Filed under: Information Technology

Ten tech tools that connect you to city gov

Engaging with City government should be easy as 1-2-3, so the City of Asheville is always looking for ways that tech can help keep up the connection, make life easier and create community opportunity.computer

Here are 10 ways you can use tech to connect with your city government:

Pay-by-phone parking – Launched as a pilot program in 2012 and expanded to all city metered spaces the next year, Pay-By-Phone parking continues to provide convenient and change-free parking options on the streets of Asheville. Thousands of people use the service each month, 7,000 in October alone! To try it out, just follow the instructions on the parking meter!

NextBus – When’s the next bus coming to your stop? That question has gotten easier to answer since the city’s Transit Division launched the NextBus service over the summer. From your phone, just text “nextART” and the number on your bus stop to “41411” or go to www.nextbus.com/art on your smart phone to find out just when the next bus will be there. You can also call (828) 253-5691 x5 and enter the number on your bus stop to hear when your bus will arrive. Signs are at all Ride the ART stops; look for the green and blue circle. Or use your home computer if you already know your stop number and avoid a long wait at the stop!

Asheville App – The Asheville App works on the idea that, when it comes to spotting areas of the city that need attention, more eyes are better than few. You spot it, we fix it. From potholes to overgrown lots to damaged street signs, the app allows residents to report problems, upload pictures and track our progress on fixing the issue. Users can access the Asheville App from their computer or smartphone, and anyone can see what is being reported and how city personnel respond.

Online Development Portal – Time equals money, especially in the world of development, and this online tool is a real time saver. Pull construction related permits, make payments and track permit progress all online. For many basic permit types, no more in-person visits are needed. You can use the portal to schedule inspections 24 hours a day, receive confirmation of scheduling and see inspections results.

Online City Council meetings, both live and on-demand (psst…you can also search Council minutes here)

Graffiti Dashboard – When the City of Asheville began its 123 Graffiti Free removal assistance program, we knew it would be important for the public to track our progress. The dashboard shows the number of requests for cleanup assistance, how many have been completed, and how much of the money allocated by City Council has been spent. The dashboard’s design and ease of use earned it a place among the finalists for the North Carolina Technology Association’s 2014 Tech Awards.

Crime Mapper – Safety and quality of life means knowing what is going on in your neighborhood. The Crime Mapper on mapAsheville is updated with current calls for service from both the Asheville Police Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office and can zoom in on specific areas or sort crime info by neighborhood.

TreeMapper – Crowd-sourced tree info! Customized by the city’s Information Technology Services and the Tree Commission from open source software, the online map is designed to increase knowledge of trees in the area, highlight their benefits to the community and enhance the way we think about trees.

Online picnic shelter reservations and recreation program registration. – You don’t have to jump through hoops to sign up for one of Asheville Parks and Recreation’s many programs, or to reserve a picnic shelter for that birthday party or family reunion. Just sign up online!

Email utility bills and automatic bill payment – Green and easy! You don’t need to get a paper utility bill. By signing up, you can receive your bill by email and even choose to have an automatic draft when the bills come out.

Leave a Comment November 18, 2014

Asheville Tree Map crowd-sources survey of city’s trees

Autumn has arrived in full, and in Asheville that means admiring the brightly colored fall foliage. There’s no shortage of trees for leaf-lookers to soak in autumn’s display. And as long as our attention is on trees, it is a great time to dive into the Asheville Tree Map, an online crowd-sourced tool that seeks to identify and map trees in city and provide easily searchable info on the city’s tree stock.

Customized by the city’s Information Technology Services and the Tree Commission from open source software, the online map is designed to increase knowledge of trees in the area, highlight their benefits to the community and enhance the way we think about trees.

“The tree map is an exciting way to get people engaged with tree issues, and the user-friendly concept seems to inspire people to check it out,” says Tree Commission chair Mike Kenton. “For anyone interested in tree ID, assessing the health of their tree or a tree they care about, and especially learning about the environmental and financial benefits of trees in the Asheville area, it’s an excellent tool.”

