PittSMART: New app gives Pittsfield residents way to track government action

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PITTSFIELD — Forget about that tree falling in the forest. Starting Monday, if one drops across a Pittsfield sidewalk, you can bet people will make noise about it.

Thanks to a new app, look for photos to boot.

On Monday, the city's IT department rolls out PittSMART, a new software tool that allows cellphone users to file requests for action, then track how government departments are responding.

The new system replaces an older one run through the city's website that allowed residents to flag problems like sewer clogs, graffiti and broken streetlights.

But people had complained about it, said Scott Connors, an IT department project manager. "It was a little old school and wasn't easy to use. You could post things but you couldn't really see anything," he said.

By contrast, PittSMART allows users to view all requests filed, each with a map automatically generated by the app.

On the city's side, department managers can mine data captured through the Accela Citizen Relationship Management program, as it's known, to get a big picture of where problems are occurring — and how quickly they're being resolved.

For instance, if a resident calls the mayor's office about a streetlight that's out, staff there can look to see whether anyone else has spotted the issue and know what steps have been taken.

"It's essential to have technology that's up to date," said Roberta McCulloch-Dews, director of administrative services. "It's not a luxury."

The program costs the city $8,000 a year. It is being split between the departments of public utilities and public services because their people will act on most of the requests.

"We needed something that got us into the mobile app-friendly thing," said Connors, who pushed for adoption of PittSMART. "The geographic thing was something that was really needed. Boom, it tells you exactly where it is. No one is tied to the desk any more."

David Turocy, commissioner of public services, said he is excited about PittSMART.

"We have been talking internally for a while about how we could get modern technology to work for us," he said. "When IT came to us with this program, it was just what we had been talking about, and we're looking forward to using it and seeing how well it meets our needs."

Fast track

The switch was just an idea in January. But quick work by Connors and strong backing from department heads put it on a fast track for its public debut Monday.

After confirming that other cities using the Accela were happy with it, Connors worked with city managers and staff to make sure it fit Pittsfield's needs.

Together, they devised 100 types of requests that residents can file through the app, each tailored to gather as much information as possible.

While pitched as a way to "manage" a community's relationships with citizens, the software gives city departments ready access to information that might otherwise be filed away on paper.

Once on the scene of a sewer clog, for example, workers responding to a request can note which of the three most common causes is responsible (roots, rags or grease), or labeled it "unknown."

Separately, a manager concerned about a spate of sewer clogs can immediately call up a screen displaying the most frequent causes. "They'll be able to analyze the data with a few clicks of the mouse," Connors said.

Managers can generate "heat maps" showing where problems are occurring, or call up visual summaries of the status of each request, from the red pin of an initial request on through to completion.

"That data is now actionable," said Ken Cutroneo, the business development executive for Accela that handled Pittsfield account. "The agency can run these reports and make data-driven decisions."

While in the field, city workers who spot a problem can file on it right away, using the app's global positioning system (GPS) function to automatically pinpoint the location.

The Fire Department will use the new system to track repairs to its equipment.

Custom features

As he made his way through the roster of departments, Connors says employees found ways to customize the requests — and in some cases to shape entirely new functions.

"A lot of the departments came back with a lot of great input," Connors said.

In the highway department, Connors said Tom Foody, the street compliance inspector, suggested creating an account for the company that fixes streetlights, Pine Ridge Technologies, so that it could know right away when a resident identifies a failed lamp. The system generates emails as alerts.

That sets a clock of accountability ticking. Once the request is first clicked on by the city, it takes an "in progress" label. Meantime, everyone can see how long it takes to fix.

"That's going to be a tremendous help to the community," Foody said.

Connors said Andrew Rist of Pine Ridge Technologies embraced the fact that the system cut through layers of bureaucracy, letting his firm know where it needed to go to keep lights working for its city contract without waiting for a problem to be referred from one person to another.

Rist declined to comment, citing a company policy about not speaking with the media.

That step of linking in outside vendors to help speed repairs impressed Cutroneo, the Accela representative.

"He said, 'You guys took it to another level,'" Connors said of Cutroneo.

In a phone interview, Cutroneo confirmed that Pittsfield found new ways to use the software, including built-in links to vendors.

Aside from speeding repairs, that feature can keep contractors on their toes.

"The city has transparency and they can hold their outside vendors accountable," Cutroneo said. "I love that (Connors) did that. It takes that work flow off of the city."

Over the last few weeks, Connors trained all city staff in use of PittSMART, which was named by Turocy. It stands for Pittsfield Municipal Assistance & Reporting Technology.

Turocy said the system's GPS function and ability to add photos will help staff respond more quickly to issues.

"For example, when we get a call for a streetlight out, we're never sure which light it is — and can't tell during the daylight - unless people give us the specific pole number."

But most people don't know to look for that information, he said. "This program can easily lock in the right one to fix with a photo or GPS location."

Turocy also said the "back end" of the system is easy to use.

"They are better able to sort through all the different request types," Turocy said of managers, "while also now having dashboards for individual managers to better track their specifically assigned tasks."

People filing requests can select to have the information not identify them. Connors said that level of privacy was built in to avoid neighborhood conflict. That will allow someone to file a request about a neighbor's abandoned cars without being named.

The app is available for both iPhone and Android formats.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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