For businesses, dealing with city hall can be a bit like stumbling through a maze. That can be compounded on physical infrastructure projects, which not only need municipal approval but also a green light from electric, telephone, cable and other utilities.
So the city of Ottawa is turning to a cloud solution for managing what is broadly called “right-of-way” public works projects to straighten things out.
The problem, as outlined by Claudio Colaicovo, the city’s manager of business and technical services for infrastructure, is the shuffling of paper between the municipality, utilities and other agencies.
The city of 9000,000 believes it has a good process, he said – “one of the best in the country.” But “the utilities have voiced their concern about marking up hard copies of documents rather than do it electronically.”
In other words, they want a way of doing things digitally.
That led the city recently to sign a contract with Massachusetts-based Envista Corp., which offers a hosted right-of-way public works management suite of applications for North American governments. Ottawa hopes to start using it at the beginning of January.
Depending on the module customers buy, Envista allows the sharing and markup of PDF and Microsoft Word documents, centralizes project data and lets users apply for permits online.
Most importantly for Ottawa, Envista can show a colour-code map of what streets are being worked on and when, displaying road closures and other traffic impediments.
Not only can the map be seen privately by utilities and governments with password access, the map can also be made publicly available online.
That, according to Colaicovo, is one of the biggest benefits. “We can see graphically what our capital construction projects look like year to year. We can plan in the system and try to help co-ordinate road activity including traffic issues that we see from one construction project to another.”
At the same time the public will be able to go online and see where roads are closed and plan their movements accordingly.
For the first few months the city will run Envista along side the paper-based process to ensure a smooth transition.
Ottawa’s infrastructure services department is contracting to use only one of Envista’s modules; other departments may want to sign on and pay for other modules if the service is a success.
Envista is one of a number of cloud providers offering solutions to governments. Hosted solutions are appealing, particularly in a time of fiscal restraint.
However, the city of Edmonton’s experience with Envista offers a lesson: If you can’t force everyone affected to sign on, the solution’s effectiveness is muted. “The product itself is very good,” says Gord Cebryk, the city’s director of signals, street lighting and infrastructure. “The challenge we find … is to get everyone who needs to be use it using it.”
In 2010 Edmonton became one of the first large Canadian municipalities to adopt Envista because it had trouble co-ordinating street repairs with work being done by an outside utility. “Shortly after we’d pave (a street or sidewalk) a lot of times these agencies were coming in and ripping up what we’d constructed in order to do their work. In some cases it was emergency work, but in other cases it could have been avoided if there was better planning.”
In addition to improving its business processes, the city thought a hosted IT solution would help. And it has, Cebryk said. “We’re very satisfied that the tool can do the job,” he said. “Internally, it’s allowed us to do more co-ordination.” But Epcor Utilities Inc., the private electric and water provider, doesn’t put its planning data into Envista. Nor do the local telephone and cable providers. Atco Gas, the city’s natural gas provider, uses Envista but doesn’t help pay for it. Instead it gives the bureaucrats its planning data, who then have to input it into the system. “They’re getting the benefit without paying,” Cebryk acknowledged. “but we’re getting a benefit because they’re co-ordinating with us.”
By contrast in Ottawa, the city’s annual fee for Envista is being shared by the city and the agencies that use it such as Enbridge Gas Distribution, Hydro Ottawa, BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada [TSX: BCE] and cable provider Rogers Communications Inc. [TSX: RCI], Colaicovo said.
While Envista has tossed out estimated savings its service can bring to governments, Colaicovo said Ottawa is sceptical in part because it believes its paper-based process is already efficient.
But, he added the city hopes there will be savings from preventing recently paved roads from being torn up.