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Looking closer at the continuing drop in complaints to 311 in Q4, 2019

The graph below plots the total number of complaints to 311. As noted here, complaints to 311 can be highly seasonal, and the data is expected to vary from quarter to quarter. The larger-than-usual drop from Q2 to Q3 of 2019, addressed here, traced back to glitches at NYC Open Data; as well as policy changes as noted further down below. The trend continues in Q4, 2019, to a much lesser extent viewed quarter-on-quarter versus year-on-year, and mainly involves the same agencies as in Q3, 2019: DSNY, HPD, and DEP.

There were 501,466* complaints in the fourth quarter of 2019, which is 31,057, or 6%, fewer than the 532,523 complaints in the preceding quarter of the same year.

However, complaints vary by weather/season and other factors. In order to compare like with like, we go back a year and compare Q4 of 2019, with the same quarter the previous year, which had 639,676 complaints. In all, there were 138,210, or 22%, fewer complaints in Q4 of 2019 compared to Q4, 2018. Keep in mind when you scan the table below that some agency complaints went down, others went up, and 138,210 is the net; what you get when you add up all the increases and drops of all the agencies.

Let’s see how that 22% drop is spread across agencies handling the complaints – the agencies with the most drops and the agencies which saw the most increases.

    Agency  y2018  y2019 Change Percent
1     DSNY  98950  29154 -69796  -70.54
2      HPD 184869 116975 -67894  -36.73
3      DEP  44078  36267  -7811  -17.72
4      DPR  22795  17980  -4815  -21.12
...   <NA>    ...    ...    ...     ...
13     EDC    281   1699   1418  504.63
14     DHS   4325   5976   1651   38.17
15     TLC   7836  11901   4065   51.88
16    NYPD 178456 195443  16987    9.52

The list above is ranked by the change in the number of complaints, not by percentage changes.

Once again, in Q4 as in Q3, the three departments with the largest drops in numbers are Sanitation, Housing Preservation & Development, and Environmental Protection. Let’s look at the specific types of complaints that saw these large drops in each of these agencies in Q4 of 2018 and 2019.

Department of Sanitation (DSNY):

                        Complaint.Type  2018 2019 Change Percent
1: Request Large Bulky Item Collection 42507    0 -42507    -100
2:                Sanitation Condition  9735  378  -9357     -96
3:                   Electronics Waste  9200    1  -9199    -100

Bulky Item Collection and Sanitation Condition also ranked first and second in Q3. Electronics Waste in Q4 replaces Graffiti in Q3 at third place. It appears some of the glitches have been sorted out at NYC Open Data. As of the latest data, Graffiti count in Q3, 2019 is 2,834; it was 0 based on data downloaded in November. Bulky Items Collection seems to have seen a policy change – no need to request a pick up, just leave them curbside based on a schedule. How does DSNY know who left the bedbug-infested mattress on the sidewalk if people don’t have to call for a pick up? But I digress. Electronics Waste, down a 100%, also seems to have been the subject of a policy change and is being handled differently.

User JD left a comment saying DSNY was no longer taking “Sanitation Condition” complaints via the app or the 311 website and this may be inhibiting the number of complaints since filing a complaint via the call center takes considerably longer. I haven’t looked at it in detail yet, but user JD’s speculation seems to be borne out by the numbers. There were 11,501 “Sanitation Condition” reports in Q2, 2019 against 762 in Q3 and 378 in Q4.

It seems two things, in tandem, are producing these drops. And possibly a third.

  1. Policy changes which made certain complaint/service request categories disappear completely (Bulky Items Pickup, for example), and this causes a drop.
  2. There was a data snafu at NYC Open Data which misplaced chunks of data; that has been resolved or is in the process of being resolved (Graffiti, see elsewhere).

Given which, I am going to parse what’s going on at HPD and DEP without digging deeper. And let things settle down and sort themselves out in the next quarter or two and dig deeper if warranted then. If you know or have a good guess what’s going on, speculate away in the comments.

Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD):

         Complaint.Type  2018 2019 Change Percent
1: UNSANITARY CONDITION 22872 9015 -13857     -61
2:        PAINT/PLASTER 15359 3352 -12007     -78
3:             PLUMBING 14060 5432  -8628     -61

Department of Environmental Protection (DEP):

   Complaint.Type  2018  2019 Change Percent
1:          Noise 15206 11515  -3691     -24
2:   Water System 13842 11559  -2283     -16
3:          Sewer  8359  6636  -1723     -21

We have one last aggregation to consider. My special sauce, as you may know, is to parse all NYC 311 data in terms of council districts. Which said, was the drop uniform across council districts? The table below shows that though there is a wide range across districts, no one district stands out as an outlier meriting further analysis. By which I mean, though council district 36, repped by Robert Cornegy Jr., has a drop of 9000 and district 1, Margaret Chin, actually sees a token increase, district 36’s numbers are within spitting distance of those for the 5 districts that follow. The widening range raises the question why, but there could be valid reasons like underlying seasonality, or location-specific factors.

    Council_District y2018 y2019 Change Percent
1                 36 33088 24047  -9041  -27.32
2                 39 28416 19575  -8841  -31.11
3                 49 27654 19296  -8358  -30.22
4                 40 32302 24088  -8214  -25.43
5                 51 22546 14854  -7692  -34.12
6                 42 23825 16405  -7420  -31.14
...              ...   ...   ...    ...     ...
48                21 17705 16180  -1525   -8.61
49                 6 16870 15682  -1188   -7.04
50                 4 21941 21134   -807   -3.68
51                 1 26810 27325    515    1.92

Earlier, I said three things could be going on that explain the sharp drops in service requests/complaints. That third thing is the equivalent of sweeping all manner of things under the rug. Less junk in your dust pan, sure, and yay!, but all of a sudden grandma is tripping over these bumps that popped up randomly under the carpet. “Sanitation Condition” could be a candidate. Why take it off the app and the web but allow people to report it at the call center? As I blogged several months ago, 311 and DEP decided that they would not take complaints about noise from power washers.  At all. And there was the DEP inspector who said they would have to install sound monitoring equipment in my apartment to check the sound levels on the ferry engine noise that I complained about. Rational thing to do is set up monitoring close to the ferry, but that may mean they wind up having to issue a ticket to… a high-profile donor. Disincentivizing the filing of complaints, not accepting some types of complaints, making it time-consuming to file specific types of complaints and/or making the link hard to find – these are all ways to (a) massage numbers or, more likely,  (b) to “balance” the interests of conflicted constituents without explicitly ranking one constituent’s interests higher than those of another.

* The actual number of complaints in Q4, 2019 is 520,909. Council District numbers could be assigned to only 501,466 of them, and the balance are not considered in this analysis.

311 data from NYC Open Data.

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