Becoming a Believer

Social networking tools mean better communication and greater efficiency for public works and water/sewer operations in Golden, Colo.
Becoming a  Believer

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A couple of years ago, Dan Hartman could easily sum up his disdain for social media such as Twitter in less than 140 characters: Absolutely no use whatsoever.

These days, Hartman, public works director for Golden, Colo., is tweeting a different tune as he enlists social media to help his department defuse community controversies, quickly notify residents about water main breaks and other emergencies, and allow citizens to help with asset management and initiate repair orders.

No one is more surprised about it than Hartman, who once thought social media was nothing but a bother — just one more thing to keep track of when everyone is already asked to do more with less. But as he gradually immersed himself in social media such as YourGOV and, he saw that there just might be merits to it.

“My guess is that this is pretty much unplowed ground for most public works departments,” he says. “But looking forward, I’ve got to believe it’s the way of the future. I started working here 22 years ago, and around that time I remember attending a really long and contentious city council meeting where officials debated the purchase of a fax machine. Talk about a huge shift in communications and technology!”


Cell phone apps

The YourGOV cell phone or computer application (app) from Cartegraph shows how social media helps Hartman’s department work more efficiently. Citizens can visit the city’s website ( and download the app for free, then use it to report non-emergency problems they encounter. The company that developed the app also created the department’s asset management software.

“If a citizen sees a fire hydrant leak or water bubbling up from under a manhole cover, for example, they can use the YourGOV app on their mobile phone to send a message to our department,” Hartman says. “The global positioning system (GPS) in their phone tells us where the problem is located.”

The message automatically generates a work order through the department’s work management system. That order is then emailed to the cell phone of someone on an appropriate field crew. When the work is done, the work order is closed, and the resident who sent the notification gets an email saying the problem has been resolved.

“It’s a concept known as crowd sourcing, where the citizens become part of the public works department,” Hartman notes. “Ninety-nine percent of the time when things don’t get fixed, it’s because we don’t know about it. But with this technology, citizens become an adjunct to our organization — our eyes and ears out in the field.”

Hartman notes that municipalities without complete asset inventories can take the concept one step further by asking residents to, say, take a photo of a fire hydrant with their cell phone and email it to a public works or water department. The GPS-based phones will indicate where the hydrant is located.


Taking the pulse

Hartman also uses i-Neighbors (, which allows residents to organize into cyber communities and talk to each other about anything and everything — including public works issues. The size of each neighborhood could be from a few hundred to a few thousand homes.

As even a newbie might guess, monitoring i-Neighbors communications involves a lot of separating the wheat from the chaff. “I belong to seven different i-Neighbors groups,” Hartman says. “The system is email based, so the posts come to my mailbox. Yes, there are a lot of them, but I’ve learned that you can quickly delete most of them.

“And as much as I don’t care so much that Betty needs a babysitter, there’s an awful lot going on, and things in a neighborhood can go viral on you pretty quickly.” He cites one particular post by a resident who claimed a traffic intersection at an entrance to a neighborhood was dangerous.

There was no evidence to back that up, but by the time Hartman found out about the brewing controversy, residents had added 40 or 50 more posts, each one upping the emotional ante. The lesson: Become part of the discussion early, when you can defuse a situation with facts and before uninformed residents start inflaming the situation by proposing unworkable solutions to what essentially is a non-problem.

While Hartman concedes that i-Neighbors can be a time drain, he says preparing for a neighborhood meeting to deal with an issue could take a couple of days anyway.

“All those emails may sound onerous, but you invest the time one way or another,” he says. “I’d rather spend time being proactive on the front end of things, which is way more efficient. It’s better to start working early on with people to find a real solution, before they get entrenched with certain ideas. The trip back from a bad idea is tougher for a community than a collaborative trip to a better solution.”


Tweet tweet

The department also uses Twitter, another social media platform, to communicate with people who sign up to “follow” the department. Twitter text messages, known as tweets, must be 140 characters or less. Hartman says Twitter is great for situations such as water main breaks, because it can eliminate some of the time-consuming, labor- intensive process of knocking on doors to notify residents of emergency situations.

“We call dispatch and they send out a tweet to residents in the area,” he says. “It’s short and to the point. We tell them the break’s location and how long they can expect to be without water.”

The department promotes Twitter and YourGOV on its website and in communications that go out to residents, both written and verbal. It also uses Twitter to promote the YourGOV app.

“Whenever we get a call from someone, we tell them they can follow Golden Public Works on Twitter,” he says. “It doesn’t cost a thing, and they’ll get a notice every time something like this happens. We’ve been doing this for almost a year and have a few hundred followers.”


More efficient, less paperwork

The department’s use of cell phone apps also increases productivity through more efficient scheduling. Using an app on a Trimble Juno series handheld computer GPS and field data collection device, made by Trimble Navigation Ltd., field crews can inspect a manhole, for instance, then digitally generate a work order for cleaning, if needed.

“It removes the paperwork from the system, and organizes the work orders in the most efficient manner,” Hartman says. “You don’t want to fix a manhole, come back to the office, go out and fix another one, and so on. Now supervisors just ask the system to provide a day’s worth of work within a geographic area that minimizes their crew running around to disparate locations.”

The system also dramatically reduces paperwork. Previously, crews would fill out forms by hand for a repair or other maintenance, then give it to a clerk who would hand-key the information into the system. The increased efficiency allowed the department to trim staff by one half-time employee, and data-entry accuracy is better because with fewer employees in the data-entry loop, there’s less opportunity for error.

“This also provides good documentation,” Hartman adds. “Sometimes we jet a line, and then a basement backup occurs. We can show the homeowner that we cleaned that line, say, six months ago. Crews can use their handheld devices to pull up information about specific sections of line right there in the field.”


Things change

Hartman says that because technology changes and advances so rapidly, it’s hard to be sure what other practical applications may develop for social media within the department, or which media will still be viable even a few years from now. As evidence of how fast technology shifts, he points to resident phone calls to the department, which have dropped about 80 percent during the last five years, supplanted by an exponential increase in emails.

The city pays supervisors a monthly allowance that helps subsidize the cost of a smart phone, which they then can use professionally and personally to avoid carrying around two cell phones. This reflects cell phones’ status as essential equipment.

“My point is that going forward, how we communicate in the future probably won’t be how we communicate today,” Hartman says. “We can speculate a lot, but this kind of stuff changes so quickly that we don’t know where it will lead.

“But I’ve absolutely come to believe that you can’t wait on technology. You might jump in and use Twitter, and Twitter may go away in three years. But you have to jump in and evolve as things evolve, or you and your department risk becoming a relic.”

In other words, using 140 characters or less: Hopelessly behind the times and irrelevant.


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