Okay, so the city of Boston, Mass. has been getting a lot of great press for its new mobile municipal office, City Hall to Go. It’s a repurposed food truck that visits Boston neighborhoods, dishing out common city services such as pet licensing, voter registration, parking stickers, birth certificate requests, and more. Here's a look at the menu:
Boston — as every major metropolitan area should — already allows citizens to conduct plenty of city business online. And Bostonians are still welcome to sacrifice their lunch hours for a trip down to City Hall. So as progressive as the idea sounds, it seems to me that City Hall to Go is really just a hipster-themed bonus option for late adopters.
Look, I’m not saying City Hall to Go is a bad idea. It’s friendly, stylish, and fun in a way that few local governments are. But it just seems so...1993.
We’re living in a world where people’s expectations grow more technologically advanced every day. The modern citizen wants simplicity, convenience, sustainability, and accuracy, not a gas guzzling PR effort and a new opportunity to stand in line.
City Hall to Go has already hit the streets to collect feedback in neighborhoods all over Boston. I’m very curious to hear whether the idea becomes fixture or forgotten. An investigation of Boston’s website has me believing the money would be better spent creating a more interactive and functional way for people to do city business online. But it’s not my dime. Plus I'm just some hack behind a keyboard in Iowa. I'm pretty sure the folks at the city of Boston know their business far better than I.
What do you think? Should local government be implementing more ways for citizens to do city business in person? Or is budget money better spent on expanding online services?
At this very moment there's a team of dudes on our roof equipping us to harness the power of the sun. All said and done, Cartegraph's new solar setup will save our company approximately 10% annually on electricity costs (even more if electricity costs happen to spike).
I know, I know, 10 percent isn't exactly an eye-popping number. But when you're paying to power an entire facility, every bit helps (a few renewable energy tax subsidies never hurt, either). But if we think beyond the bottom line nature of business, there's a factor that defies numbers — doing the right thing.
For us, this solar setup is our latest example of practicing what we preach. A big part of Cartegraph's mission is to help businesses and organizations become more sustainable. That's why we design and build technology that helps users manage operations intelligently and eliminate waste — of money, time, resources, and more.
It's unfortunate that the clean energy conversation got lost in the bitterness of this last election cycle. In the big scheme of things, it was definitely a conversation worth having. But even without the attention, the clean energy effort has remained alive and well and at the top of many peoples' minds. Case-in-point: the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Just last year, Cambridge teamed with the Sustainable Design Lab at MIT in the development of a web application that helps Cambridge residents understand how much a solar setup might cost for their business and/or home, and how much money they might save in doing so.
If you're a fan of sustainability, the effort, in and of itself, is very cool. What's even cooler, though, is that the app uses satellite mapping to demonstrate how effective a given address is at soaking-up sun. Sustainability is, after all, a not-so-distant cousin of practicality. And with this information, businesses and home owners are equipped to make practical decisions about whether their building is good candidate for solar.
What do you think; are there sunny days ahead for solar powered buildings in your region? Are those days already here? We'd love to hear your thoughts.
This post is another in a series by Rebecca Smart (a/k/a Citizen Y), a Midwesterner representing the growing population of engaged citizens residing in every town, city, and county in the USA.
Late last year, Cartegraph threw out a “no holds barred challenge,” to Ms. Smart: put its YourGOV Mobile citizen request application through its paces. In her column, Rebecca shares her experiences — and the genuine insight and candid observations that accompany them.
Find out how agencies like yours are using technology to engage citizens, increase sustainability, and cultivate intelligent workflow. Visit the Cartegraph Blog.
A lot of conversations in my neighborhood begin with, “What’s that smell?” Hold your fire, citizens: it’s not the garbage or even another failed attempt at dinner wafting out of my windows. It’s a chemical company. A big, smoke-stacked, barbed-wired, chain-linked, danger signed, “no smoking allowed!” chemical company. Its facility is uphill and upwind from the cluster of homes that constitute my little housing development; the neighborhood park abuts the factory’s property. With the prevailing winds blowing from their address to ours, there is often a very distinct smell in the breeze. It’s not the scent of lilacs and roses. It’s the smell of a chemical solvent whose description includes words like “explosive,” “reactive,” and “carcinogen.” Nifty. A bit of the smell wafting into the park gives the parents watching tee ball from the bleachers a homerun of a headache and a strange taste in their mouths. A thimble-full of this stuff could clear a room.
