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Atlantic Yards and 311: An open letter to Mayor Bloomberg

Dear Mayor Bloomberg:

About a year ago, we launched Atlantic Yards Watch because construction at the Atlantic Yards site had resulted in severe impacts to the quality of life of the project’s neighbors, and it seemed like nobody in government was paying attention. We wanted to provide a way for residents to log incidents and make those reports visible. Since then, we believe the community’s reporting on issues like rodent infestation, illegal parking by construction workers, and violations of air quality protocols have helped to spur action on the part of the City and the ESDC to better enforce regulations and project commitments.

We encourage folks submitting incidents to call 311 first to get a report number. If you have a look at our incident page, you will see sometimes people do, and sometimes they don’t. We think construction impacts in general would be addressed more effectively if more people submitted their reports to 311, especially now that your office has assigned a resource to coordinate response from City agencies and work with the ESDC. It’s even possible that if all reports were submitted to 311, and 311 was able to sort and categorize them appropriately and report them on the City’s website, we might not need to continue to run AYW any longer, and we could go back to our regular jobs.

That brings us to the point of this letter. Recently, we were informed by representatives of your office that all callers reporting Atlantic Yards incidents to 311 would be required to identify the location of the incident as “620 Atlantic Avenue” so 311 would be able to identify the report as being related to Atlantic Yards. This is the case even if the incident being reported is blocks away from 620 Atlantic Avenue.  Frankly, we don’t think this is going to work. For the last eight years, thousands of people living near the project have been used to thinking of the site as “Atlantic Yards” or “Barclays Center,” in part because Forest City Ratner has spent hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of dollars publicizing those names. Nobody recognizes “620 Atlantic Avenue.” However, we were told that enabling the 311 system to key incident reports to “Atlantic Yards” or “Barclays Center” would require the entire system to be rewritten.

We admit we found this hard to believe. It doesn’t seem possible that 311 is unable to take a report based on a common place name instead of a street address. We doubt many people know the street addresses of Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, or Citi Field, for instance. We would like to think that a person calling 311 about a problem at the Grand Army Plaza subway station would be able to be served.

Notwithstanding these doubts, it would be really bad if a shortcoming in the 311 system prevented it from accurately measuring the incidence of construction impacts around the Atlantic Yards site. Before becoming Mayor of New York City, you were a successful technology and information services entrepreneur. You have become known for your “data-driven” approach to running City government. You also conceived the 311 system, and by almost all measures it has been an extremely successful service that has been replicated in other cities across the country. So we wanted to suggest some ways around this issue for you to consider.

First, it should be possible to enable the use of aliases to refer to arbitrary primary keys local to the 311 system. For instance, if 311 needs to use “620 Atlantic Avenue” internally, it should allow “Atlantic Yards” as a alias for callers to use. Many, many mainstream web sites incorporate this concept, and we don’t think it would be out of reach for 311.

But if allowing 311 to collect reports and summarize them by alias is not feasible, we would be willing to transmit incident reports directly from AYW to 311, recoding them as “620 Atlantic Avenue.” If 311 is able to provide us with an Internet API for that purpose, we will agree to develop and maintain the software necessary to transmit the reports at no charge to the City of New York. This is admittedly less preferable as a solution than the alias approach, but we wanted to make the offer.

Mr. Mayor, we hope you will take these suggestions seriously. Even if construction lasts as long as the 25 years Forest City renegotiated with the ESDC in 2009, people will always think of the site as “Atlantic Yards.” There will be a continuing need to manage the impacts of such an extended period of construction on the community, and City has an important role to play coordinating DOB, DOT, DEP, DOH and other agencies. The project’s neighbors should not have to learn to jump through hoops to use 311.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Atlantic Yards Watch