About 40 public works directors gathered the day before the American Public Works Association's convention to learn from three colleagues who waded into asset management with virtually no idea of where the journey would take them.

All three - Michael Gantick, PE, public works director for South Windsor, Conn.; Chretien Voerg, sanitary engineer for Colonie, N.Y.; and John Jackman, PE, former public works and utilities director for Somersworth, N.H. - recommended:

Start simple; focus on one issue that will enhance operational efficiency. Initially, Gantick wanted to add GPS to South Windsor's ArcGIS Server geodatabase to improve leaf collection throughout the city's 28-squiare-mile service area. (See "Phoning it in" from our Aug. 18 e-newsletter.) Today, the city loans plowing contractors a Blackberry for each operator, and recently deducted payment when one device revealed a street in another town had been plowed.

Identify interested employees. Jackman assigned a water treatment plant operator who likes computers and technology to find out how GIS could enhance operations for the town of 18,000 residents.

"GIS gets all staff involved in providing better service on a limited budget," he said. "Tell your staff what kind of information you want to collect."

At one point, residents were sure that old clay pipes were causing a rash of sewer backups into basements. The problem was that some of the homes were connected to new PVC lines. After comparing the date of work orders against the location of each complaint, employees realized that a contractor had broken a section of pipe while replacing a section of sidewalk.

Access free templates and build from there. ESRI's Local Government Resource Center aggregates maps, applications, and best practices developed by public works departments and water utilities. The Operations dashboard for ArcGIS 10, for example, comes from the City of Naperville, Ill.

"These'll get you started in building your data models," Gantick says.

If you serve 100,000 or fewer residents, you can skip much of the above by signing up for ESRI's small municipal and county government enterprise license agreement (ELA) program. Qualifying counties, cities, villages, parishes, townships, and boroughs can use unlimited amounts of ArcGIS software for three years.