Filed under: Information Technology

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

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 lets users search and find trees at their favorite locations

“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.

Essential numbers, like the positive environmental impact of trees, is updated on the tree map as new data is added

“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 October 28, 2013

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

New Patton Avenue sidewalk connectors increase pedestrian access

The final touches are underway on two sections of sidewalk along Patton Avenue that provide safer walking routes for pedestrians along the busy corridor. The two linkages, one from Parkwood Road to Leicester Highway and another from Regent Park Boulevard to the Capt. Jeff Bowen Bridge (formerly the Smokey Park Bridge), total a combined 4,150 linear feet of new sidewalk but link together a much larger network of sidewalks that stretches from the Capt. Bowen Bridge to the Smokey Park Highway. The route gets a high rate of use by pedestrians for its connection to retail and grocery stores along Patton as well as its proximity to bus stops on the City of Asheville ART system.

sidewalks city of asheville

Crews complete a paint job on a safety railing along Patton Avenue near the busy I-240/I-26 interchange.

“This one really rose to the top in our pedestrian master plan,” said City Transportation Planner Barb Mee. “And it provides walking access to multiple stores, the Westgate shopping center and along the interchange at Patton Avenue, I-26 and I-240 which was tricky for pedestrians to say the least.”

The design includes safety railings along shoulders where traffic is exiting and entering the interstates and involved a collaboration between the City of Asheville and the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

The Patton Avenue connections are just two examples of several sidewalk projects that are in some stage of development in the City of Asheville, including another recently completed section on North Louisiana Avenue, a section under construction on Lyman Street in the River Arts District, and a stretch along Tunnel Road in collaboration with the NCDOT that is underway and will eventually connect downtown to the ABCCM Veteran’s Quarters. A sidewalk project along Hendersonville Road is in the planning stages.

The City of Asheville pedestrian plan identifies 110 miles of needed pedestrian linkages that are prioritized using several factors including proximity to community destinations, safety concerns and feasibility of construction.

In the case of the two Patton Avenue connectors, those factors all added up to a green light. “This one really jumped off the charts,” said Greg Shuler, the city’s streets and engineering manager. “We are fortunate that City Council has put a high priority on this kind of infrastructure,” Shuler said.

mapasheville sidewalk pedestrian master plan

GIS mapping of Asheville's expanding sidewalk network can be seen at mapAsheville. Click on the image for more.

The Patton Avenue linkages were paid for with City of Asheville capital improvement project funds, but sidewalk projects throughout the city are funded through a combination of sources, including Community Development Block Grants and federal funding like Safe Routes to Schools which provides money for projects that make it easy and safe for students to walk to school. The North Louisiana sidewalk project that connects neighboring students with Emma Elementary School combined Safe Routes to Schools funding with federal CDBG funds and a Job Access/Reverse Commute grant through the Federal Transit Administration.

Click here to see more about the City of Asheville’s Pedestrian Thoroughfare Plan.

1 Comment September 18, 2012

Riverside Cemetery gets the GIS treatment

Corey White consults a clipboard and a copy of a decades old map as he walks a line along a sloping hillside at Riverside Cemetery. He stops and checks surrounding markers, then points to a weathered stone in the grass. “That’s the marker,” he says, holding up the corresponding plot diagram that shows the name of who is buried beneath the faded stone.

Riverside Cemetery City of Asheville

Corey White tracks grave sites among Riverside Cemetery's 87 acres

In the City of Asheville’s IT Services Department, Scott Barnwell pulls up an aerial view of the cemetery on his computer monitor that shows hundreds of similar plots, color coded and labeled by section, all gathered by White’s footwork. Zooming in on an individual plot, Barnwell calls up the name, number and burial date associated with the grave. Using Esri cloud computing software, the City of Asheville’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department and IT Services are partnering to compile an entire online inventory of the Riverside gravesites that can be accessed via computer or even on a smart phone.

City of Asheville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts

The locations of graves at Riverside Cemetery are being converted from this...

City of Asheville IT Services

...to this.

Riverside Cemetery is best known to many as the resting place of author and Asheville native Thomas Wolfe as well as other prominent local historical figures like Zebulon Vance, but another 14 to 15 thousand people have been buried on the 87 acre site in
the past century and a half. The City of Asheville is currently piecing together an intricate puzzle of archival material to pinpoint and identify every grave and build an interactive GIS map of Riverside Cemetery.

Riverside Cemetery is operated by the City of Asheville’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department, and this project sprung up in 2011as a sound business practice for the facility: inventory the occupied gravesites and identify all unused areas that can be marketed and sold as new burial plots. With that information in hand, the City of Asheville can develop a business plan for the cemetery that will allow it to have enough funding for maintenance and upkeep in perpetuity.

But the project is also one of good stewardship, accurately confirming the location of all of Riverside Cemetery’s residents and making that information easily available for people searching for their relatives or historic individuals. The location and mapping part of the project, White says, is about 65 percent complete. The entire database should be nearly finished by the end of the year.

Already, users can access the tool (see below for links) to search for specific names, or wander the grounds and pinpoint plots at their feet, and can see the name, burial date, inscription and a photo of the marker. The two departments collaborated previously on a walking tour of the grounds, and similar creative ways to display this new data may develop as well, Barnwell says.

The vault at Riverside Cemetery holds maps, interment records and plot sales records.

But first, White must confirm the location of the graves and his search begins in the cemetery’s vault, which is overseen alongside the rest of the facility, by manager Paul Becker. Becker knows the complex art of retrieving information from the vault, having spent 15 years mastering the files. A combination of maps, interment records and other fragments of documentation helps Becker locate a grave. Many of the records were reprinted in the mid-1980s but documents stretch back to the 1800s and were in varying degrees of disrepair. Some records had old cloth sewn into them. Some paper was so old, it would fall apart in your hands, so even the copied documents have holes in the information they provide. But every piece is important.

“You don’t ever throw anything away at a cemetery,” Becker says.

Becker says the demand is there for the information being plugged into the GIS maps. Riverside Cemetery sold in the neighborhood of 30 plots last year, and Becker gets requests at least once a week that have him diving back into the vault. With all the information at the touch of a screen, visualizing the future and the past of Riverside Cemetery becomes easier.

Asheville Cemetery

Access the City of Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery digital tool here or download the smartphone app here.

1 Comment September 6, 2012

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