Asheville Tree Map allows any user to log the location, type and size of trees in their area, adding to data already supplied by others in the community. On the flip side, users can search the ever growing tree database, search for types of fruit or flowering trees and view the environmental impact of Asheville’s tree population. Compiled numbers show the most common trees and individual markers show each tree’s characteristics and facts like how much air pollution each tree removes.

“There are enough trees in the city limits, from street trees to those in our back yards, that it would be impossible for one person to log all of them,” says city GIS Analyst Dave Michelson. “This is an excellent example of where crowd sourcing can work for the benefit of everyone. The more people involved, the better the map.”

In all, the map currently identifies information on 6,319 trees in and around Asheville. Many of those have been logged by the city’s arborist Mark Foster. Additionally, the Tree Commission and a group of volunteers celebrated the soft launch of the technology in March with a tree mapping party at Riverside Cemetery, logging some 100 trees. The commission hopes that more such parties will evolve from Asheville’s community as people begin to explore the application.

“Asheville’s Open Tree Map offers unparalleled opportunities to visualize and manage our urban forest,” said Commission member Amy Kemp. “It is not only supportive of the City’s tree management activities but offers the ability to calculate the economic and environment impact of the city’s trees, whether on public or private property.”

Because the Asheville Tree Map was developed using already available open-source software, Michelson said that customizing an Asheville-specific application took less staff time and effort that starting one from scratch. Michelson said that IT Services is also keeping an eye out for mobile app options to expand the tree map onto hand-held devices.

To access the Asheville Tree Map, go to http://ashevilletreemap.org.

Leave a Comment November 3, 2014

Graffiti Dashboard finalist for NC Tech Award

The North Carolina Technology Association has announced that the City of Asheville’s 123 Graffiti Free Dashboard is among the finalists for the 2014 Tech Awards. The online tool is one of four finalists in the “Business Value” category under “Use of Technology,” and was selected from more than 500 nominations. It is also the only example of public sector tech among the finalists.

Cameron

IT GIS Analyst Cameron Carlyle with the 123 Graffiti  Free dashboard.

“This tool was designed to allow the public easy access to information, and to clearly illustrate the progress the 123 Graffiti Free program was making in the community,” said Business & Public Technology Manager Scott Barnwell. “Ease of use and transparency are the kinds of roles tech should be playing in the world.”

The dashboard was designed by Cameron Carlyle, the newest member of the Information Technology Services team, with the collaboration of the Graffiti Team, the Office of Planning and Multimodal Transportation and the Office of Communication and Public Engagement.

With a visit to 123GraffitiFree.com users can see the number of requests made for graffiti cleanup, the number of jobs completed, and the amount invested by the City of Asheville. They can also track individual projects and see a map showing locations of graffiti cleanup sites.

In July, the city launched the 123 Graffiti Free cleanup assistance program offering $500 in cleanup assistance to property owners. Property owners who have not participated in the program are eligible through September 30, 2015 (or until funding runs out) for a one-time $500 incentive to help clean up graffiti on their site.

The NC Tech award winners will be announced on November 6.

Leave a Comment October 17, 2014

Dashboard tracks and reports graffiti cleanup progress

Follow along with 123 Graffiti Free! A new online dashboard tracks the City of Asheville’s progress on the 123 Graffiti Freeblogdash cleanup assistance initiative. The dashboard, produced in collaboration between the city’s Public Works and IT Services Departments, displays the number of graffiti cleanup requests, the number of cases completed and the amount of money the City of Asheville has spent so far.

Through September 30, the city is offering property owners $500 in graffiti cleanup assistance as part of the 123 Graffiti Free cleanup initiative, and Asheville City Council has allocated $300,000 toward the cleanup effort. As of August 5, there were with 62 cleanup requests completed and in all cases of private property requests, the city’s $500 investment has covered the entire cost of removal or repainting with no money required from property owners.

Graffiti harms communities, and removing graffiti from property within 48 hours has been shown to be a deterrent to vandals. Report graffiti on public property or request cleanup assistance on private property with the Asheville App, email 123graffitifree@ashevillenc.gov, or call (828) 259-5960.

