Spot Reporters Transforms Customer Service in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Autumn in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is when the battle against potholes and tall grass finally comes to an end. In the wake of the recession, foreclosed houses and empty rental properties left garbage, weeds, and various physical issues for the city to address this fall. However, this season, citizens were armed with GRCity 311, a mobile application enabling the submission of reports anytime, anywhere.

“We received a lot of tall grass complaints through the app,” says Bob Coe, IT Project Manager, Technology and Change Management Department, City of Grand Rapids. “Having photos attached to the reports has been tremendously helpful for the responding agencies.”

First implemented in 2010 as an iPhone and Android app, GRCity 311 gives citizens even more ways to report streets and sidewalks left unplowed this season. The latest release includes an upgraded web form, the ability to submit reports through Twitter with hashtags like #snowremoval, and developer APIs built to the Open311 standard.

Powered by Spot Reporters, a mobile reporting framework from Connected Bits, GRCity 311 is integrated directly with Cityworks, the core asset management system in Grand Rapids. Spot Reporters centralizes the management of mobile and various engagement channels for citizens to cooperate with government. When the first snowstorm hits, Grand Rapids will be able to add snow removal to a list of available services, and the category will appear on mobile apps and the Web to start crowdsourcing reports.

While GRCity 311 is targeted for citizens, some of its power users are actually city employees. From a device hardware standpoint, Grand Rapids is a progressive organization with mostly iPhone devices internally, in addition to some Android. “We have Police Officers who submit reports regularly while on patrol,” states Coe. “They know first hand what can happen when certain issues go unattended. Increasing their accessibility to other agencies has been beneficial.”

The fast evolution of mobile and “web 2.0” technologies is a disruptive force, but with Spot Reporters, Grand Rapids can embrace new technologies without breaking existing processes. The thought of implementing a mobile app like GRCity 311 often causes concern for municipalities; worried they might exceed the number of requests to which they have the capacity to respond. To this train of thought, Coe remarks, “We’re not out promoting the app on national TV. Spot Reporters gives us the flexibility to promote usage around service issues we can handle.  In fact, the apps have actually helped identify areas in need of operational improvement by bringing transparency to the system.”

Cityworks has been successfully adopted as a work order management system for most enterprise services in Grand Rapids since 2005. As the destination for nearly all requests for service, Cityworks is the foundation for self-service channels introduced by Spot Reporters.

“When a citizen submits a report, they are assigned a case number generated by Cityworks which can be used to track the resolution. When the status of a case changes in Cityworks, or when it gets resolved, notification is automatically sent to the citizen who reported it and those who choose to follow it,” says Coe. “This feedback loop has been critical in building loyalty and trust with citizens.”

With a buy vs. build approach to software, the Technology and Change Management Department has focused much of its attention on integration. Cities such as Baltimore, Maryland, have deployed both Spot Reporters and Cityworks, but typically a customer relationship management system (e.g. Motorola CSR) acts as the gateway. Grand Rapids is the first city to connect Spot Reporters directly to an asset management system like Cityworks.

In the pilot phase of a 311 customer service program, Grand Rapids also implemented Microsoft Dynamics CRM, which was the original point of integration for GRCity 311. “The ease of which we can integrate Spot Reporters with other systems is a major advantage,” stated Coe. A connector component is now available for Cityworks customers from Connected Bits, which can be used to integrate Spot Reporters directly using the Cityworks APIs.

Geospatial awareness is critical for successful citizen engagement, and Cityworks makes inherent use of mapping software through Esri’s ArcGIS. “In a typical scenario, a citizen captures a service request with GRCity 311 using the native GPS functionality on their mobile device,” says Joe Bennet, GIS Administrator, Grand Rapids. “That report makes its way into Cityworks with coordinates which enable us to visualize the data in Cityworks and our ArcGIS environment.”

This visibility is important for city employees when responding to issues like potholes. “What’s powerful about GRCity 311 is that it enables us to bring citizens into the process,” continues Bennet. “Enterprise GIS has been around for decades, but with the emergence of new mobile and Web technologies, we’re seeing it collide with the Geoweb.”

The current ecosystem makes it particularly challenging for governments to deploy and maintain mobile apps. Fragmented operating systems make it impossible to standardize on one platform and a dynamic hardware marketplace makes it difficult to ensure operability on new devices. Coupled with other emerging communication technologies such as social media, it can be difficult and costly to keep pace with innovation, but Grand Rapids has found their solution.

Coe concludes, “Grand Rapids can’t afford to be in the software development business, so we look to established vendors like Cityworks and Connected Bits to build and maintain applications. Their experience with other customers is a big part of what makes our technology program successful.”

Connected Bits is the developer of Spot Reporters, a mobile reporting application that enables governments and other organizations to “deputize” their communities to report issues—from potholes to power outages—using mobile devices and the Web. Founded in 2003, Connected Bits has worked with major players in the mobile ecosystem including AT&T, Motorola, HTC, Microsoft, and France Telecom. Connected Bits partnered with the City of Boston to develop and launch one of the country’s first mobile 311 services in 2009. Spot Reporters has since been adopted by tens of thousands of mobile users in several major cities.  Find Connected Bits on the web at www.connectedbits.com.

by Arlen Plotkin, Director of Business Development, Connected Bits and Lindsay Ferguson, PR & Marketing, Azteca Systems, Inc. — Cityworks

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