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Is Tempe petty? Community concerned about use of 311 app

Critics claim it's used to pit neighbors against eachother and shame the homeless

A sign, pictured on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016, on the window of Ash Ave Comics & Book Store, located in Tempe, warns users of the Tempe 311 app they are not welcome in the neighborhood surrounding the store.
A sign, pictured on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016, on the window of Ash Ave Comics & Book Store, located in Tempe, warns users of the Tempe 311 app they are not welcome in the neighborhood surrounding the store.

Among the concert flyers lining the front of  Ash Ave Comics, one stands out.

“No 311 App in this neighborhood,” the flyer reads. These fliers can be found speckled throughout the neighborhood.

Tempe 311 is the city of Tempe’s non-emergency service request system. It’s purpose was to give citizens an easy way to make requests to city hall by phone and email.

In early 2013 the service was turned into a smartphone app as the city introduced Tempe 311 to iTunes and Google Play.

The app was originally intended to be used to report code violations, public safety hazards and graffiti. However, some Tempe citizens worry that the app is being used to target community members and homeless people in the neighborhood.

Drew Sullivan has owned Ash Ave Comics, a fixture of Tempe’s Maple-Ash/Farmer-Wilson neighborhood for 14 years. He is a vocal member of the MAFW community who, like a large portion of the neighborhood, stands in staunch opposition to the app.

“People realized that the 311 app was — especially because of the anonymous nature of the reporting — kind of a tool to turn neighbors against each other,” Sullivan said.

Some Tempe citizens also said they feel they have been targeted by others using the app. This is because when a report is made on the app, it is instantly made public to everyone else who has the app.

Opponents to the app have also pointed out that a fair amount of reporting on the app pertains to the homeless, something that 311 does not exist for.

Despite its lack of relevance to the purpose of the service, it does not take very long while perusing through these publicly displayed requests to notice a substantial volume of homeless related maintenance requests.

“Where are the supervisors or management of this area, have you seen what this place looks like with the homeless?” wrote one anonymous 311 user in a park maintenance request pertaining to Tempe Beach Park.

When submitting a request to 311, users must select a category of request. Categories include park maintenance, weeds or dead vegetation and graffiti among others.

“The bathrooms at Tempe Town Beach are unusable these days,” wrote another anonymous user in a maintenance request. “They are commonly overrun by the homeless and their carts. When are they going to be asked to leave?”

This report was user-categorized “junk or debris.”

Members of the community have voiced their dislike for the app, and many said that it's now used for petty purposes, sometimes even jokes.

“It’s beyond being used for code enforcement or alley pick up or maybe in its most extreme forms graffiti or something that they want the city to clean up,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan, citing a news article posted on an anti-311 Facebook page, pointed out that the public shaming of the homeless is not isolated to Tempe.

“It turns out that Tempe isn’t the only city where people use the 311 app to target the homeless,” Sullivan said.

Berkeley, California saw its 311 app receive 48,000 complains about homeless encampments over a span of four years.

“48,000 over four years — that’s still 12,000 complaints a year in Berkeley against the homeless,” Sullivan said. ”We’ve seen dozens already in Tempe aimed at the homeless.”

Sullivan said he believes that 311, a dislike for the homeless community and some of the laws previously passed in Tempe regarding the homeless all go hand-in-hand. These laws, which included a fine for sitting on the sidewalk or aggressive panhandling, came under fire and have caused some ire among Tempe citizens. 

“It’s part of this revitalization that is never-ending in Tempe,” Sullivan said.

Some Tempe citizens, like lifetime resident and political science senior Andre Salais, believe that the app is flawed but was created with good intentions.

“I certainly don’t view the 311 app is inherently bad,” Salais said. “It’s being abused.”

However, Tempe City Councilman and 311 supporter Kolby Granville said the complaints are unfounded and said the benefits of the app itself outweigh the problems.

“Let’s say the app didn’t exist,” Granville said. “You could still call in a violation, you could still email a violation. I could quite literally take a photo with the camera on my phone and email it to the 311 email address.”

Granville believes that the issue at hand with the app is the ease of scrolling through the public record of 311 complaints. Unlike the other forms of Tempe 311 like phone and email reports, the app publicly displays every complaint it receives, no matter how unrelated it may be to code violations.

“Even though every one of those are subject to the public record, should it be that easy to scroll through the public record?” Granville said. “I think the answer is no, and I’ve expressed that before to staff.”

Granville said he believes that the 311 app’s record should only be available through public records requests like the rest of the 311 service. He added that this ease of access is why people dislike the app in its current form.

“If some yahoo was calling in every time there are leaves on the ground because they found leaves offensive, we would have one hundred 311 app notices about leaves on the ground on the sidewalk,” Granville said. “And staff would close them out as totally irrelevant requests, but every single person could scroll through those, and it’s having every single person being able to scroll through those that is what’s making people mad.”

Reach the reporter at or follow  @jeffdarge on Twitter.

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