1 Comment August 5, 2014

City of Asheville turns to cloud technology to back up essential systems

The City of Asheville’s IT Services Department has found a new home for some city emergency backup applications, using a cloud technology platform provided by CloudVelocity and Amazon Web Services.

computerThe development, announced in May, ensures that two of the city’s important, but previously unprotected systems – the point-of-sale system for the U.S. Cellular Center and the city’s Water Resources asset management system – can function properly even in the case of a hardware failure, power outage, or natural disaster.

“Utilizing the cloud platform allows us to restore these functions quickly and without experiencing loss of information or time due to a system outage,” says the City of Asheville’s chief information officer Jonathan Feldman.

In times of disaster, municipalities rely on backup technology to recover critical operational systems, but often, that backup requires establishing an off-site facility to house hardware and host duplicate systems. From a fiscal standpoint, Feldman says, that was a no-go for these systems. “We didn’t have the resources to develop an entire second facility that was far enough away to protect from regional disaster.”

So the city’s IT Services team migrated those systems into Amazon’s Web Services systems using CloudVelocity’s software. The transition took about a month to complete, and the final product passed an outside security auditor’s assessment before launch.

Having a backup system easily accessible and secure but located, in this case, at a data center on the west coast, is an asset as it means those systems are not impacted by local events. It is a concept known as geographic dispersion.

The information in the city’s primary data center and in the cloud is consistently synchronized so the backup system is ready to be launched at any time. But unlike traditional off-site backup facilities, the cloud-based recovery system is only operating when it is in use or during test runs. That means a greatly reduced operational cost, since the City does not have to purchase backup hardware.

“Instead of capital costs in the hundreds of thousands for a modern disaster recovery center, we pay for automation software, computing, and data storage when we use it, at a tenth of the cost,” says Kevin Hymel, Technical Services Manager for the City.

But perhaps the most important outcome is an automated disaster recovery system that reduces recovery time from 12 hours to two, and one that will remain available in case of any city-wide weather or power related event.

“We will continue to look for opportunities to utilize this technology for any city system that requires disaster recovery,” Feldman said.

Leave a Comment June 2, 2014

Public/private partnership restores high-speed communication to Asheville’s emergency responders

Fire engines and police cruisers alike lit up on September 17 at the Murphy-Oakley Community Center and Fire Station Building, but they were not responding to an emergency. The blue and red lights were flashing in celebration of a high-speed communication connection that means better and faster service responses by Asheville’s emergency responders.

The City of Asheville Information Technology Services Department has been working on restoring the fiber-optic reconnection since 2009, and the accomplishment was the result of a great community collaboration. Asheville-based Education and Research Consortium of the Western Carolinas (ERC), which received a grant in 2012 in partnership with North Carolina-based MCNC to enhance its fiber-optic network in Western North Carolina, has partnered with the City of Asheville to connect 12 Fire Stations and 4 Police Stations to dispatchers using its new fiber optic network. The move provides the fastest emergency alert notification available and saves the City of Asheville the approximately $5 million it would have cost to install its own fiber network.

“In a project of this magnitude, there are a lot of moving parts,” said Jonathan Feldmen, the city’s Chief Information Officer. Feldman presented plaques to the ERC’s Executive Director Hunter Goosmann as well as representatives from the Reed Memorial Baptist Church, which allowed the city to use its steeple for a wireless connection while the communication system was in transition.

Joined by firefighters and police officers who rely on the ability to respond quickly in emergency situations, Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy spotlighted the increased public safety and even its impacts on the city’s accreditation. “Today we are talking about how to make sure people are even safer,” she said. “To the IT Department, this shows your commitment to making sure the City of Asheville is wired and at a low cost.”

In 2012, Asheville City Council approved a franchise agreement with the ERC in support of the partnership that provides the high-speed fiber-optic access.

Leave a Comment September 20, 2013

A sky-high view at Riverside Cemetery

The latest tools in the City of Asheville’s GIS tool belt are lighter than air and float at 1,000 feet: Weather balloons outfitted with digital cameras are being used in the ongoing project by the IT Services Department and the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department to confirm and map the location of graves and plots at the city’s historic Riverside Cemetery.

