Connecting civic services a snap with GIS


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

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

The town of Whitby recently implemented a geographic information system (GIS)-based customer relationship management (CRM) system to integrate the array of municipal services it offers its citizens.

“A GIS CRM addresses many of the issues that the 311 initiatives underway in other municipalities do, except you don’t need CRTC approval of a dedicated line, and it can be done on a smaller scale,” says Barry Kelly, account manager for the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) at ESRI Canada, a Toronto-based GIS provider that worked with the town of Whitby.

In 2004, the CRTC approved the use in Canada of a 311 telephone service for access to municipal non-emergency services. The objective of the initiative is to transform the way municipalities interact and communicate with their citizens by streamlining the call process and tracking citizen requests from beginning to end.

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

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

He explains that GIS technology is used to some degree in most municipalities across Canada. Almost all of them use GIS for property management to graphically define boundaries, buildings, roads and landmarks and link this to underlying information about these structures. A natural next step is to overlay infrastructure such as sewers, utilities, and “street furniture” – signs, light posts, and so on – over this basic layer. The final step is to link the management of these municipal information systems, and 311 is an extension of that.

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

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

The town of Whitby went live in February this year with the first phase of its GIS CRM in its operations areas, says Gary Cudmore, manager of IS at the town. Although the town had a GIS foundation in place for property and infrastructure, it had a manual, paper-based system for customer calls, service requests and field work.

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

He says that any CRM system would have enabled the town to automate, track and categorize service requests, but GIS-based CRM offers graphical advantages that work with the human need to understand and analyze problems visually, thus boosting speed and efficiency.

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

GIS also enhances call taking by eliminating duplication with its geographical component. “With geo-coding, the request is entered into the system, and it searches for other similar requests using spatial query. The system uses mapping to find other requests in the same area, and informs the call-taker if there’s already an existing call,” says Kelly.

This visual component also played a major role in making call-taking staff and work crews comfortable with the new GIS CRM system. “After training, it was second nature to them. We didn’t expect 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 great deal of trending, analysis and reporting can be easily performed by linking these requests to information about infrastructure that’s already in place in the municipality’s GIS.

“The town had to fulfill many provincial reporting requests such as municipal benchmarking, compliance with maintenance standards and so on. It had to go through quite a process to get these reports together from paper information,” says Rob Santos, senior project manager for the Ontario region at ESRI.

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

In the next phase of the implementation, the town plans to extend the GIS CRM to other areas beyond operations, such as the mayor’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 with our 311 service in the future. Ultimately, we must work with a phone company such as Bell Canada when we move forward on our 311 implementation,” he says.

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

“With healthcare services, the biggest problem now is integration between doctors, hospitals, long-term facilities and home care, particularly in transitioning people from one to another.

“There are some complex geographical issues here in doing a facilities inventory to know what’s available in the region and tracking patients as they move through the healthcare system. This area is still in its infancy, but there are some big opportunities to improve services.”

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