Our Stories

Simplifying Data Collection Through Tech

Sidewalk App, developed by Brendan Pauls, allow users to record more accurate information and store it digitally

In November 2015, the City of Penticton approached Urban Systems with a unique request—they wanted help creating an app that would allow their internal public works staff to assess and record sidewalk conditions.  

Sidewalks are constantly in need of maintenance and repair, and with damage being a liability issue, city staff were routinely heading out to inspect and document sidewalk conditions and keep track of which areas needed work. Up until this point several years ago, they were doing it the old fashioned way—with pen and paper. That was leading to binders full of paper, rooms full of binders, and a general need for organization and speedier information retrieval. Enter Civic Tech! 

In a growing trend, communities have been realizing that technology not only has the ability to streamline processes, but also leads to collecting better information and therefore saving money, time, and, in extreme cases, lives. Essentially, goodbye to endless binders, hello information at your fingertips. 

The new sidewalk assessment app was developed in house by Urban Systems team members Brendan Pauls and Cory Sivell. At the time in 2015, building an app in house was not an asset widely known or realized, and it was thanks to some creative thinking and leveraging our GIS program, Esri, that Brendan and Cory were able to create a valuable tool for one of our longstanding clients. “We backboned on Esri to manipulate a form bundle into a package that they wanted to deliver,” says Cory. “Brendan was instrumental in making it work.”  

With the new Sidewalk App, city staff were able to record more accurate information and store it digitally, along with visual references to the digital information, and subsequently make updates more readily over time. It successfully freed up time for often stretched City staff, improving organization of accessible data and easing the decision making process. All updates and entries are now incorporated digitally into a map, making it quicker and easier to get a more complete picture of what is going on where. 

Although the benefits seem obvious, there is always the issue of money right? With limited resources how do communities pay for innovations such as these?  In this case, issues in the quality and maintenance of sidewalks can lead to injury and claims, meaning insurers are only too happy to fund creative solutions like the Sidewalk App. The MIABC (Municipal Insurance Association of British Columbia) supports communities to help develop programs to reduce the number of claims they receive, and were very open to providing the funding for this project.  

Today, Brendan and his colleagues use the same technology internally on many of Urban Systems’ projects for site visits, field work, and data collection. “The app is so useful because it combines location (GPS) with form-based attribute collection,” he explains, “So we can package up the “where” and the “what” all in one data point.” This also includes attaching photos, which can help tell the story as well. 

He further explains how the app is helping remove a lot of the grunt work from a 3-week culvert condition inspection in Anmore, BC. “It would be painful to inspect 400+ culverts in the rain, using paper forms!  Much better on an iPad,” Brendan professes. “We also use it for many environmental projects, including site visits, site hazard assessments, vegetation surveys, sensitive habitat mapping, and more.” The app has also made its way to Calgary, where our team in Alberta is putting it to good use for land development field work, and showing how an idea for one client can turn around to benefit so many.  

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