Schenectady, N.Y., Hits Bump With Pothole-Tracking Software

City records chronicling whether road crews patched the holes are incomplete because personnel were not using the tracking software properly, officials say.

by Pete Demola, The Daily Gazette / April 29, 2019
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(TNS) –– The city has hit a pothole in its attempt to harness new technology to respond to potholes.

The city's website contains an online form to report the craters to the city Bureau of Services.

But the city's records chronicling whether road crews have patched the holes are incomplete because personnel were not using the software properly.

"When they were closing out the pothole and the request for service, they were deleting it as opposing to checking it as completed and making it available for archives and future reference," said Mayor Gary McCarthy.

The Daily Gazette sent a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to the city on Feb. 20 seeking the number of pothole complaints the city received through its Citizen Request Tracker this past winter compared with last winter.

But officials could not provide the full reports despite their willingness to do so.

"We don't have the records," said city Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico. "We could provide limited records in compliance with the FOIL Law. But that would not give an accurate record of how many requests were put into [Citizen Request Tracker]. Some did exist at one point in time, but we cannot turn them over because we don't have them."

City workers did fill the potholes, McCarthy said, and the software has since been modified.

"We've eliminated the ability to delete it so it will archive the history of the transaction," McCarthy said. "They were using it for the first time, so they were not fully cognizant of what they were doing."

A second online service actively promoted by the city –– a partnership with Schenectady-based software company Transfinder that allows residents to track snowplows –– is working without incident, said McCarthy, who said programmers are working on additional upgrades.

SMART CITY

The pothole software is an example of the city seeking to leverage technological advances to reform the delivery of municipal services, usage that will be accelerated though the Smart Cities initiative, a project McCarthy said will have a "wide-ranging impact and value for every member of the community."

City officials are working with National Grid to determine which technology to install on as many as 4,500 street lights located throughout the city, from optical sensors to 5G hardware.

McCarthy appeared on a panel sponsored by the New York Conference of Mayors to discuss the Smart Cities concept on Thursday, where Schenectady was frequently described by the moderator and attendees as a smaller city which is at the vanguard of deploying new technology.

Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo has been a strong advocate of the pothole tracker, frequently promoting its usage publicly.

Having year-to-year records comparing the number of potholes fixes is useful for city officials, she said, particularly when fielding complaints from the public.

"Not knowing how many potholes we filled last year certainly isn't crucial, but it would be a good benchmark," Perazzo said.

Training for city employees is critical when introducing new technology, she said.

"When we put something in place, we need to make sure a system is in place to make sure it's successful."

And as the city accelerates Smart Cities deployment — they've socked away $5 million so far — Perazzo said she wants more details on the timeline and final costs.

"I am very much looking forward to seeing a comprehensive, organized plan of what's in store for the city," Perazzo said.

Councilman Vince Riggi expressed frustration over the lost data, and said accurate records will protect the city as much as the public.

Residents can file claims with the city if potholes inflict damages on their vehicle.

But if the pothole hasn't been reported, the city can deny the claim, said Riggi, who serves as chairman of the City Council's Claims Committee.

"There are many people who have had cars damaged in the city," Riggi said. "If [the city] knows about it and didn't fill it, then they're culpable."

Training is needed for all new initiatives, Riggi said.

But he also warned against an over-reliance on technology, contending it should not be seen as a substitute for institutional knowledge, and may also intimidate older city residents.

"It's something that can backfire on you too," Riggi said.

John DeAugustine, president and publisher of The Daily Gazette, is a member of the city's Smart City Advisory Commission.

CAUTION URGED

Katherine May, chief performance officer for the city of Rochester, urged localities at the Smart Cities conference at Union College on Thursday to apply the brakes when weighing deep technological investments.

She also told attendees to ensure the proper groundwork and basic infrastructure is in place so initiatives are deployed effectively.

That includes ensuring the proper human resources are available to analyze data generated from new software applications, May said.

City officials said they could eventually retrieve the complete pothole data from the vendor, CivicPlus, but would be charged $400.

May, who was speaking generally at the panel and not in reference to any specific city initiative, told attendees it was important for municipalities to own the data they were generating in order to avoid incurring costs from outside vendors.

"If the company thinks they will own the data, they will hold you hostage," May said. "If they make a mistake, you're the one holding the bag."

May also said it's important to have buy-in from lower-level employees when deploying new initiatives.

"We have to have that full chain figured out, and that's where we are in Rochester," May said.

McCarthy said efforts to train city staff on how to use new technologies is ongoing, but stopped short of saying the city would launch a formal and comprehensive training program as part of the Smart Cities initiative.

He acknowledged challenges are inevitable as cities begin to embrace new technology.

"Some of this has not been done before, so it's a learning process," McCarthy said. "Some of the deployments are not perfect and not seamless. But the end product is clearly better than a year ago -- or five years ago."

©2019 The Daily Gazette, Schenectady, N.Y. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.