Think of autumn and fall foliage comes to mind. While the beauty of the colored leaves can be eclipsed by having to haul them away, that's not the case in Grand Forks, N.D., where the city has done the collecting. But knowing when the leaves will be collected is important for anyone who has to rake them.

This season, the city has added more information about the much-appreciated service, with residents able to view a map on the city's website that updates the status of leaf collection trucks and their routes. 

City Calendar Gets Online Boost

In addition to the city's Web page to communicate leaf collection updates, Grand Forks, N.D., found another way to creatively connect with residents by asking for selfies for its annual calendar.  Earlier this year, residents used an online forms tool to participate in the call for photos, which allowed the city to interact more personally with its residents, said Ashley Fruechting, director of sales and strategic initiatives for Vision Internet, the city's Web developer. "They used technology to be able facilitate really engaging their residents," she said.  The calendar, which includes residents' recycling and garbage days, has previously featured different themes like historic pictures or city employees at work, but this year the city's new website allowed for a more interactive theme, said John Bernstrom, communications specialist for Grand Forks.   "It was a nice way to interact with our citizens and get creative," he said. 

"Of all the things the city does, people want to at least know when the leaves are going to be picked up," said John Bernstrom, communications specialist for Grand Forks. In the past, the city's Public Information Center has made a point to connect with public works staff each day in order to inform residents calling in when the trucks would come. 

Although the city, with a population of 54,932, still gets some calls, Bernstrom reported a dramatic decrease in call volume with residents viewing for themselves truck status on the city's online map, which has had nearly 3,000 hits. 

"This approach is definitely something that's unique and more proactive in terms of creatively using the data and tools that they have through the website," said Ashley Fruechting, director of sales and strategic initiatives for Vision Internet, a municipal website developer. 

Bernstrom described the old, mostly homegrown site as cumbersome and tough to work with graphically, as photos would slow it down. The new one, which debuted in early July, is flexible, pulling together both the city's data and the site's functionalities -- including related links and social media -- in a way that is seamless to the user, Fruechting said.

The leaf collection page, which cost nothing to develop, was built using the city's own GIS technology and runs on the new website, which cost $30,000 and is hosted by Vision Internet.

"With any technology, you need the good foundation of a website, which we have now, and that branches out into our social media," Bernstrom said. Since the site's debut, the city's Facebook page has "gone through the roof" in popularity, he said. 

Each leaf collection update is featured on social media and visitors rank it as the most popular. The map is color-coded, showing where the Public Works Department is collecting leaves, where it is going next, and which number pass it is on for each area (the city's trucks do at least two leaf-collection passes, if not more). 

The information center updates the map once or twice a day."We're not to the point of [having] GPS on the machine on the street; we're not that good, but we know what part of town they're working in," said Bernstrom.

Residents learn about the leaf collection tool in various ways, including from Bernstrom who frequently talks on a local radio station, through social media posts on Facebook and Twitter and through communications with the information center during calls. 

The city is always looking to make improvements, Bernstrom said, but it won't change the tool until after the leaf-collection season closes when it will have call volume and Web hit baseline numbers and plans to confer with Public Works about ways to improve the page. It will also present the estimated savings from the tool to local government officials. The leaf collection service ends with the first snowfalls in early November.

The online leaf collection map represents a new way to communicate with residents via the city's website, and Bernstrom said city staff have been encouraged by its success and will continue to "look around the corner" for new possibilities to connect.