August 18, 2010 By Russell Nichols
As iPads and smartphones continue to transform ideas of how governments communicate, officials in Williamsburg, Va., have realized the power of touch.
In July, the city chose to adopt iPads to eliminate printed materials for City Council meetings and enhance e-mail and Web access for council members. And this week, local officials launched CITY411, a text messaging system that allows residents to text problems that need to be fixed around the city.
In both cases, the idea is to move beyond traditional methods of communication so city workers and citizens can better navigate the digital landscape with the latest tech tools and save money, time and resources.
With iPads, for instance, the city cuts out the $2,000 a year spent on printing council meeting agenda and work sessions, said Mark Barham, IT director. The iPads cost about $600 each, and the city paid $17 per device for third-party software to enable specific functionality and uses standard Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet. The elimination of printed council packets alone, Barham said, would pay for the five iPads in 18 months.
With Birmingham, Ala., recently announcing its plans to put iPads in the hands of council members, the tablet computer is making a strong impression in public-sector circles. In addition to the savings element, Williamsburg officials agreed that the iPad would enable council members to have constant access to the Internet, calendars and contacts, but also preserve traditional hands-on techniques.
"The iPad has annotation software available (at a cost of $7 per copy) that will enable City Council members to make notes, highlight information, apply reminder tags, etc., in the same fashion that they would mark up a printed copy for use in the council meeting," City Manager Jack Tuttle wrote in a July memo to Mayor Clyde Haulman and the City Council.
But Tuttle didn't find inspiration for the city's text messaging system in an Apple store. He was in Kettering, England, when he came across a system for citizens to text any municipal issues to local officials, and thought why not in Williamsburg?
The text messaging trend has become more attractive to governments in recent months, especially in local law enforcement agencies, such as the Marion County, Fla., Sheriff's Office, which started accepting distress calls via text message this summer. In Williamsburg -- where the latest citizen survey showed that 91 percent of city residents own cell phones -- the latest texting service makes a lot of sense.
The city found a vendor, Mobivity, and now pays $79 for up to 500 messages a month, Tuttle said. To use CITY411, users create a new text message from their phone and send it to 95495. In the body of the text, enter CITY411, followed by a space and then type the message. The sender will receive an initial automatic response saying the message has been received. Each message comes in to the IT department and gets routed to the appropriate department, which will respond once the issue has been addressed.
The service is designed for residents to report non-emergency issues: a crooked stop sign, a pothole, a missed trash pickup, an abandoned vehicle, etc.
If it's an emergency, citizens will be directed to call 911. Standard text messaging rates may apply, depending on the user's mobile phone plan. The service has been online for a week, but one person has already texted in an issue.
"The first one we received was someone asking about synchronizing traffic lights outside the city limits," Tuttle said. "We got back to them and said, 'It's outside our limits, but it's handled by the [Virginia Department of Transportation] and here's the number.'"
Citizens can also register their mobile phones to receive occasional text messages from the city about upcoming events, weather advisories or other critical information. To date, 38 citizens have subscribed.
"It's one more way of getting the word out," Tuttle said, adding that he believes it will be especially popular with the younger generation. "We'll see what kind of volume we get. I think, over time, it will grow."