Start Making "Cents": The Web at Work

Dave Reinke
InfoLink Project Manager
APWA Washington Office

All along, the promise of what was dubbed "e-commerce" was about profiting from Internet connectivity—but how does this translate into your work environment? It might be useful to look at some examples of how and where it is working. The two processes where value is most evident are 1) Collaboration; and 2) Automation, both supported by a vital component of each, which is communication. Examples in each of these areas show how the Internet can save municipal agencies money, and in some instances actually make them money.

1) Collaboration: With the connectivity the Internet provides, this is among the first to become cost-effective for cities to provide. By bringing together all the players in any project or program, the collaborative nature of the Internet improves all aspects of management. The Capital Improvement Program (CIP) of any city can benefit from the broad reach of Internet connectivity, and some are beginning to implement on-line solutions that deliver results.

The City of Austin, Texas has instituted a CIP system that tracks more than 1200 projects across 23 city departments. The web-based solution allows all departments easy, secure access to bids, contractor information, project schedules and spending, while sharing data with other city computers. Severine Halls, the project management supervisor for the city's Public Works Department, says "the benefits have been tremendous. We are saving hundreds of man-hours just in responses to requests for information, and we've been able to streamline and standardize numerous processes that allow us to work more efficiently."

Driven to some extent by the promise of broadband Internet connectivity for citizens, the telecom build-out has led to the development of another important collaborative effort, the Joint Trench or Joint Duct project. These projects can utilize the same technology they are working to deliver, using the Internet to coordinate activity, schedules, and provide public information.

The Town of Westlake, Texas has the luxury of beginning with a duct bank for all its buried infrastructure, as it grows from its present population of a few hundred to thousands of residents. In addition to the benefits of knowing the precise location of all buried assets and ensuring access to all residents, Westlake's ducts will allow new providers to install services without tearing up their streets, and the town has even configured water meters to use cable in the future, and would be capable of monitoring real-time water use. Older cities are also realizing the value of coordinated activity in trying to preserve newly resurfaced streets, as the City of Des Moines discovered when rehabilitating a major thoroughfare and working with affected utilities to streamline relocation and cost allocation.

2) Automation: The second real benefit of the Internet is the automation of previously existing processes, coupled with the connectivity discussed above, which makes this area one of the most promising in terms of revenue. Permitting has long been a specific target, as the ready access to potential applicants over the Internet can be coupled with quick processing of data and a direct relationship to revenue in the form of fees. One benefit of an Application Service Provider (ASP), or hosted solution, is also tied to the Internet; because the application is hosted by the third party, it frees the municipality from having to purchase and maintain all the computing hardware and staff required to run the application.

The City of Lee's Summit, Missouri, offers its own online application for Right-of-Way permits over the Internet (as well as walk-in, or mail/fax-in service). Jason Boyer, who works with Glenn Martin coordinating the city's Right-of-Way, says that about 70 percent come in over the Internet, and even those that don't are entered into the system so they can be tracked. The department is able to free up at least one staff position that would have been dedicated to handling paper, and their two inspectors can focus on keeping up with street activity. They have found their system to be a huge improvement in this area as well, as an inspector can easily track the responsible parties for improper work or repairs. They have even automated ROW permits for new construction, greatly simplifying the process of tracking hundreds of plumbers performing water main taps.

And there are other areas where economies are just beginning to be realized. As more communities are required to comply with GASB-34 regulations, they are finding that asset reporting automatically requires asset management as a precursor. As these systems are implemented, users discover more of the benefits of increased access by different users of the data, and associated processes like work order management and scheduling. Many of the planned applications for APWA-InfoLink fit the model of delivering value based on better communication, coordination, and access; which would include identifying activity happening without a permit, ensuring proper bonding and liability coverage, and leveraging existing data and technology.

These examples are not all-inclusive, but hopefully provide some insight into what is possible, and some areas where the Internet is beginning to be put to work successfully in the area of utilization of the Internet from an economic standpoint. Obviously it can be difficult to measure some things like efficiency, but by providing controlled access from any desktop (or laptop), from any department or location, at any time, the Internet makes possible much more rapid communication, transaction, and response. One thing is sure; whether it is making information, regulations, people or processes more available, the Internet is beginning to make "cents."

To reach Dave Reinke, call 202-408-9541 or send e-mail to dreinke@apwa.net.