By Mary E. Arata
AYER -- Downed trees? Trash on the side of the road? Abandoned vehicles?
There's an app for that.
Ayer DPW Superintendent Mark Wetzel and IT Systems Administrator Cindy Knox have jointly filed for a grant that would provide for a customized smartphone application that would allow users to report issues to the town -- in live time - from their mobile devices.
Wetzel said the concept to expand the use of the SeeClickFix web tool grew out of a state Community Innovation grant awarded to the City of Boston. "Boston developed this technology for the city," said Wetzel. "Then they applied for the grant to push this out to the communities. "
Ayer has been notified that it will receive a three- year subscription to SeeClickFix, worth $4,600 a year or just under $15,000 in all. Residents can download the app now with links available on the SeeClickFix. com website.
Users of the app can report issues to any communities using the web tool as they pass through it. Boston, Lowell, Worcester and Chelsea are among the communities using the same technology.
Wetzel said the powerful tool can be used in varying degrees. In Boston, Wetzel said the tool can pinpoint streets that need resurfacing by recording turbulence recorded by the phone, map and record the trouble location using the phones GPS abilities, and transmit that data to Boston City Hall's 12-man command center for SeeClickFix reporting. "That's how they track trouble streets," said Wetzel.
Ayer's plans are not as fancy. Still, Wetzel said the SeeClickFix technology will be a big improvement over the current system employed on the Town of Ayer's website page. Now, citizens can report issues by filling out a Service Request form on the DPW web page. That email is transmitted by email into a specific employee's email account depending on the issue. Due to days off or delays in reading email, delays could occur in response time.
With the SeeClickFix app, Wetzel said an entire DPW division could be alerted. "With this, we'll have record that comes up on everybody's screen," said Wetzel.
Wetzel said the application can help with long-term capital planning for his department, too. With pot hole complaints, plugged storm drains, and dirty water complaints, troubled streets can be identified and prioritized, ensuring that roads rebuilds are done once and done correctly. "Any complaints we get through the eyes and ears of the public will help with that," said Wetzel. "The last thing we want to do is pave a road and in five years need to dig it up to install a water main. "
Depending on how Ayer chooses to expand use of the app, other departments could be notified, too. Wetzel said he's talked with Ayer Police Chief William Murray about ways that non-emergency matters could be reported to the police, like areas with issues with speeding cars. Other ideas are to tie in the Building Inspector or Board of Health with regard to troubled properties.
"We're still working to define what categories we're interested in," said Wetzel. In addition to giving immediate feedback, Wetzel said the application increases accountability to the public.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, citizens complained to the selectmen that there were concerns over information flow during the storm. Wetzel said the SeeClickFix tool may help in emergency situations, too.
"Information can be posted in a newspaper story or TV, but the issue is 'How many people can we reach?'" said Wetzel. "And how fast?"With SeeClickFix, information can likewise flow into the DPW for speedier response times.
Currently the town uses several mechanisms to push information out in the case of an emergency including reverse 911 calls. The Ayer Police also use Nixle. com text and email messages in emergencies and for road closures. The town maintains its website, an active Facebook account and has newly-launched a Twitter account (@TownOfAyer).
"Increasingly, those in the public works business are starting to use social media for emergencies," said Wetzel.
Wetzel acknowledged a gap remains. "The problem is trying to reach folks my parents' age who turn on their cell phones once a week. "
Wetzel hoped the Ayer-specific SeeClickFix application could be created by the end of January, followed by public education later in the winter and a launch thereafter.
"As soon as it's up and running, we'll put it on the town's webpage and promote it on Facebook," said Wetzel. "Just in time for spring potholes. "