From left: MISA Ontario president Connie McCutcheon, Town of Innisfil IT manager Grant Cowan, Dave Ross, and MISA Ontario past president Christine Swenor during the MISA Ontario Annual Conference awards banquet on June 5 in Windsor, Ontario. (Courtesy MISA.)

Published: June 19th, 2017
Town of Innisfil programmer Dave Ross

On June 6, the Municipal Information Systems Association of Ontario (MISA) announced the 2017 winners of its Excellence in Municipal Systems award.

Among the winners was the Town of Innisfil, which was honoured for the development of its Municipal Operations & Reporting (MOAR) Integration Project.

Programmer/software developer Dave Ross, who shared the award with manager Grant Cowan, shares his story below.

Wanting MOAR for Municipal Government

A local government has to perform a wide scope of tasks, everything from fixing roads, planning subdivisions, licensing dogs, putting out fires (literally), and inspecting plumbing, to name a few. Local, provincial, and federal government will regularly pass down new directives to municipal staff to consolidate new processes and services as well, creating an ever-evolving workload that leads to vast amounts of data collection, storage, reporting, and tracking.

There are applications on the market designed to track some of the larger scale data sets such as building permits or parking tickets; however, having separate data sets for each function removes the possibility of cross-referencing and relating much of the data in a meaningful manner.

How our Adventure Began

As an IT department with only two employees, licensing a multitude of programs for each aspect of municipal government was becoming a hassle. Though licensing costs continued to climb, additional or relevant functionality didn’t always accompany the higher prices. In fact, staff had begun tracking their own data, and making their own reports by pulling data into spreadsheets manually, because the software couldn’t handle the expanded reporting functionality that our town council required.

To solve this problem, we decided to start with a quick and dirty web-form database application on our Intranet that began tracking the property-based data that was being collected. Eventually we expanded this to include all the functionality staff required. Reports could now be easily generated from the database and displayed quickly. We made the decision to take the funds we were paying for annual licensing costs and use them towards in-house development.

Our IT department now had resources to spend on fixing the issues directly rather than putting them into licensing agreements, and passing on requests for support to the vendors. We continued to expand the software by adding additional modules; avoiding the need to purchase additional software. Less Licensing Agreements and most software functionality requests were now performed in-house. This program became known as MOAR – Municipal Operations and Reports.

What is MOAR?

MOAR is a large scale series of built-in-house webforms, reports and interfaces tied into a database on our local intranet. It runs on a Ubuntu-Apache webserver and uses a combination of PHP, AJAX and javascript for MOAR’s interface, as well as some VBS scripts for timed daily reports, calculations, and emails.

An e-Services platform acts as an open data portal for web users that connects to a synchronized version of the MOAR database which gives citizens access to some of the live data input into the MOAR system.

Mobile availability has increased productivity for staff on the go. Creating a permanent record of property and inquiry related activity helps equip our co-workers in resolving issues for our residents. When there are recurring issues on a property it helps to have a comprehensive history available to base our decisions and recommendations. Many incoming inquiries can result in one-call resolutions by customer service staff when this information is readily available. Not only are we meeting our standards of excellence in customer service but we also have happy customers.

Tablets inside town vehicles are used to update their location for tracking purposes – and in the case of fire trucks, to provide the details of emergency calls, property details, and appropriate mapping with locations of hydrants and water sources.

Integration

There are some applications that were just too large or integrated to fully get away from, so MOAR does its best to integrate with existing programs to use the information in them in value-added ways.

We began by pulling the list of properties from our tax database, each property has a unique identification number with the government through MPAC (Municipal Property Assessment Corporation). Most of the data we keep can be linked to a particular property in town, meaning most data could be tied directly to one of these properties. Pulling up information on a particular property would in turn give a display of all information from all departments related to that property.

We tied those properties into our GIS maps, with map layers generated from the data being stored in the MOAR system.

Our point of sale system was fully integrated with MOAR and we began providing e-services and PayPal payments to have a unified record of fees and payments.

We worked with our file management system to create specific searchable metadata, so a file residing in a document management system could be linked to various records or permits in MOAR at the same time.

Work orders and property ownership records are still stored in other records but can be accessed and manipulated from our program directly, which ties directly into the other applications database.

How it Works

Every department in town uses the MOAR system, and permissions to the data are determined by each user’s job function. The modules all work in the same manner, so functionality learned once is easily applied to all other aspects of municipal data.

When new data needs to be tracked, it can be done with a few minor tweaks of the MOAR source code and database, rather than waiting on a vendor to integrate it with their program and release a new version.

With much of our data connected through MOAR, reports of seemingly unrelated records can be easily calculated using deep data connections in the database, meaning if a report is requested for “out of town property owners who have a deck building permit, and own a Doberman” – it’s actually a very simple matter that doesn’t require cross-referencing data from three different programs.

Town partners such as the water/sewer company, power company, the library system, and town police also have access to the MOAR data through VPN connections. MOAR has also been expanded into a neighboring municipality, which has made us realize just how different a process can be from one town to the next despite collecting the same information and having the same end goal.

Municipalities really do things differently and collect data in different ways. The software must be able to adapt as quickly as the policies that are demanded. We have discovered that a straight out of the box program may not be the best solution to the unique challenges of the constantly changing dynamics of municipal offices.

A senior-level technical software developer with extensive experience in web-based and mapping applications, project and team leadership, and PHP, VBS, Delphi and LUA development, Dave Ross has served as a software developer with the Town of Innisfil since 2011. Find out more on LinkedIn.