Civic services management a snap with GIS

Playing “blue pages roulette” will soon be a thing of the pastfor the town folks of Whitby, Ont.

What phone number to call to report a pothole on the road, or tofind out the library’s summer hours, or what day is garbage pick-upfor that old television cluttering the basement?

The town of Whitby recently implemented a geographic informationsystem (GIS)-based customer relationship management (CRM) system tointegrate the array of municipal services it offers itscitizens.

“A GIS CRM addresses many of the issues that the 311 initiativesunderway in other municipalities do, except you don’t need CRTCapproval of a dedicated line, and it can be done on a smallerscale,” says Barry Kelly, account manager for the Greater TorontoArea (GTA) at ESRI Canada, a Toronto-based GIS provider that workedwith the town of Whitby.

In 2004, the CRTC approved the use in Canada of a 311 telephoneservice for access to municipal non-emergency services. Theobjective of the initiative is to transform the way municipalitiesinteract and communicate with their citizens by streamlining thecall process and tracking citizen requests from beginning toend.

But many smaller municipalities lack the necessary back-endsystems to support a full-blown 311 service, says Alex Miller,president of ESRI Canada and chairman of the Ottawa-based GeomaticsIndustry Association of Canada (GIAC).

“311 is just the number you dial. For many municipalities, thebiggest problem in 311 implementation is gluing all the governmentdepartments together,” he says.

He explains that GIS technology is used to some degree in mostmunicipalities across Canada. Almost all of them use GIS forproperty management to graphically define boundaries, buildings,roads and landmarks and link this to underlying information aboutthese structures. A natural next step is to overlay infrastructuresuch as sewers, utilities, and “street furniture” – signs, lightposts, and so on – over this basic layer. The final step is to linkthe management of these municipal information systems, and 311 isan extension of that.

“Geography tells you what’s there. If you’re calling about asewer problem, any call-taker can immediately see the waterservices in the area on a map even if you’re not connected to thewater services department,” says Miller.

Since GIS is a generic platform, many smaller municipalitiesdidn’t have the budgets and resources to build their ownapplications in the past, he says. But many out-of-the-box GISapplications have been developed recently, so GIS enhancements arenow more affordable for even the smallest municipalities.

The town of Whitby went live in February this year with thefirst phase of its GIS CRM in its operations areas, says GaryCudmore, manager of IS at the town. Although the town had a GISfoundation in place for property and infrastructure, it had amanual, paper-based system for customer calls, service requests andfield work.

“It was a real struggle tracking the calls that came in. Thissystem takes away the paper, files and carbon copies stuck in abinder,” he says.

He says that any CRM system would have enabled the town toautomate, track and categorize service requests, but GIS-based CRMoffers graphical advantages that work with the human need tounderstand and analyze problems visually, thus boosting speed andefficiency.

“If you get 30 calls relating to potholes in a month, bygeo-coding that layer by type of incident on a map, staff can lookand decide if the road needs resurfacing and plan for futureroadwork,” he says. “With plain CRM, we would not be able to seeclusters of incidents visually.”

GIS also enhances call taking by eliminating duplication withits geographical component. “With geo-coding, the request isentered into the system, and it searches for other similar requestsusing spatial query. The system uses mapping to find other requestsin the same area, and informs the call-taker if there’s already anexisting call,” says Kelly.

This visual component also played a major role in makingcall-taking staff and work crews comfortable with the new GIS CRMsystem. “After training, it was second nature to them. We didn’texpect it to be so well-received,” says Stephanie Mazer,application development analyst at the town of Whitby.

Kelly says once service request information is recorded, a greatdeal of trending, analysis and reporting can be easily performed bylinking these requests to information about infrastructure that’salready in place in the municipality’s GIS.

“The town had to fulfill many provincial reporting requests suchas municipal benchmarking, compliance with maintenance standardsand so on. It had to go through quite a process to get thesereports together from paper information,” says Rob Santos, seniorproject manager for the Ontario region at ESRI.

“What’s unique about Whitby is that it’s implemented a libraryinformation database where a lot of information that used to bestored on paper is centralized, and any user can access that.”

In the next phase of the implementation, the town plans toextend the GIS CRM to other areas beyond operations, such as themayor’s office to automate calls for action from department heads,councils and senior management, says Cudmore.

“This system is the back-end that will work in conjunction withour 311 service in the future. Ultimately, we must work with aphone company such as Bell Canada when we move forward on our 311implementation,” he says.

Miller sees many more opportunities to interconnect municipalservices on top of GIS platforms to enhance services provided tocitizens in the future.

“With healthcare services, the biggest problem now isintegration between doctors, hospitals, long-term facilities andhome care, particularly in transitioning people from one toanother.

“There are some complex geographical issues here in doing afacilities inventory to know what’s available in the region andtracking patients as they move through the healthcare system. Thisarea is still in its infancy, but there are some big opportunitiesto improve services.”

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