A few years ago, we heard a very loud explosion followed by alarms and sirens. A plume was visible over the factory. Fire trucks and news crews arrived on the scene in short order. What happened? The factory said it was a “controlled release.” What’s that? No offense, but a “controlled release” sounds like the best you can do when suffering G.I. distress on a first date in a quiet car.
In layman’s terms, a “controlled release” means they had an unplanned chemical explosion but nothing in the factory ignited beyond that. The good news, the company spokesperson said, was that the heavy winds dispersed the plume. (It’s good news unless you’re a bird in the area.) Furthermore, the company was happy to report that sprinklers inside the factory brought the particulates down to be cleaned up.
Pardon me for containing my excitement long enough to ask this question: what would have happened if it had been rainy instead of windy and the plume particulates were brought down into the dirt where our kids play tee ball and our gardens grow? (Insert cricket chirping noise here.) No answer.
This incident got some of us asking questions. In the next couple years, there were more inquiries about the smells and safety protocols. A few employees of the chemical company called off-the-record encouraging the neighborhood to keep asking questions and reporting odors. One suggested moving.
One Saturday, I got a whiff of something that made my eyes water. I called it. Monday morning, a company rep agreed to send a copy of the DNR report. The solvent we have smelled for years was allowed to leak into the ground next to the park. A truckload of dirt was dug out and removed for incineration. But it took a (pardon the pun) nosy neighbor to alert a chemical company that something stunk. They said they are making safety changes. We’ll see. And I mean that literally: we’re watching them. And we’re letting the local government and the DNR know what we see.
How? You got it. Erin Brockovich didn’t have the benefit of the YourGOV app. You and I do. And my neighbors are app-snapping (I just made that up: it means “to submit with a photo.”) proof that sometimes citizen involvement has bigger stakes than a pothole.
Not long ago, on The Categraph blog, I elaborated on several topics that Cartegraph has forecasted as being especially relevant to the way agencies like yours will do business in the future. Chief among those topics was the rapid emergence of mobile services and devices.
Recently, that forecast was corroborated in a big way.
In a press release issued earlier this month, Samsung announced that its GALAXY line of smartphones and tablets has been granted Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 (FIPS) certification - a federally issued, U.S. information security standard certified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
What does this mean for you?
It means that government agencies like yours - along with regulated industries, such as financial and health-care institutions - can now use the global version of the Galaxy S II smartphone, Galaxy Tab 10.1 WiFi, and the 4G LTE-enabled Galaxy Tab 10.1 with Verizon Wireless to add an important and efficient, sustainable layer of mobile capabilities to the way you do business.
"Our field guys won't know how to work that."
I haven't worked in this industry for an exceptionally long time. But I've been around long enough to have heard that declaration on countless occasions. Aside from budget concerns, reluctant personnel and lack of technical savvy are two of the most commonly cited reasons public sector agencies give for not integrating mobile technology.
The Samsung announcement is proof that those reservations are effectively null and void.
How, you ask? Well, according to recent statistics, smart phone technology - the same stuff that powers the aforementioned Samsung devices - currently resides in the hands of some 95 million people in the United States alone.
In short, the comfort and familiarity are there. Now the products - complete with federal certification - are too.
And in much the same way common applications for GPS and mapping, and time and document management have been optimized for use on smart devices, applications used to manage work, assets, and infrastructure will soon experience a similar transformation.
As we speak, the Cartegraph team is busy preparing the next generation Cartegraph system. And the platform our users know and use today will be evolving to a new, highly connected, state-of-the-art browser platform.
Though the system is changing, it will not change how these agencies use it. In fact, it has been designed to help them work more efficiently and effectively than ever before. And a big part of that is making our applications compatible with modern day devices - be it in the browser, a Trimble device, a smart phone, a tablet, and/or whatever other innovations companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung might have up their sleeves.
Now for a little bit of tough love. Everything I've talked about is happening whether the public sector likes it or not. Technology is on the fast track, and there's no going backwards.
"Before everything else, getting ready is the secret to success."
That's a piece of simple, sound advice from someone who knew a little something about success - Henry Ford. Somehow, it seems especially relevant to a public sector that has, in large part, been caught in reactionary mode far too long.
