressor-cooled ice rinks than any city in the world – over 50. Every time the weather changes (sometimes three times a day), ice conditions may change. That’s way too many updates to be entered into a central reporting system.
The city's rink information web page has become slightly more accurate, especially on days when the weather is good. But there are still many days when a "closed" sign stays up far beyond the time when this was the case. An example: Scarborough's civic rink was marked as closed during a warm spell on February 28. It kept on being listed as closed until March 13. Cityrinks.ca has been tracking the city's 2016/2017 rink season postings here.