August 25, 2011 By Brian Heaton
A new 311 mobile application is revolutionizing how Salt Lake City employees are responding to citizen service requests.
Instead of a citizen sending an e-mail about items such as illegal signs and non-operable cars to a random city inbox, a person using the “Salt Lake City 311” app snaps a geo-coded picture with his or her smartphone. The user then inputs details about the issue, and a real-time case is created that’s sent directly to the staff person who will handle the situation.
The app transmits the request to the city’s GIS database, which then provides an address match for the city responder to answer the notification personally, with no middleman in between.
Orion Goff, director of Building Services and Zone Enforcement for Salt Lake City, said the app reduces the amount of staff time needed to field requests and improves the efficiency of how the 311 requests are handled because of the real-time capability.
“The actual assignment can be made from a map layer, so no human hands need to touch this until the code compliance officer or building inspector working that geographic area in the city [gets the request],” Goff explained.
The integration of GIS and geocoding helps make fieldworkers more efficient as they respond to calls. Craig Weinheimer, legal investigator with Salt Lake City’s Community and Economic Development Office, said that during his field testing of the app, it showed a point on a map where it thinks the 311 responder is standing, and then displayed the address for that particular spot.
But since the app is address-based, the location won’t always be exact to the coordinates submitted from the app user’s photograph. Weinheimer explained that the app hasn’t been tested for complaints like broken sewer lines or something that isn’t an address-based asset, but the proximity the app comes up with should be good enough.
“If you’re at the corner of ‘Center Street’ and ‘Main,’ and there is a newspaper box on that corner, it’s going to grab the address on the lot of the corner and that will be close enough,” Weinheimer said. “With the photograph, there’s no way we’ll miss that.”
The app can also be used to request weed abatement and to report construction that’s occurring without permits. The ability to report graffiti, potholes and nuisance traffic signals is planned for the near future, according to Salt Lake City officials.
Salt Lake City 311 is derived from Accela Mobile 311 and the geolocational aspect of the application is dependent upon the city’s use of Accela’s Automation database.
Launched in tandem with Salt Lake City, the company’s app is available for use on the iPhone or iPad and is a “white label” application that can be customized by municipalities that are Accela customers.
Agencies currently using Accela’s Automation software can download the app directly from the company for a per-citizen license fee, with total cost based on a community’s population, according to Paul Davis, the company’s public relations director. The app can then be modified to a city’s needs and uploaded to the Apple App Store for public use.
Although the app is only currently available for the iPhone and iPad, Davis said that a future version is planned for Androids and other mobile platforms.
During testing of the app, Goff said the only real issue that came up was the file size of the photos. Because the resolution was so high it impacted the speed of the system, he said. But that has since been corrected.
Goff admitted, however, that he does have some concerns about the potential increase in workload due to the app’s ease of use. While he applauded the transparency and accessibility the app provides citizens, Goff said that since his department operates with a limited number of staff. If citizen requests started pouring in — and he thinks they will — it could pose a problem.
“If we do get that backlog due to the ease and seamless ability to make these complaints, it might push the complaints back into a queue and we’ll respond to them as quickly as we can, or they might need to give us more staff,” Goff said.
The staffing challenge aside, Goff said that ultimately the app would provide Salt Lake City with a more streamlined approach to handling requests.
“It’s a slick way to get it done; it bounces off our database that we’re already using across all the divisions that have responsibilities in any sort of land use,” Goff said. “[It] makes it easier to manage that whole process.”
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