Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Lorain Public Works Discovers the Interweb [Updated]

The headline in the deadtree edition of the PeeDee caught my eye: “Lorain taps Web to fix its potholes.” Wow. From what I read on Word of Mouth, Lorain isn’t known for cutting edge technology, but could they be turning a corner? And what sort of new web tool are they using? A wiki? Some sort of open source mapping? Do they have some sort of killer app for directing the crews?

Not exactly. From the second graf of the story:

    The city's newest tool to fill potholes is e-mail notification, which is getting praise from both residents and city officials.
Oh. Email. Um, yeah. How 1989 of them.

Well, according to the PD, this actually passes for innovation among public works departments:
    John Mahoney, deputy director of the Ohio Municipal League, said he has not heard of other cities using e-mail for potholes, but said it is a great way to deal with City Hall.
Apparently the email obviates problems with people calling a pothole call center and forgetting to leave some crucial bit of information. And, presumably, a problem with the call center operator forgetting to ask for the information. And problems with the reporting party blocking caller ID and preventing a call back.

I went onto the Lorain site and easily found the pothole reporting page. It says “To report a pothole, send your E-mails to POTHOLES” The email address embed in POTHOLES turns out to be the regular address for the streets department. So clearly, it's not going into some special processing program. Someone just gets the email and passes it on.

The PD article doesn’t go into much detail about how the thing works, which is the rub. I doubt the problem with getting potholes repaired is incomplete phone calls. A better guess is that potholes remain potholes because the street department is overextended, inefficient or both. What emails may save on is the number of calls coming into a call center, which is a help. But an email is just as likely as a phone call to have incomplete information, which means someone has to email back and ask for clarification.

The PD story starts with an anecdote of almost instant pothole repair. Is that typical? Well, I surfed through Word of Mouth to get some feel and found this passage in a general rant about the city:



Which isn’t good.

Out of curiosity I emailed Akron’s Highway Maintenance Department to ask if people can report potholes here in Akron via email. Joyce Batchik from public works responded almost immediately:

    [Y]ou can use this e mail address for potholes but most of our work orders
    come from our call center reached by dialing 311 on a home phone or
    330-375-2311 via cell phone. People use this address mostly for
    correspondence. Our call center puts in the initial work order and our
    foreman pick up these work orders. This is the regular address for the
    public works department.

The email address in question is Publicworks[at]ci.akron.oh.us. So apparently Akron has been doing this all along, though hasn't thought to frontpage a story about it on the city website.

UPDATE: I got an email from City spokesman Mark Williamson clarifying how Akron's site works:
    A secretary at Public Works monitors the 'Public Works' address but it is used for correspondence rather than work orders. If a pothole request goes to that address, Joyce would need to enter it into CSR to get it into the work flow. She has enough to do already so we don't want to encourage this activity.

    Calling 3-1-1 is the best thing going; but if a resident is a techie who just has to use e-mail, the Mayor's Action Center is the preferred way to go. Go to the City website, click on the 3-1-1 logo, and in the middle of the page it says, "Report problems on line" with the link to the MAC.
The 311 logo is reproduced at right and appears all through the Akron website. (I don't have a link embedded in it here, so don't bother.) Clicking through on the Akron site leads to this page that indeed has an embedded link in the line "report problems online." That link leads you to this online form for reporting. The form includes specific fields for leaving contact information. In other words, Akron has long been doing what Lorain supposedly innovated, and doing it in a more technically sophisticated and effective manner.

[End Update]

By the way, The Plain Dealer has set up its own page for reporting potholes in Cleveland. While there you can read items other people have submitted and look at a Google map of Cleveland that right now has no potholes added to it, but presumably will be updated soon. And no word whether Cleveland's public works department is reading.

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