Agencies are rapidly running out of excuses to sit on their hands. Mobility and smart technology will soon be the norm.
My advice: even if you can't invest in mobile technology now, learn as much about it as you can. Because, when you work in government, you owe it to your community and your profession to be prepared. Especially when it comes to the inevitable.
Find out how agencies like yours are using technology to engage citizens, increase sustainability, and cultivate intelligent workflow. Visit the Cartegraph Blog.
Download YourGOV app: check.
That was easy. This is my first smartphone. My last cell phone was practically a rotary. Texting was a beast. So yes, the learning curve could be steep, but so far, the YourGOV app is the smoothest one I've got. And it's free.
I hit "Aerial" and the first thing I noticed was that I might need new shingles. Nice detail. The app pinpointed my exact location. It's so exact, it's got me in the correct part of the house. If I "pinch" the photo in, I can sail above my neighborhood. Looks like I'm not the only one that could use new shingles.
My initial reaction is that this is a great tool. How many times have you left your oil pan next to a pothole or wondered if your municipality knew that there was a deer carcass in the park next to the baby swings? (This actually happened in my local park two winters ago. No, they did not know. But I had to let them know the old-fashioned way: on my rotary.)
My second reaction is "was this app made for me?" If you consider yourself an engaged citizen, you're going to like this app. If you always wanted to know who to call when the streetlight went out, you're going to like this app. It's a simple tool to connect to local government, helping you be their eyes on the street to keep your community running smoothly.
But...my final reaction was wondering if this much citizen engagement would be intimidating to government staff. Will they worry that it could become too time-consuming?
Let's be honest. Sometimes the biggest hurdle to achieving a more sustainable way of doing business is public opinion. And while nearly everyone is in enamored with the idea of being a "greener" community, the enthusiasm often fades in the shadow of the price tag.
But as I've mentioned in columns past, whether you know it or not, it's likely that your organization is already at least somewhat sustainable in its operations.
• Remember when you converted those old paper records to electronic. That's being sustainable.
• Those pavement inspections you do each spring. That's being sustainable.
• That 1998 Ford F-150 that you've loyally maintained since it was new. That's being sustainable.
• Using collected yard waste to produce mulch. You guessed it - sustainable.
And while these types of things constitute business as usual for you and your workforce, these are the types of efforts that your citizens want and need to know about.
Suffice it to say, a little communication goes a long way. Some call that bragging. But those people are wrong. It's just telling it like it is.
Think about it. By simply telling citizens what your crews accomplished last month, you just might end-up validating your staffing needs and budget allocations. And just as importantly, you'll create confidence in government leaders and foster an elevated sense of community pride.
The challenge, however, is quantifying and communicating these efforts to your citizens.
Not long ago, Shane Gardner, Cartegraph Business Analyst, offered some sage advice to municipal professionals everywhere. In his column "Best Practices: Performance Measures for Public Works," Gardner shared his experience helping government organizations measure performance and communicate those results.
According to Gardner, there are three things to remember when measuring success and communicating that success to the public.
• Why does your department exist? What may seem obvious may just as easily be forgotten in the shuffle of everyday business. Never hesitate to remind yourself what you do and why you do it.
• Get in-sync. No, not the nineties boy band. Your message. Again, it may seem obvious, but your performance measures should always tie directly to the reason your department exists. In short, if you're in Parks and Rec, talk about picnic tables painted, not potholes filled.
• Be creative. In an ideal world, your reports quantify everything and disclose a healthy return on investment. Then, everyone takes turns rolling around in the money saved and knocks-off for the day. Yeah right. If success can't be tied to numbers, tie it to something that your citizens will appreciate - safety and sustainability, anyone?
For more tips on measuring performance and calculating return on investment, visit the Cartegraph blog.
When experts calculate the quality of life in your community how will you score? Will they say that you promote health and well being? Provide safe and enjoyable recreation opportunities? Protect green spaces?
Studies indicate that a community's quality of life plays a prominent role in attracting businesses and residents, boosting property values, and stimulating economic growth. And one of the most visible indicators of the quality of life in your community is the availability, upkeep, and condition of your public parks and facilities.