The balloons provide aerial pictures of the cemetery grounds, which can then be matched with cemetery records and on-the-ground surveying of markers and landmarks. Together, all of this information provides an accurate survey of the grounds, which is being plugged into an interactive GIS map. Riverside Cemetery is managed by the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department and, alongside good stewardship, the mapping allows the city to know how many and where plots are available for sale on the grounds.

See more: Riverside Cemetery gets the GIS treatment.

Recently, a class of third graders from Isaac Dickson Elementary School visited Riverside Cemetery to see how the balloons work and learn about mapping. The students got to see how pocket cameras were rigged with harnesses made from string and repurposed two-liter soda bottles so that they would remain pointed down and resist spinning, and even got a chance to “pilot” the balloons by holding the lines.

Working with Adam Griffith, a research scientist with Western Carolina University and the nonprofit group The Public Laboratory, the team launched two weather balloons, spooling out 1,000 feet of line to keep them from floating into near-space altitudes (where differences in pressure would cause them to pop). Each balloon carried a pocket digital camera set to take pictures every four seconds.  Using this relatively inexpensive technique, the team captures photos within a 1/10-mile radius.

GIS Analyst Scott Barnwell says the technique could be used for other areas around the city as well as to fill in information gaps. Aerial images are taken regularly by the N.C. Geographic Information Coordinating Council (NCGICC) but the latest information is from 2010, and another fly-over isn’t planned until 2015. The balloons can provide images of changes and new construction in the ensuing five years, Barnwell says. And the images taken from the balloons show higher detail than existing satellite imagery.

As for the Riverside Cemetery survey, work mapping the graves is nearing an end. “We’re about 95 percent there,” Barnwell says. “We’re just working on that last five percent now.”

Leave a Comment March 18, 2013

You spot it, we fix it: City of Asheville launches Asheville App

The City of Asheville is excited to announce the launch of the Asheville App, an easy-to-use online tool that allows users to notify the city about issues like water line leaks, potholes, or illegal dumping that need the city’s attention via smart phone or computer, then track the results.

“This is the kind of technology that really enhances connectivity in the city,” says Project Manager Eric LaRue. “We are always exploring ways to make it easy and efficient for people to interact with city government.”

Here’s how it works: Asheville App users who spot a problem submit a service request at www.ashevillenc.gov/ashevilleapp or on their smart phone using the downloadable app. Users can submit their location and even a picture of the problem spot. The Asheville App then sends the service request to the relevant city department personnel so they can quickly resolve the issue. A tracking tool allows users to monitor progress on the repair, and City employees can even communicate directly with users if they need further information. The app notifies the resident when the repair request has been completed.

The City of Asheville strives to provide excellent service in a timely and efficient manner, and the Asheville App will play an important role in fulfilling that goal.
“The ease of use of the Asheville App will not only give people more ways to relay information to us, it will also streamline our ability to respond to customer service needs,” says Customer Services Division Superintendent Florie Presnell.

The City of Asheville enlisted the services of PublicStuff (www.publicstuff.com), an innovative CRM software company, to create the app and digital communications solution. “We are excited to add Asheville to the PublicStuff family” Founder and CEO of PublicStuff Lily Liu said. “Asheville is a city with a rich cultural heritage and PublicStuff aims to work to provide an easy way for residents to stay in touch with their local government.”

The Asheville App can be found and downloaded at www.ashevillenc.gov/ashevilleapp.

1 Comment March 12, 2013

Putting city data to work at the Hackathon

Twenty-three data sets, twenty people and three hours. That’s the raw material for the kind of innovation that comes out of civic hackathons like the one held last month at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville as part of Open Data Day. The day-long conference on the benefits and uses of accessible government data culminated with three groups poring over open City of Asheville data and finding creative ways to put the information to use.

Open Data Day Asheville

The winning team from the 2012 Hackathon pores over open City of Asheville databases.


“There was probably more excitement about the hackathon than anything else” says GIS analyst Scott Barnwell. Barnwell and other members of the City’s Information Technology team arranged the data sets using information that was largely already available to the public but that was enhanced by being consolidated into a City of Asheville Open Data catalog.

