The Magic Number

Launched as 911's unglamorous cousin, 311 service is proving to be a vehicle for urban reform

In 2002, West Nile hit Chicago hard. At the end of the year, after 22 had died from the virus, the city's public-health officials looked back and asked what could have been done differently. An answer came from an unlikely source: data collected from 311, a hotline for residents to request city services. Nearly 4,000 calls had been placed that summer and early fall to ask the sanitation department to pick up dead crows. The public-health team, knowing that dead birds often mean West Nile is afoot, overlaid maps of 311 calls and human cases of the virus. Their hunch was...

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