Technology and IT Infrastructure

The crazy thing about technology is that just as you get comfortable with something, something new comes out.

I remember my dad having a computer back in 1985 with the 5-1/4 inch floppy discs. He was one of the first people I knew to get Windows 95 when it came out. He was a fairly early adopter of technology.

I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but about six or seven years ago, I started joking that the “old man train” had hit my dad. All of a sudden, he was no friend of technology. He lambasted digital calendars for making his schedule too full. “On a paper calendar, when you run out of space, it’s full!” he would say. Around that same time, he had heel surgery and was walking with a cane for awhile, so I had double the fodder for razzing him.

Then, he got his first iPad through some sort of work grant. The light bulb inside my dad went back on. It helped moved him toward his first smart phone. He was once again my father!

Often times, city governments that become stagnant are ones where folks get comfortable with the technology, and then they just coast the next 20 years on the same old hardware and software. Oftentimes, the excuse will be something about not wanting to be an early adopter, which often equals more expense and a product that is “buggy.” I’m not saying a city has to be the earliest adopter. But it shouldn’t be the last one to the table, either. Innovation can be a good thing.

In some ways, I think that “old man train” has hit Pullman. But, just as my dad snapped out of it, so too can our magnificent city. I have a few ways I think we can improve immediately, or at least in my first term in the city council. I have already written about how I think our new city manager is fantastic. With a few more forward-looking city councilors,  I believe much of this technology deficiency will be within his ability to steer in the right direction, if not fix outright. They are:

Workflow processes

The city currently has a paper-based, inefficient workflow process. It’s not alone in this. It’s a constant struggle of businesses. Here are some areas where there are breakdowns, choke points, or pain points:

  • Document routing. Either within departments or across departments. Collaboration can take more time when everything is paper-based.
  • Signatures. Without e-signature technology, printing is often required, followed by scanning any documents needing signatures.
  • Document storage. So long as stored in ways approved by the state archivist, this can take up far less space when done electronically. But currently, a lot of space is required to store all documents.
  • Document recall. Imagine if public libraries still required you to go to a card catalog to find what you needed. If electronic files are tagged correctly, searchable, and have versions with narrowly-construed public disclosure exemptions already made, they can be all available online. This is an incredible way to get any documents, and cut down on time needed to fulfill public records requests.
  • Customer submission. Whether it’s a resident submitting a building permit, or submitting a contract bid, it could be done so much more quickly online than what it currently is. Supporting documents can also be submitted more quickly when all documents can be scanned directly into a city’s application processing system (in other words, digitizing documents at the point of origin).
Enterprise GIS

Today, almost any government that is considered “smart,” has something in common: they understand and use GIS.

GIS stands for Geographical Information System. It’s software to manage city assets, handle corresponding data, and give more complete info for residents, business owners, elected officials, and staff.

As our city staff works at delivering essential services to us, they can do so in a more efficient, fiscally-responsible way, especially with fixed assets, such as physical items (street lights, utility meters, traffic lights, sewer and water infrastructure, roads, sidewalks), and land use info (parcels, permits, zoning, etc.).

GIS is different than traditional databases in that it involves geographic placement. So it’s possible to make decisions based not only on a type of asset but also on the asset’s location.

And, it has huge An article in FireRescue ramifications for fire safety and emergency personnel. gives a nice overview in layman’s terms (which I appreciate), of its importance.

From that article, I find this image to be interesting:

This is just one GIS view that shows hydrant layers, street layers and building rooftop layers as well as structural hazards. Purple = Occupied/stable structure Green = Vacant/stable Yellow = Vacant/structural integrity or security compromised. Red = Dangerous/Abandoned structure (NO FIREFIGHTER ENTRY!).

New service-oriented website

Pullman’s website does have some good info. It does post a calendar of events. I like the videos that are available. But overally, the site is not as how it should be: service-oriented instead of the current administrative heavy.

Some specific points of consideration:

  • Our current site has a very old design, creating perception of the city being behind the times. There are various elements that are included in this. I won’t go into all of them here.
  • The current site is not responsive. That means design and development should respond to a variety of screen sizes, platforms and orientations. An easier way to say it, though it doesn’t encompass everything I’m talking about, is that it’s not mobile friendly.
  • To transform our site, and make it focused on the citizens as the customers, I propose having something much more closely related to What they’re doing in Hayward, CA. It’s definitely one of the better websites I’ve seen, and it has in fact won awards! Here is the link: httpss://www.hayward-ca.gov/.You’ll see it is focused around residents, business owners, services (instead of departments), and, while it is a small word choice, all administrative stuff is under something that says “YOUR GOVERNMENT.” I think this sets a great message.The search bar is easy to navigate. They have boxes for “Report Problems” and “Ask Questions” and “Make a Suggestion.” They have a top links callout box that is all about services, such as paying the water bill, request tree trimming, compliment an officer, etc.

    The video they have on the front page is fantastic. The only thing that would make it better is if Glenn did the voiceover :)!!!

    This only scratches the surface of what this site has and why it is focused on the residents and providing services. It’s fantastic.

In terms of our website, as a portal between government and residents, I think we have a great opportunity in the next year to start the rebuild process, to something that may be a large undertaking, but is not impossible.
SeeClickFix or similar app

I’m very impressed with SeeClickFix. Rather than go into a lot of detail, I’d suggest folks just check it out, and imagine the possibilities. In a quick explanation of its benefits, the company explained it this way:

  • Empowerment. SeeClickFix allows anyone to report and track non-emergency issues anywhere in the world via the internet. This empowers citizens, community groups, media organizations and governments to take care of and improve their neighborhoods.
  • Efficiency. Two heads are better than one and 300 heads are better than two. In computer terminology, distributed sensing is particularly powerful at recognizing patterns, such as those that gradually take shape on a street. Besides, the government can’t be in all places at all times. We make it easy and fun for everyone to see, click and fix.
  • Engagement. Citizens who take the time to report even minor issues and see them fixed are likely to get more engaged in their local communities. It’s called a self-reinforcing loop. This also makes people happy and everyone benefits from that.

Conclusion

I’m sure this will probably be the longest of all my “issues” posts. I simply believe many of our city staff are exceptional at what they do, and have a good knowledge base, but don’t have the tools needed to be as efficient as they can be.

While it still comes with a cost, many of these seemingly small inefficiencies can be taken care of rather easily, such as replacing old flip phones with smart phones preloaded with all the other city employee desk and cell numbers.

Many other inefficiencies could cost slightly more, like combining enterprise GIS, with an enterprise system that works primarily with asset management and electronic building permits (like Accela… not endorsing, just throwing one example out there).

Fixing all these things helps us made data-driven decisions, have an engaged workforce, and serve the community better.

Oh, that last thing… the elephant in the room… cost.

Yeah, when we’re more efficient, we can save money in a variety of different ways. Add to that a move to priority-based budgeting (a completely different topic), and we can afford it. Game-set-match.