According to the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), as of 2010, there were more than 9,000 local public park and recreation organizations within the United States - each one focused on providing safe and enjoyable recreation opportunities, and a higher quality of life in their respective communities.
Think of how many times your parks are visited each summer, not just by members of your own community, but visitors, vacationers, and random passers-by. For example, New York's Central Park has 25 million visits annually - that's more than five times as many visits as the Grand Canyon.
Sure, not every community possesses a landmark like Central Park. Nonetheless, this statistic says a lot about how much the people of this country value parks and green spaces.
Unfortunately, when local government budgets face cuts, Parks and Recreation departments are often the first ones to feel the effects. And, perhaps, more than any other department, they are put in the unenviable position of finding ways to cut costs and do more with less - and the people of the community are the ones who suffer for it.
For many governments, this is a fact of life. But does it have to be?
Just like any other asset, your parks have their own special set of maintenance needs. But unlike utilities and transportation assets, your parks aren't so...unsung. In other words, people will judge a lot about a community by the condition of its parks.
But many organizations fail to acknowledge that parks are as much a part of infrastructure as a sewer system, traffic signal, or road. That's why best practices include parks as a major component of any successful infrastructural maintenance strategy.
It begins with technology. By automating your process for park maintenance - including inventory, inspections, and scheduled maintenance - you not only gain a firm grip on the condition of your parks, but you allow your crews to be more productive.
It's a simple case of proactive vs. reactive. And, as any successful municipal professional will tell you, proactive wins every time.
• Do you lack an established process for maintaining the integrity of the parks in your community?
• Do you rely on citizen complaints to learn about common problems such as graffiti, broken picnic tables, or unsafe playground equipment?
• Do your parks seem to attract crime and loitering?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, now is the time to re-examine your approach to parks maintenance.
April showers bring May flowers, or so they say. For sentimental types, this saying conjures images of sunshine and springtime in its full, blooming glory. But in many communities, this image is tarnished by the reality of large-scale weather events, rising rivers and streams, and backed-up storm sewers.
An organization like yours can reduce the risk of storm-related flooding by adopting better methods of storm sewer maintenance. Today's market offers a variety of storm sewer system management applications, each one with various tools for assessing, managing, and monitoring the condition of your entire network. Using these applications, you can do your best to ensure that assets - such as mains, culverts, and valves - are well-maintained and functioning properly.
With a proactive maintenance strategy, you reduce incidences of backed-up storm sewers during weather events and prevent the property damage that goes along with them. Many applications even have the ability to integrate with your existing GIS system, allowing you to map your entire storm sewer system to help personnel respond faster and minimize damage in cases of flooding or other emergencies.
But it goes beyond preventative maintenance. A proactive approach also has the potential to save your organization a great deal of money.
Take for example the city of Rosemount, Minn. In an effort to meet NPDES requirements, the city estimated that it was spending more than $35,000 per year cleaning hundreds of catch basin sumps. The city rectified this process with the help of a dedicated storm system management application. By implementing technology as a means to managing and analyzing the process, the city discovered that many sumps containing very little debris were being needlessly cleaned, while other sumps with significant amounts of debris were skipped due to their location in the geographical rotation.
Then, a simple solution was implemented. Instead of cleaning basins on a compulsory basis, inspection crews determined whether or not the sump should be cleaned by measuring and rating the amount of debris. By only cleaning sumps that needed it, maintenance costs were reduced by 36 percent within the first year and progressed to a 77 percent reduction after four years of using the new procedure.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. By adopting proactive maintenance schedules and ongoing, accurate recordkeeping, your organization poises itself for future success by maximizing the service life of your infrastructure components and sustaining the vital data that keeps an organization relevant.
It's a simple case of anticipating needs rather than merely reacting to them and conserving resources by being prepared.
The call for transparency in government is as old as democracy itself. However, recent times have seen those calls increase and work their way from the executive ranks all the way down to the local level.
This move toward greater transparency has given rise to a variety of organizations that champion citizen involvement and public empowerment. Groups such as America Speaks and the Sunlight Foundation seek to give citizens a more prominent voice in matters of local, regional and national decision making.
The current and most recognizable term for the transparency movement is Gov 2.0. By its own definition, Gov 2.0 emphasizes the principles collaboration, participation and innovation as the means for governments and citizens to work together in creating better communities.
