St. Charles Parish Takes the Connected City Approach
Geospatial technology helps Louisiana’s St. Charles Parrish get a better picture of the condition of its assets and has improved responsiveness when action is called for.
Faced with rising complaints from residents, St. Charles Parish in Louisiana linked geospatial tools to its existing GIS to address the concerns of its citizens and improve its own response.
St. Charles Parish is one of the original 19 parishes of the territory of Orleans. It is divided into seven districts, each represented by a councilmember, plus two at-large seats elected on a parish-wide basis. Recently, councilmembers were receiving an increasing number of complaints from residents about streetlight outages, damaged trash bins and failure to remove debris.
Faced with limited resources and unsure of how to solve the problem cost-effectively, GIS Director Luis Martinez turned to his geospatial distributor, NEI, for advice. The distributor recommended Trimble Feedback, part of Trimble’s eServices applications for local government and compatible with the city’s existing Esri GIS system.
“I’ve been using Trimble solutions for 16 years,” Martinez says. “We’ve purchased pretty much everything they sell – the R10, TSC3, R8, S5 and several GeoExplorer 6000 series and Geo 7X handhelds.”
Trimble Feedback is an affordable cloud-based solution with integrated map functionality that enables citizens to connect easily with city personnel through a configurable web platform. Trimble Feedback consolidates the community engagement process to expedite and streamline operations.
“The Contract Monitor’s office was getting 30 to 40 emails a day about repairs,” Martinez says. “Once the complaint was submitted, there was no way to track the status. The contract monitor would print the email, put it in a binder and add it to the database, and it would then go to a repair contractor. “But things would get lost. With Trimble Feedback, there’s a digital paper trail of everything reported and actions taken.
“Before we implemented the software, it might take three months to replace a trash bin,” Martinez says. “Now we get reminders if there hasn’t been any action in three days so we can follow up and assess the delay. Our goal is to have problems fixed in less than two weeks.”
Using Trimble Feedback, citizens can submit problems 24 hours a day, seven days a week, using a smartphone, email or via the government website. Trimble Feedback receives, processes, monitors and manages submissions, which are time-stamped and location-based so they can be located, prioritized, assigned and resolved while keeping the resident informed of the progress. This has improved efficiency and response times.
Another advantage of using Feedback is that it enables the Contract Monitor’s office to manage everything from one place. “The city and customers both benefit because we are more accountable, which means we can provide better service,” Martinez says.
Before deploying Feedback, St. Charles Parish needed to inventory the city’s 8,000 streetlamps. They chose Trimble R1 GNSS receivers to provide positioning information so the parish could collect accurate location data with smart devices, handhelds or tablets. They also used Trimble’s cloud-based TerraFlex software that enabled them to manage and streamline the information from a mobile device. In roughly three months, Martinez had mapped 6,500 of the 8,000 lights – over 80 percent of the street lights in the parish.
“TerraFlex helps us to protect our assets by creating a database of city fixtures and structures,” Martinez says. “We can log the number of lights, the material – aluminum or wood – and the condition of the structure, and whether it will need to be replaced soon. We also take a photo to track the condition of the fixtures.”
This data is integrated with Feedback so residents can easily identify and report an asset in need of repair.
In addition, the database tells the city if there’s a trend in one neighborhood over another, such as increased power outages. “We can identify hotspots and determine the reason,” Martinez says. “We can track where trash bins are damaged the most and which routes have the highest need for debris removal so we can determine why those areas are having so many problems.”
Martinez said Feedback has helped the Parish save money as well. “Our goal was to expand the Contract Manager’s office by two employees to handle the large volume of calls, but now we can avoid hiring additional people.” That amounts to a savings of roughly $160,000 a year, plus the funds to develop a communication system. It also frees up the contract managers since they don’t have to sort through so many emails.
While the city estimated three years to implement the program, Trimble solutions have helped to solve the trash bin and streetlight issues in six months for less than 20 percent of the estimated cost, and with improved productivity of 60 to 70 percent.
Educating the public
To educate residents about the new communication system, St. Charles Parish published an article in the government e-newsletter, promoted it on local TV and social media, and inserted flyers in residential electric bills. Feedback is so easy to use that residents logged nearly 170 requests in the first month.
To access the site, residents create a username that allows them to log into the system. They report a concern by filling out a short form and typing their address into an interactive map, which automatically pulls up their residence with nearby streetlights. A user can hover over a streetlight on the map and attach a request.
To report a trash bin issue or to request debris removal, users simply hover over their residence and click. Requests go to the Contract Monitor’s Office, which assigns the job to a repair and maintenance provider.
Residents receive an email thanking them for the submission, followed by a status email as well as a completion email when the problem is solved. Feedback’s automated response library has ready-made answers so the contract manager simply selects the appropriate email and pushes a button to update users; all submissions are stored in the system so information about the contents, the subject and the quantity of the feedback can be analyzed. Users also can track requests in progress by clicking on a tab on the website.
Feedback paid for itself in the first month, Martinez says. By monitoring requests, the software streamlined the operational efficiency of repairing Parish assets such as trash bins, traffic signals and streetlamps. It has improved customer service as well.
“We met with councilmembers before purchasing the solution and they supported the installation.” Now they are extremely excited about Feedback because it has alleviated citizen complaints while providing ready insight into the status of maintenance issues in their districts.
The solution also has a module for notifying residents of upcoming repairs and public activities. “We’re resurfacing a bridge and we’re building levies around town so we posted that information on Feedback as a way to exchange information,” Martinez says.
While St. Charles Parish implemented Feedback to improve street light and garbage bin maintenance, the plan is to leverage the solution in other departments such as Code Enforcement and Public Works, where it will assist in identifying and addressing such safety issues as potholes and downed power lines.
Martinez says the Parish will also use Feedback to aid in weather-related emergencies. “During Hurricane Katrina, we used Trimble GPS and GIS to track standing water, downed trees and the accessibility status of neighborhoods.”
Following Hurricane Isaac, the Parish used Trimble GeoExplorer 6000 series handhelds to map out the Parish and provide visibility into road conditions. “We had eight people manning the phones nonstop. Residents needed to know if they could go home or if it was safe to drive down a certain street.”
“The plan now is to use TerraFlex to collect data during a storm and then use Trimble Feedback so residents can go to the website and access updates.” When a customer submits a safety hazard, such as an exposed gas pipe or a tree leaning after a storm, they can see if someone else has reported that same problem and, if so, what’s the current status.
Feedback also provides a visual element so the city can document damage for FEMA and insurance claims. “We’ll be much more efficient,” Martinez says.
Clearly, the ability to understand and manage assets occupies a significant amount of St. Charles’ time and budget. By making these processes more efficient and tying them to other services and activities, St Charles Parish is not only a smarter city, but also a more effective one.
St Charles Parish can effectively link its citizens, assets and services by using technology to support and improve the engagement between its residents and local government. The power of being connected allows the city to enhance the well-being of its community as well as the city’s overall performance and efficiency.
For St. Charles Parish, Trimble eServices has provided a state-of-art solution that drives citizen engagement and asset auditing, from field to finish. It’s a real value add, Martinez says.