Some 23 sets include databases of City-owned property, business license locations and information sets culled from the GIS-based mapAsheville tool.

“The city has a lot of information out there and we keep adding more as we think of ways to apply tools like mapAsheville,” Barnwell says. “The trick is and will continue to be how to best get it into the hands of the people who can benefit from it.”

In recent years, the City of Asheville has upgraded its data managing systems, allowing the IT Services Department to compile data and make it available online in places like mapAsheville, but it is how the information can be utilized that makes a hackathon so interesting.

A hackathon is an opportunity to apply raw data to serve a purpose, be it a civic benefit or financial opportunity. Businesses rely on government data every day. So do groups like neighborhood or preservation organizations. Data represents opportunity and that aspect wasn’t lost on the ODD 2012 attendees.

Three groups tackled the hackathon challenge to come up with some sort of application or revelation using the open data they had at hand, and their efforts went in unexpected and interesting directions. (Click here to see more about how each hackathon team used open data at the 2012 Open Data Day blog.

“First of all, anyone can hack,” says GIS analyst Dave Michelson. “You don’t need to know how to write code, you just need to have ideas. We only had three programmers in the room. And it was really cool to see what the groups came up with.”

The winning group, as voted by the other hackathon participants, created a mapping tool that relates public art to bus stops and considered how this could be used to boost bus ridership.

“A hackathon is like an incubator for ideas,” Michelson says. “It’s a new way to engage the community and create a startup mentality,” Michelson says. The goal, he says, is to enable the community and government to be more innovative.

Michelson points to a community initiative by the Code for America Brigade that is underway to build a volunteer base of creative and interested people willing to carry on the civic hacking mission. As that mission expands, he expects the City will get even more requests for the kinds of data that open even further collaboration between the municipal organization and the population it serves.

Leave a Comment November 13, 2012

Hackathon puts heads together at Open Data Day

open data day logoIn case you haven’t heard, Open Data Day is October 16 (read more about that here), and the City of Asheville is a proud participant. Alongside keynote speakers from Code for America and Open Data Philly, the event will be the site of a Hackathon, a cross-discipline ad hoc on site effort to create useful tools that could assist in the Open Data Day theme of increased access to government data.

City of Asheville GIS Analyst Dave Michelson describes the concept behind the hackathon and what it could offer:

What exactly is a hackathon?

The hackathon is an intensive and highly focused group, in this case a group of citizens, who are usually techies. The group has a very specific goal of rapidly “hacking” together a technological solution to a given demand. In our case, the hackathon responds to a very specific civic issue: transparency and open municipal data. Despite the mainstream, sometimes negative perception of the word “hacking,” a hackathon it is NOT destructive nor is it a malicious attack on a computer system. Instead, it is a problem-solving effort by programmers.

Describe what it is like to be at the table during a hackathon.

The hackathon is usually festive and fun while at the same time just focused on getting the coding done. It resembles a caffeine-infused all-nighter type off feel.

What does a hackathon offer us in the way of opportunities? What can we learn that is new?

Because the hackathon is for citizens and by citizens, it aims to directly answer questions citizens have about how city government works. So as an organization, we learn how we can better interact and engage with our citizens.

How will this hackathon be organized?

Very loosely and open, as it’s based on collaboration. Usually, participants split into one or more groups, come up with a problem they want to solve, then just do it. At the end, we will vote on who wins the right of best hack at Open Data Day.

The design sounds like part of a growing collaboration between the community and the city organization. What’s the take away from that kind of collaboration?

The hackathon relies on open data or some kind of access to data provided in an open way to create highly useful “apps” for citizens by citizens. The data starts with us and ends with you.

Open Data Day will be held October 16, 2012 in the U.S. Cellular Center, Asheville, NC. For information about attending, click here. Tickets will be available through Oct. 12.

Follow Open Data Day on Facebook and Twitter.

For more information about Open Data Day, contact Jonathan Feldman at jfeldman@ashevillenc.gov.

Leave a Comment October 4, 2012

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