Gov 2.0 is still considered a grassroots effort and open source movement in some circles. However, the ambitious nature of its overall concept and vision seems to hint toward a larger shift that will soon be coming to government, gaining Gov 2.0 the backing of the federal government and several technology industry giants, including ESRI, Google and Microsoft.
The trend toward greater citizen involvement has gained momentum through the use of technology. Some cities, such as San Francisco and Washington D.C., became pioneers in the transparency movement when they added Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to provide citizens richer access to their data systems. This interface not only allows citizens to read data, but also access live data and submit new information.
Following this lead, several software developers have introduced easy-to-use applications that allow citizens to interact with government by reporting non-emergency issues and forwarding them directly to their local government organizations. This type of citizen engagement interface has given rise to the term crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing was coined by writer Jeff Howe in 2006 and refers to the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.
In government, crowdsourcing takes shape when citizens assume a proactive role in the upkeep of their communities. Web-based applications are being added to local government websites, allowing citizens and employees to personally report common community issues, such as potholes, vandalism and street light outages. Users can enhance their submitted reports by including brief descriptions and digital photos of the reported issues. Once submitted, users can even access a mapped view of all open requests in their area to gain a shared knowledge of issues, issue trends and locations.
Developers have now taken this concept a step further, making these types of applications available for download to mobile smartphones including Android, iPhone and Blackberry Storm. Apps, such as YourGOV, SeeClickFix and 311 Universal, possess all the functionality of a web-based interface, but with the added convenience of mobility.
As of December, 2010, more than 205 million Americans reported having access to the internet. Statistics indicate that over 45 million of those people owned smartphones. The more your organization knows about the purpose and availability of the applications being accessed by internet and smartphone users, the better it can position itself to meet the needs of its citizens and encourage citizen involvement.
A man is out walking his dog and he sees a cracked fire hydrant leaking water. He pulls out his iPhone, launches a mobile application, and in three easy steps submits a picture, description and location of the issue to his local government agency.
A woman working at a local government agency is busy dispatching field crews, running reports, and ordering materials. She receives an e-mail request to approve a work order that has been automatically generated by a citizen's request. She simply clicks approve, and the work order is automatically scheduled into the proper field crew's list of to-do's.
A field crew supervisor checks his mobile unit as his men pack their tools into the back of their truck. The next work request is only blocks away. They load up and move out. Within minutes they arrive to a leaking, cracked fire hydrant.
A City Manager comes out of a meeting at City Hall, quickly making his way to another. On the way, he grabs his Blackberry, accesses his mobile work management application, and checks his management dashboard. Everything looks great. There were 19 work orders open today, 18 have been completed. The last work order is a leaky hydrant, and a crew is already on the scene.
For many municipal industry professionals, a story like this sounds like something made for TV, not the real world. However, with the emergence of affordable, easy-to-use mobile devices and citizen-oriented applications, the simplicity of this scenario is closer to reality than ever before.
More and more, municipal organizations like yours are taking cues from the private sector and integrating technology that connects people, departments and systems. The results are better communication, improved workflow and increased productivity - factors that all combine to create good customer service and notable cost savings.
At its very core, we know that government's function is to cultivate and support community. But what supports government and makes it work? Really, it boils down to three vital pillars - workforce, management and citizens - each with its own special set of needs, yet dependent on each other for success. Here's how.
Efficiency for Workforce...
A connected workforce is equipped with the tools to be efficient. Reliable desktop solutions provide a solid foundation, giving users easy access to accurate information and smarter workflow. Today's mobile technology introduces a new realm of efficiency, allowing workers to respond quickly, be more productive and lower operating costs.
Accountability for Management...
A connected organization is an informed organization. Emerging technology gives managers a real-time connection to vital metrics and information. Through this constant connection, management is positioned to make better decisions, accurately analyze the way that money and resources are being used, and quickly cite opportunities for improvement.
Transparency for Citizens...
A connected citizen takes pride in a world that they help create, driving the demand for transparency, collaboration and participation in government. Mobile and web-based tools respond to that demand, connecting citizens directly to an organization's work management system and allowing them to personally report issues and track how government responds to them.
It's a world powered by connection. And it starts right now. The sooner your organization looks inward and examines how its pillars relate, the sooner you will develop a connective strategy that not only improves operations today, but also prepares you for the future.