For a long time, cities and towns in Maine have struggled to adapt to using technology and data that can make services not only cheaper but better. So planned technological changes for the Queen City are overdue and welcome. We would like to see more.
Bangor Public Works is currently pursuing a pilot project to have sand- and salt-spreading trucks use global positioning system devices that allow city workers to know the road temperature and when, where and how much material is spread — in real time. Currently, that information is not available until drivers finish their routes and return to the station — obviously when it’s too late to adapt to ground conditions.
A one-year agreement for 15 GPS units would cost about $6,391. This should be an easy “yes” for the Bangor City Council, as reduced spending on sand and salt could offset the initial cost. If it does, it could also lead to expanded use of the GPS devices in the future — for other possible long-term cost savings.
The city should not just approve the pilot but use the myriad data that the devices will generate — as Public Works Director Dana Wardwell proposes. If routes can be made more efficient to cut down on fuel costs and time, change them. If graduate students can help analyze the data and make it useful in some way, involve them.
The Bangor City Council’s new chairman, Ben Sprague, has also spoken about adopting another technological advance: a kind of ticketing system — similar to the city’s current complaint system or the BDN’s SeeClickFix service — that allows residents to text, email or call to submit a complaint or concern and receive notification when the problem is fixed. It could be useful for residents to immediately report potholes, broken streetlights, downed limbs or a crosswalk in need of repair, or to ask questions about school openings and election information.
If the city goes this route, it should use the system strategically and not just accept complaints but also collect payments and solicit feedback on city life and services. We would hope such a program would drive change within city departments to save money.
It’s been done elsewhere. Chattanooga, Tenn., for instance, implemented a 311 call system in 2003, giving the mid-size city the ability for the first time to measure residents’ requests for basic services. The program was used to not just improve communication with residents but monitor and change the government’s performance.
For example, the city reduced the total number of police officers but increased the number of officers on patrol and 911 operators. Between fiscal year 1999 and 2003, before the program began, the city’s spending growth rate was 5.4 percent. Afterward, from 2004 to 2006, it declined to 1.6 percent — without negatively affecting services.
Some technological advances for municipalities are relatively easy. (Think: Getting more materials approved for single-stream recycling, which Bangor is trying to do.) The more difficult changes require reimagining systems.
Take incarceration, for example. Using Geographic Information Systems, the New York-based Justice Mapping Center maps the residential addresses of inmates in prison, granting lawmakers, researchers and the public the opportunity to observe which neighborhoods, communities and counties are doing well, and which ones need help.
Cities have used the maps to see where residents are being cycled in and out of jail to then re-allocate resources and target re-entry programs to those specific locations. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the mapping system showed $40 million in tax dollars were going to imprison residents of neighborhoods in a single ZIP code in Philadelphia, where 38 percent of households had incomes under $25,000. The center creates maps of many different characteristics, such as school performance and food stamp and Medicaid use density.
What would a map of Bangor or Maine show? Some results might be surprising. The hard data would certainly help to focus the efforts of local and state leaders, prompting them — we would hope — to talk about specific, not anecdotal, problems and solutions. That’s the good thing about technology: It leads to more information and more ideas.