(TNS) — The city of Helena, Mont., is bringing its maintenance request system into the 21st century with a smartphone application called MyHelena.
The city partnered with Rock Solid, an Austin, Texas-based company specializing in what they call government and citizen engagement platforms. The MyHelena iteration allows citizens to create service requests for problems ranging from potholes and graffiti to abandoned vehicles and snow-covered sidewalks.
Requests can be submitted anonymously, but those who create an account using an email address will receive real-time updates on the status of their requests.
The app provides an extensive menu of categories to file complaints under. Users of the app can inform parking enforcement of a malfunctioning parking kiosk. Users can even let the Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Department know when a park trashcan needs to be emptied.
Users can point out on a map exactly where the problem is located and snap a photo of the problem to attach to the service request.
The impetus for the technological advance came from the city's Transportation Department. Transportation System Director David Knoepke said the app provides citizens a much more direct route to the departments they need assistance from.
"This creates a way to submit service requests directly to the appropriate department," Knoepke said. "It's working a lot better. Our call volume has gone down greatly."
The city will spend nearly $12,000 annually on the technology, according to city spokeswoman Rebecca Connors, with the departments involved splitting the cost.
More than $15,000 came out of the Transportation Department's budget in fiscal year 2018-2019, including an initial fee for setup and branding of $3,500. The departments of Transportation and Utility Maintenance will split the $11,600 annual fee for this coming fiscal year. "All involved departments will split-fund costs" in future years, according to a presentation on the project provided by Connors.
City staff, including Connors, Knoepke and Utility GIS Analyst Scott Raznoff, conducted testing late last year. Volunteers from the community downloaded the app and were encouraged to submit service requests for issues they found in their neighborhoods.
Raznoff said the testing phase demonstrated the citizens' eagerness for such an app.
"One guy submitted 65 tickets," he said.
From the app's launch in November to Jan. 5, users submitted 468 requests.
"If we don't know what the problem is, we can't fix it," Knoepke said. "This gives us eyes on the street."
One such pair of eyes is second generation Helenan Cindie Tenneson, a computer programmer by trade who said she jumped at the opportunity to test out the new technology after she saw the city's call for volunteers on its Facebook page.
"I immediately sicked all of my family and friends on everything we could find wrong with the city," Tenneson said. "It's amazing how responsive the city was. I was really impressed."
Tenneson said one of her first service requests was regarding a pothole near her home, and a city crew repaired it within two weeks.
According to Connors, the MyHelena app not only affords citizens a greater sense of ownership but also creates another layer of accountability.
"The accountability aspect is huge for us," Connors said. "It's nice for our own records and helpful for keeping customers informed too."
The Transportation Department, for example, tries to maintain a reasonable average service time per ticket. If those times are growing, the department can see that via data from the app and make adjustments where necessary, according to Knoepke.
The only user data the app collects are names, phone numbers and email addresses, which Raznoff said are stored on secure third-party servers. The app also records a user's location, but only when that user submits the location of the issue he or she is requesting service for.
"We do not have any designs on that data other than improving our own processes," Raznoff said.
The app also connects users to a web-based, interactive map of trails within city limits. Users can also pay their water utility bill through the app.
Raznoff said the more users who sign up, the better the app will work as the user data will help inform adjustments.
He also said the city could expand its functionality in the future. For example, should a water main break, the city could send push notifications through the app to affected residents. Another example given was possibly including a calendar of events.
"We want to create as many avenues as we can for people to connect with the city," Connors said.
©2020 the Independent Record (Helena, Mont.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.