Westminster, Colo., manhole inspection app A screenshot of the Westminster, Colo., manhole inspection app

Using mobile technology, public utility workers in Westminster, Colo., can now inspect manholes approximately 90 percent faster than they could just last year.

Westminster did this by swapping paper and clipboards for an app tailored by CityGovApp to simplify the city's nearly 5,000 yearly manhole inspections so that the process now takes inspectors, on average, 30 seconds versus 5 minutes, said Keith Alvis, maintenance management system coordinator for the city.

On top of speeding up inspections, the app also is helping the city to eliminate duplicate data entry, make data available quicker, and lower its costs, according to Haseeb Chaudhry, COO of CityGovApp.

"What we were looking to do was to kind of streamline that process, move away from that paper-based way of doing things and make it all digital," Alvis said. "We designed it so that we could get the information in as quickly as we possibly could."

As a part of the city's first mobile project, the Department of Public Works and Utilities implemented the mobile inspection app in the latter half of last year. The goals? To speed up the entire inspection process, gain quick success with a return on investment, and ensure the department's users and management could get comfortable with mobile technology.

Now inspectors use iPads to fill in a manhole report on the app, which incorporates all 26 necessary observations and attributes for manhole inspection, along with their potential and default values and dropdowns and yes or no options, Alvis said. The department additionally enhanced the app's form with red, yellow and green indicators to signal to the inspector the information required by the fields.

In addition to making input faster, the city is decreasing mistakes and cutting personnel time by skipping the added data entry step that was previously required -- the app's inspection notes now feed straight into the city's existing Accela Automation and Esri ArcGIS systems.

These asset management systems then prioritize and make visible the manhole's status on a desktop computer, based on the inspection's assessment of its overall condition. Later, utility workers can make better informed decisions regarding manhole maintenance and repair.  

Alvis said Westminster chose the app's third-party developer, CityGovApp, which specializes in developing software for mobile hardware, partly because the company is partnered with Accela, making it quicker to develop the app. Westminster has used Accela technology to manage its land and assets since 2004, according to Maury Blackman, CEO of Accela.

From start to finish, Alvis said implementation took less than six months. Alvis said he was involved in the app's development, along with the city's sewer inspectors, and that the app was refined over back-and-forth communication during a several-week testing period -- a process he says he was pleased with.

As for users, Alvis said they took to it to it "like fish in water -- as soon as we got it in their hands, and we were just kind of in the testing phase, it was instantly, 'OK when are we going live?'"

Westminster was the first city to use CityGovApp's manhole inspection app, according Chaudhry. And now that it has tried and succeeded with a mobile app, Alvis said Westminter is getting involved in other mobile projects.

In addition to enhancing the manhole inspection app with pictures and GIS capabilities, the city is now developing a rental property inspection app, also with CityGovApp, that can create code violations, view inspection histories and communicate with homeowners, Chaudhry said.

Additional mobile projects on the horizon for Westminster include a possible inspection request app for contractors and citizen to request permits, and an app for use by inspectors of water devices such as valves and hydrants. Routine water maintenance, Alvis said, generates a substantial amount of data on paper that must be entered into the city's asset management system.

According to Blackman, Accela is working with CityGovApp in El Paso, Texas, to develop a garbage collection app that gives garbage truck drivers a way to communicate with citizens about reasons their trash could not be emptied, such as an overflowing can, he said.

"The great thing about this, is now other agencies can use the apps that have been developed," said Blackman. "Its not a one-time use opportunity."

For Westminster, Alvis said the intention with each mobile project is to target areas where a return on investment is all but guaranteed. Since its debut a little more than six months ago, the city has made up the manhole inspection app's cost of $7,900, he said, and is now saving money.

Jessica Hughes  |  Contributing Writer

Jessica Hughes is a regular contributor to Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.