Bangor, Portland eye technology to improve government, services

Posted Feb. 03, 2013, at 8:04 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — One day, Bangor residents, armed with their smartphones, could play an important role in keeping the city running, according to city officials who are thinking about what role technology might play in helping the city be more efficient.

See a full trashcan in the public park? Use your phone to read that particular receptacle’s QR [quick response] code — a relatively new take on the venerable barcode — which then will allow you to notify the city that the trash needs to be emptied.

See a flooded street, pothole or downed tree limb? Take a picture, which could be sent along to city workers automatically, with geographic location included.

“In this economy, and with gridlock in Washington and Augusta, our local government needs to innovate,” Councilor Ben Sprague said during an interview Friday. “We need to get faster, leaner and smarter.”

For years, cities have been asked to do more with less, cutting costs while trying to provide more effective, efficient services.

Sprague said he believes technology should be harnessed to help the city work better. He laid out several concepts, such as the QR codes and a Neighborhood Application, which would send an email or notification about changes in trash pickup or when spring cleanup is scheduled to residents based on which neighborhood they live in.

Maine’s largest city also is looking to the future, according to Dan Boutilier, Portland’s information technologies director. He said the city recently tasked him with improving the municipal website and improving access through mobile devices.

Portland also is testing a geotag service, which automatically attaches geographic coordinates to photographs, so city staff can see where the images were taken and match them up against geographic information system [GIS] maps of the city if needed.

One concept that Boutilier is thinking about is using vehicle trackers in snowplows to map their routes to see the efficiency of plowing operations. The city could then determine if the plows aren’t giving enough attention to some of the sloppier streets.

“We’re not to that point yet,” Boutilier said, but one day using GIS data together with real-time observations could prove very valuable for cities, he said.

Sprague said Bangor could learn a lot from Baltimore, which has used a program called CitiStat since 1999. CityStat tracks city data from crime statistics to the city’s response time in fixing a blown street light, giving city officials an idea of which services are working well in the city and which ones need attention.

If Bangor were to implement the QR-coded trashcan idea, the city could track which receptacles filled up the most often, for example, and assign city workers to empty them more frequently to prevent future cleanliness problems.

City Manager Cathy Conlow said Bangor has worked to improve its tech savviness during the past five years, rolling out a new, more user-friendly website and working to upgrade its online maps to make them more available to residents.

Those maps will be key in the future Conlow said, allowing the city to map out data related to neighborhood revitalization efforts, street repairs or police complaints. The GIS data will also include layers mapping out infrastructure, such as the sewer system, water pipes, storm drains and gas lines.

Bangor is “behind the times” in some areas, Conlow said. For example, many of its departments are “siloed” and don’t “talk together” effectively because they use various programs and systems that aren’t linked.

The city is working on revamping its financial system so that residents can pay taxes and renew a dog license in one spot at City Hall, rather than having to go to several offices in one visit.

“The idea was really to start building the system from the ground up,” Conlow said, adding that a solid technological foundation will allow the city to “take advantage of technology as it advances.”

Aside from helping the city run more efficiently, technology could help Bangor promote itself and draw visitors. During a recent Business & Economic Development Committee meeting, Councilor Charlie Longo suggested the idea of placing QR codes on buildings and businesses throughout the downtown, which could guide visitors on tours of Bangor’s historic buildings or give them more information on local businesses.

Kerrie Tripp, executive director of the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said programs available now to do that would be “cost prohibitive,” but “it is something that’s on the horizon.”

While Bangor doesn’t have a set path forward on how to implement or use technology to its advantage, it’s important to discuss the potential, Sprague argued.

“We don’t have the technology infrastructure for a lot of this yet, but we need to have the vision,” Sprague said. “If the federal government can put a man on the moon in 10 years without knowing how, we can have some ideas around technology and work toward them without knowing exactly how to do it yet.”

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