In an increasingly connected and fast-paced world, much has been made of the need to integrate mobile strategies into not only private corporations, but governments as well. For employees on the move – such as paramedics, the police and field workers in natural resources departments – mobile technology is more necessary than ever.
The City of Waterloo decided to set itself up with mobile technology when it witnessed the devastation suffered by its neighbours, Toronto and Goderich, in the wake of flooding and tornadoes. Until then, it had been using email to communicate, an arrangement that city workers found to be ineffective and delayed.
“Information is really changing on a second-by-second basis now,” says Megan Harris, director of communications and marketing for Corporate Services with the city. “Emergency services have to have the mobile technology to ensure we have a safe and healthy community. They’re on the move, so they need technology that’s on the go as well.”
The city enlisted local smartphone maker BlackBerry to support its emergency communications platform. The platform enabled the city to coordinate with disaster recovery teams in the field, as well as the mayor, the head of public works, and other teams that assist during emergencies.
“We began to use mobile technology to manage our emergency communications during our wind storms last July and our ice storm just before Christmas this past year,” says Harris. “It has allowed us to bring together our emergency control groups to discuss our steps forward, as well as provide us a venue to listen in to our crews that are working on the ground and in the field as that’s going on.”
But emergency services was not the only area Waterloo focused on with its mobile strategy. The city also developed an application – in partnership with BlackBerry and eSolutions – called PingStreet, which is freely available for download to all Waterloo residents.
Harris describes the app as a two-way communication tool between the government and citizens. It enables the government to send advisories, and citizens can use different features on the app to request information or report problems to the government.
“When you log into PingStreet, it can track your GPS, or you can enter your home address or the address you’re at,” Harris says. “So when you’re standing in a [particular] location, you can open a tile that says ‘Garbage/Recycling’ and it will tell you when the next garbage day is. Or you can open the ‘Government’ tile and it will tell you which ward you’re in and who the councillor is.”
In addition, the app can provide information about hospitals, including wait times, and advisories for road and sidewalk closures. Citizens can also access the city’s Facebook and Twitter feeds, contact numbers, email addresses and events calendar.
If residents need to report a problem concerning, for example, potholes, they can take a photo of the pothole and send it to the government along with its GPS coordinates.
The city is currently working on adding new tiles to the PingStreet app, including information about school boundaries and school bus cancellations; locations of bus stops, fire stations, libraries, recreation centres and parks; and city-related road and planning updates.
Harris admits that the city has faced some roadblocks in implementing the technology, notably in the adoption of mobile among the city’s aging population. For that reason, education is something governments must integrate into their plans when introducing new technology to the public.
“Anything new is change, and change is always hard,” she says. “We’re moving forward with mobile technology, but we also have to provide [service] in traditional means for the time being. We need to accommodate the aging population. We need to educate them, help them learn and change, and adapt to change.”
The roadblocks, however, are no reason not to move forward. Governments that resist change, Harris warned, will face significant difficulties in the future if they do not start making the shift now.
“If governments don’t start to move into the mobile technology area, or online at all, they’re going to fall behind,” she said. “They won’t be seen as open and transparent, and that’s a big issue in today’s age. This is the way of the future and it’s important to move forward in that direction.”