Richardson, Texas: Real-time Updates for City’s Utility Infrastructure

By Joe Francica

Getting real-time information is important to the city of Richardson, Texas' Public Service Department. The Department needed a solution to better maintain its infrastructure and receive real-time, or near real-time, maps based on field conditions. There was also a need to indicate whether fire hydrants were in-service, out of service or being flushed as part of a maintenance process. In the end, the department selected a GIS solution from ESRI and a business intelligence solution from Information Builders to integrate spatial and non-spatial data. Editor in Chief Joe Francica interviewed Eric Matthews, the deputy CIO for the City of Richardson IS Department to learn more.

Joe Francica (JF): Please explain the basic software configuration of your IBI and ESRI solutions both before and after the WebFOCUS integration. How many people are benefiting from this new solution?

Eric Matthews (EM):
Our two main IBI/ESRI solutions service our fire department, public services and 911 dispatch operations, as well as our neighborhood services department.

Our first solution is a real-time fire hydrant status map. Our public services water department manages a listing of hydrants in a database, indicating whether they are in-service, out of service or being flushed as part of a maintenance process. In the past, the water department had to notify our 911 dispatch operations of each hydrant status change (multiple daily), and in turn the 911 operator would notify the affected fire station that a specific fire hydrant was not in service. That station would need to keep a running list of all changes so if called to a fire they could be prepared to use a working hydrant.

Our ESRI/WebFOCUS solution displays a map of the city showing a real-time view of any hydrants that are out of service. This intranet-based Web page allows our fire stations and the 911 center to view hydrants at all times instead of having to rely on a paper list and phone calls.

Our next solution is a set of GIS maps that depict inspection information for our code enforcement staff. The managers in the neighborhood services department are able to query about inspectors and time frames through a WebFOCUS/ESRI Web application that pulls inspection data and maps them to our parcels. This kind of ad-hoc query leads to performance improvements by helping our inspectors to see where, what and how they inspect their properties.

JF: Who, or what situation, prompted the further integration of the two software solutions? What need did you foresee that necessitated tighter integration of the BI/GIS solution?

The city originally invested in the WebFOCUS platform due to its ability to connect our GIS systems with non-geographic data in our back-end databases. The primary driver was our public services department as they saw a big possibility for reporting on our water infrastructure using the solution.

JF: Had there been only a few departments using GIS while other departments were using a BI reporting tool? Were there overlapping assignments that signaled the need to integrate BI and GIS reporting capabilities?

While our internal GIS Web maps were accurate, they were fairly static. We did not have the ability to produce real-time or near real-time maps based on field conditions or other data. Dynamic queries were also not something we supported for our standard ArcIMS web sites. As a city, nearly everything can be related back to a place, so it made sense to allow geographic queries or reports based on our internal "back-end" city data, which aren't usually viewed geographically.

JF: Is there now a single interface that all city administrators can access? In other words, while reporting systems were separated in the past, does the WebFOCUS solution now bring the ability to display geospatial information to everyone who needs it?

That's true. While we have a long way to go to make a true one-stop shop for geographic queries, we've found that WebFOCUS has enabled us to provide a simple interface to users who were previously not using geographic reporting.

JF: How has the ability to view information in a geospatial context helped city administrators understand their operations better? What efficiencies have they seen or do they foresee?

The geographic reports have helped make our neighborhood services department more efficient. In one case, an inspector's work continually appeared to focus on one part of a neighborhood, easily visible with the geographic report. What had not been seen in a tabular report was seen on the map - specifically that she was always turning in one direction to do her inspections rather than spending the proper amount of time in the entire neighborhood. The map-based query helped spread out her work more effectively and better address the needs of the citizens.

JF: Does the use of mobile handsets (Blackberries) include the ability to view data geographically? If not, is that planned? What is the reaction by the police chiefs to using this technology? How has this helped in emergency management since 911 calls can be monitored?

We don't currently use our Blackberries for geographic reporting. I'm sure that's coming, but right now we have a limited number of the devices so we've chosen to focus our geographic reporting on our desktop clients, which can handle these kinds of reports more easily. The small screen size of hand-held devices is still a limiting factor in what we feel would be useful with a geographic interface.

Our recently retired police chief used to love to show off his jail report to other chiefs. Clicking on an icon on his Blackberry device would connect to a WebFOCUS report designed to pull data directly from the jail and dispatch systems, allowing him to see who was in jail and even drill down to their offenses. As far as the 911 dispatch data, both our police and fire staff can see the current 911 calls for their agencies. This has proven useful, since whenever we replace one of their devices they let us know if we forget to add that application to the new device!

JF: What future applications does the city foresee with this tighter integration of solutions?

We'd like to begin mapping and reporting on our 311 system. It's an internal system we've developed but it doesn't have a geographic component. Since we collect so much location-specific data when tracking citizen issues, the system would lend itself well to viewing the kinds of issues we receive from all areas in the city. I think we can use the WebFOCUS ESRI connector to help bridge that system with our ESRI data to make that happen. The other area we may investigate is the new Google map integration that WebFOCUS has created within the latest versions of its product.

Published Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

Written by Joe Francica

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