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Online App Moves Institutional Knowledge into the Digital Age in Manassas, Va.

To improve the customer experience, the city’s curbside pickup information goes from Stone Age tech to cutting edge.

Every year, Manassas, Va., has a different collection schedule for leaf pickup. So every year, the Public Works Department gets a wave of calls with people asking when they should have their leaf piles out on the curb for collection.

But those people had other questions too — when do the garbage trucks come by? What about recycling? Where can dead electronics be dumped?

So Manassas decided to answer all those questions at once. In October 2014, the city launched an online map where residents enter their address and are given a carousel of information that tells them when the city contractors will come by to pick up trash, recycling, leaves and yard waste.

It’s a means of improving the customer experience by streamlining the process of determining when to do what, according to Manassas GIS Coordinator Margaret Montgomery. It’s also a big improvement on the way the city used to do things.

“It zooms into their location, and it will show them their yard waste pick up, their recycling pickup, their leaf collection … contact information if they have a question,” she said. “And then there’s another little spot at the bottom where they can see the recycling plant if they have electronics they want to get rid of as well, they can see the location.”

This way not only does the city not have to weather so many calls, but customers don’t have to make them. The old system was clunky for a number of reasons.

“For one, they don’t have to call only during business hours,” Montgomery said. “Our Public Works Department I believe is only open 7 to 4. I know I don’t only think about my trash collection during those hours.”

And for trash pickup, the answers about scheduling weren’t as easy as for leaf collection. “We had a paper map from 2007,” she said.

So if a resident called in asking about collection times for a place built in 2008 or later, the person on the phone had to either try to remember the answer or make an educated guess. For a long time, there was an employee around who could usually answer these questions. But she retired in 2014.

“We had a woman who had been here for a long number of years and she basically knew all the addresses, all the neighborhoods and what days the collections were on, and when she retired we kind of lost that,” said Montgomery.

The online map, then, represents the digitization of institutional knowledge.

The turnaround time on the project was quick — about two months, according to Montgomery — but was not without its challenges. City officials sometimes had a hard time using the data on pickup times provided by the third-party contractor that does curbside collection.

“The data had been kind of — uncontrolled, I’ll say — for a number of years,” she said.

So far, Montgomery said the program has been successful and residents have embraced the application. In a city of about 41,000 people, the app has received 1,900 views in its first year of use. Just under half of those came during October 2015 as the trees changed color.

The city has ideas for expanding the app in the future to include other government services citizens might have questions about, said Montgomery. “We started it last fall, and we got a very positive response from the public, and [the Public Works Department] asked for it to be updated and continued, and in fact they’re perhaps adding another section of the carousel for snow removal,” she said. “So maybe leaves would come off in the winter and then snow removal would come on.”