The current method of interaction between the public and local authorities is not a sustainable model. The methods of data collection and processing by local authorities are inefficient in this technological age. [caption id="attachment_33973" align="alignright" width="300"]figure-1-complaints CLICK TO ENLARGE Fig 1: Percentage breakdown of complaint formats[/caption] There is a large administration burden associated with the management of these complaints. In 2013, some local authorities introduced open source Customer Resource Management (CRM) software systems to assist in managing, tracking and closing out these complaints. The current process involves a local-authority employee taking a complaint, as submitted by the public in the different modes shown in Figure 1, and manually entering the details in the CRM system. After the data-entry stage, the ticket is referred to a specific department/engineer for action/comment/close out. The issues with this process are as follows:

  • Requirement to staff public counter at all offices;
  • Staffing customer contact centres and telephones at area offices;
  • Time-consuming data entry;
  • Multiple reporting of identical issues;
  • Multiple communications in terms of updates on reported issues;
  • Heavy workload for area engineers;
  • Very little information associated with complaints i.e. pictures/exact location, etc;
  • Site visits are required by staff to evaluate complaint and arrange work plans. was introduced in an attempt to streamline the process of submitting non-emergency complaints to local authorities and was rolled out in 2013. It has never effectively taken off due to a variety of factors, including the lack of promotion by individual authorities and the ease of use for the public. The website is still operating in beta-testing format. However, the benefit of is that is runs an application protocol interface (API) that allows data to be pushed and pulled directly into and out of local authority CRM systems.

Developing a better approach

The advent of enhanced sensors and the proliferation of mobile smart devices have led to an explosion in crowd-sensing capabilities. Crowd sensing is based on three pillars: social media, location tracking/tagging and the use of mobile devices. Local authorities can leverage these participatory crowd-sensing capabilities to mine data for local authorities’ management systems. This data can then be used to inform and improve local-authority maintenance planning and operations. The expected benefits of crowd sensing for local authorities are summarised in six key points:
  • Communications pathway A communications pathway is established between the general public and local authority. A relationship is developed between the two parties and results in further participation from the public.
  • Value for money With the increased automated communications between the public and local government, there is an increased perception of value for money from local government and from their household tax payment.
  • Streamline operations The automated complaint reporting process reduces the administration burden on the local authority and allows it to manage its operations with modern information technology infrastructure.
  • Efficiency Increases the efficiency of the local authority operations, reduces the administration burden in area offices and allows staff to be redeployed to other duties.
  • Knowledge-management system Introduce digital work schedules and tagging of works, creating over time an inventory of assets and a library of historical works, contacts and interactions with the public.
  • Elected members Elected members are a conduit through which the general public can interact with a local authority. Web and mobile applications can reduce the workload of elected members.
[caption id="attachment_33960" align="alignright" width="300"]fig-2 CLICK TO ENLARGE Fig 2: iPhone 4 sensors (Lane et al)[/caption] Modern mobile devices such as smart phones have an array of in built sensors. Figure 2 illustrates these. These sensors have the ability to record the following data:
  • Global positioning system – location, heading and speed;
  • Accelerometer – movement and acceleration;
  • Compass – rotation angle relative to Earth’s magnetic north pole;
  • Gyroscope – rate of angular momentum;
  • Image sensor – capture images and record video;
  • Ambient light sensor – detect level of luminance;
  • Proximity sensor – distance to user;
  • Touch sensor – graphical user interface.
[caption id="attachment_33964" align="alignright" width="300"]fig-3 CLICK TO ENLARGE Fig 3: Open311 platform ([/caption] Mobile applications can be developed that allows data-rich complaints to be submitted by users directly to a local authority. Open 311 was first established in United States of America to report and track non-emergency issues in public spaces. The service was first introduced as a call centre to log complaints about public infrastructure. It became a single telephone number to access all local services within the city limits. As the system is based on open-source platform, developers can build reusable applications which can in turn be rolled out to various cities. The system was developed using the open-source platform and the APIs to manage the integration of data between various systems. The idea has since spread to Europe, with cities such as Helsinki and Bonn utilising the platform.

Local Authority Complaints System

[caption id="attachment_33967" align="alignright" width="300"]fig-4 CLICK TO ENLARGE Fig 4: Mobile application complaint data[/caption] In terms of roads, local authorities in Ireland are responsible for over 90,000km of regional and local roads nationwide, with 12000km being managed on a daily basis by Cork County Council. Since the recession in 2008, local authorities have lost over 1,000 personnel. This comprised of both office- and site-based personnel. This represented a huge lose in terms of institutional knowledge. The majority of local authorities do not have knowledge-management systems in place to extract employees’ tacit knowledge. The proposed complaint system would allow the public to take a picture or a short video of a non-emergency complaint. This would then be tagged with a GPS location and a real-time date/time stamp. A complaint type is selected by the user from a pre-populated dropdown menu and other information such as the users details and contact numbers entered. This menu is illustrated in Figure 4, taken from a demonstration application developed for android operating systems. Upon completion of the menu of data required, the user can submit the complaint to the local authority. This data-rich complaint is fed via an API directly into middleware. The user automatically receives a communication stating a compliant number, which can be used to track its progress through the local authority CRM system. [caption id="attachment_33968" align="alignright" width="300"]fig-5 CLICK TO ENLARGE Fig 5: Sample system architecture[/caption] Figure 5 illustrates the system architecture. The mobile device is connected to the web server via JSON and a computer via HTTP. The web server is based on PHP coding language, a server side scripting language. The web server and middleware are the two main components of the system. [caption id="attachment_33970" align="alignright" width="300"]fig-6 CLICK TO ENLARGE Fig 6: Middleware components[/caption] Figure 6 illustrates the middleware components of the Local Authority Complaints System. The middleware can be summarised with the following data:
  • Get data;
  • Describe data;
  • Interpretation of data;
  • Member registration and control.
In the majority of cases, local-authority technical staff can now apprise a complaint as a desktop task instead of a time-consuming site visit – or, in some instances where a site visit is required, further information can be added to the system as the site visit is conducted by the local-authority personnel. As complaint data is aggregated by a local authority, technical staff can now use off-the-shelf software to generate efficient maintenance routes and schedules. Mobile work schedules and mobile devices have been introduced into the local authority sector by Irish Water and have provided a precedent for local authorities to deploy the technology across its different directives. Over many years of data collection, in terms of complaints received and maintenance works conducted, a roads engineer can use the historical data available to complete map-based desktop studies into the cost of maintenance based on frequency and type of maintenance of different road-surfaces such as hot-rolled asphalt, stone mastic asphalt, surface dressing etc to make informed decisions on the deployment of road surfaces. An example of where technology is deployed and its potential savings to an organisation, Cork County Council implemented a fleet-tracking system which has resulted in the saving of 3.6% of journeys in smaller vehicles and up to 9% savings in terms of larger vehicles. These represent a saving of 390,000kWh in fuel usage. Author: Aidan Lynch MEngSc Beng is a member of Engineers Ireland and a graduate of the University of Limerick. He works as a road design engineer in the Non-National Roads Design Office for Cork County Council. This is a summary of a dissertation paper submitted for a master’s degree in Information Technology in Engineering, Construction and Architecture in University College Cork. References: Lane, N.D. et al. ‘A survey of mobile phone sensing.’ Communications Magazine, IEEE, vol.48, no.9, pp.140,150, Sept. 2010