Launch Slideshow

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Citizens on patrol

Citizens on patrol

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    “Now that we have this tool, we're considering giving employees smartphones to report issues from the field more effectively,” says City of New Haven, Conn., Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts. “Take a picture, type in a few pieces of information, and you're done.” Photo: SeeClickFix

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    To report a problem in Baltimore, citizens use a 311 mobile app to send details and pictures to the city's public call center. Photo: Connected Bits

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    The public can check the status of reports and city response times through the Baltimore 311 mobile app, track their locations, and browse through photos. Photos: Connected Bits

An online 311 service prompts one department to tweak (and improve) internal processes.

New Haven, Conn., is getting a new, online 311 system virtually for free. WebQA Inc.'s 311 platform had been imbedded on the city's website, but the program was designed for governments — not the governments' customers. Residents rarely used it.

One dissatisfied customer was Ben Berkowitz, a George Washington University electronic media graduate. He couldn't figure out which department to contact to report graffiti in his neighborhood (that particular function “belongs” to the city's New Haven Livable City Initiative rather than Public Works), or whether his message ever made it to anyone who could actually do something about it.

“I realized that none of my calls were being documented, so I was essentially starting the complaint process over each time I called,” he says. “I thought, ‘Wouldn't it be great if there was a way for a resident to easily record and submit common community concerns, such as graffiti and potholes, so they could be quickly reviewed and resolved?'”

He developed a free Web interface (and, later, smartphone app) where residents use a map to submit an issue and are automatically apprised via email as the issue is resolved. The city had mapped infrastructure assets with Esri's ArcGIS several years earlier and just bought Azteca Systems Inc.'s Cityworks software for managing the assets. The next logical question was: Can we integrate these three tools to automate the process of receiving and responding to complaints?

Yes. After sorting complaints by keyword, the portal transmits the data to the city. Some issues — crime reports, fire hydrant concerns, questions for the public library — are emailed to the appropriate department for resolution. The most common — about potholes, sidewalks, parking meters — flow directly into ArcGIS. The issue location is geocoded, a service request is created, and, if appropriate, used to generate a work order in Cityworks. The software then prompts the portal to email the resident at four points in the resolution process (see sidebar at right).

WWW.SEECLICKFIX.COM

CITY: New Haven, Conn.
POPULATION: 130,000
TECHNOLOGY: Free, Open 311-based online portal for residents to report broken or missing assets
LAUNCHED: 2009
INTEGRATION WITH ASSET-MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE: $30,000 for development; $15,000 annual license fee
COMPATIBLE SOFTWARE VENDORS: Accela Inc., Active Network Inc., Azteca Systems Inc., Cartegraph, IBM Maximo, Lagan, Microsoft Dynamics, Motorola, Oracle
80 OTHER GOVERNMENT CLIENTS INCLUDE:

Coon Rapids, Iowa
Dunwoody, Ga.
Oakland, Calif.
Raleigh, N.C.
Richmond, Va.
San Francisco
Washington, D.C.

Overcoming information overload

When the system went live in 2009, utilities started using the portal to remove graffiti on cable and electrical boxes. The media picked up on it and, says New Haven Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts, “without us spending a dime on publicity, it took off.”

This created an unforeseen challenge. City employees appreciated getter fewer phone calls, but were swamped with email messages. “The challenge was aligning our ability to handle this information overload,” says Smuts.

“It's prompted us to revamp our internal systems — how we handle potholes, for example — which has given us metrics we didn't have. We'd fill the potholes, but didn't track where they were or how many. Having that information forces us to focus on such metrics, so we have much better internal processes in place. But we don't have a baseline to compare it with.”

Different departments manage the information they receive differently.

The Livable City Initiative manages graffiti reports via SeeClickFix's dashboard. Parks & Recreation and Engineering download complaints once a day to an Excel spreadsheet.

The city is also using the system to improve communication with residents, such as the elderly, who don't have a computer. Employees who answer the various department general phone numbers take down the information along with the caller's name and phone number. The employee enters the information, gets emails as the issue moves through the system, and calls the resident when notified that the issue has been resolved.

“We're getting to a 311 without doing the infrastructure investment to get there,” Smuts says. “In fact, it's in a lot of cities that don't have 311 networks because it's not all or nothing in any of these components. You can start with the free system and just get emails. You won't turn off residents with a clunky interface and it's very easy on the city's end to bite off pieces.”

CHECK IT OUT

Look for “Report an issue” on the left-hand side of www.cityofnewhaven.com/publicworks

  • Click “Report an issue.” You'll be asked to drag and drop an icon onto a map of New Haven, Conn.
  • Click “Report here!” A form already populated with the city's address opens. Type in a brief description, upload an image, enter your email address (“always kept private”), and click “Report your issue!”

The system prevents duplication because the screen also shows related reports, and the user may see that someone's already contacted the city about an issue.

What the software is doing at the same time

  • Report enters SeeClickFix and a service request is created; resident receives an email acknowledging the issue is “Open.”
  • The report is pulled into Azteca System's Cityworks and a work order is generated (usually within 24 hours of submission); resident receives an “acknowledged” email message that “potholes are usually fixed within two weeks”
  • When the work order is closed in Cityworks, the resident gets a “Closed” email.