Mesa uses technology to connect with residents - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Mesa uses technology to connect with residents

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Posted: Saturday, March 19, 2011 8:00 am | Updated: 4:39 pm, Wed Dec 3, 2014.

The best way to fight graffiti, at least as Mesa is concerned, is with a smart phone app.

So what about a busted traffic signal? Again, grab the smart phone.

And if you have some grandiose plan you want to offer to City Hall? There's no smart phone app for that yet, but there is an online forum where residents can pitch ideas and vote on others.

Whether it's covering the work of a vandal or a lofty idea to improve the community, Mesa is increasingly connecting with residents through technology. The city leads many other communities in having residents talk to City Hall in the way that's more comfortable to them.

The most significant effort came in January, when Mayor Scott Smith launched his iMesa initiative that involves residents submitting transformational ideas. Residents who log on can cast up to 10 votes and comment on other proposals. Smith initially figured it would take a while for it to catch on.

"What surprised us is how many ideas and how many people we've had who have shown a real interest not only with their ideas but with their efforts and they're willing to be involved with the process," Smith said.

The most popular idea was luring Heatsynch Labs from Chandler, where the technical and artistic nonprofit has outgrown its space. The city's economic development team quickly started working on the effort because it was time sensitive. Other ideas will go to a City Council-appointed citizen committee of 15 for further vetting this spring. Some ideas could change city services while others may go to voters in 2012. Other cities have contacted Mesa about iMesa, which was adopted from free software.

"The idea is to bring forth ideas and to get some measurement as to whether it has more broad-based support," Smith said. "The iMesa mechanism is to make us aware of opportunities."

So far, 64 ideas and 760 votes have come from nearly 200 registered users. Only one odd comment had to be removed but nothing inappropriate, said Kathy Macdonald, Smith's chief of staff.

"They're trying to make a positive contribution and they understand what it is," she said.

The city's foray into government by smart phone came from an otherwise mundane task of hiring a company to paint over graffiti. The successful vendor, Graffiti Protective Coatings, has its technicians use smart phone apps to get graffiti reports. City employees report vandalism on their phones, too.

"We used it so much that they kind of struggled keeping up with all of our requests," said Craig Blum, a field operations superintendant.

Now the public can download the app. People who spot graffiti can take up to four pictures and leave a name or comments if they'd like. If the person isn't sure of an address, that's not a problem because the app knows the coordinates of where the report is coming from. Graffiti has become less visible because the vendor is covering it within 24 hours.

"The numbers start dropping once the taggers realize it's going to get covered so quickly," Blum said.

The city eventually let the public download apps for the iPhone or Android. Then, transportation officials added reporting tools for street lights, broken sidewalks and road hazards.

Smith was an early adopter of technology when he owned a homebuilding company. He gave his superintendants smart phones so they could text and e-mail in the field without checking into the office - something that got him called to task for about six years ago at a national conference.

"That was very controversial as to whether it was a waste of money toy or whether it was truly an effective tool," Smith said. "It sounds almost absurd now that you would have that discussion."

He expects cities will adopt more tech-savvy tools as more online functions have a smart phone app of their own and as more people access the Internet through mobile devices.

"That's how people communicate. They text their friends, they Facebook and Twitter," he said. "If you're going to communicate with the public, do it in a way that they desire."

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