City app VanConnect a big move forward for municipal digital strategy

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The City of Vancouver released their newest mobile app, VanConnect, Thursday morning in an effort to increase online engagement and information access.

The app compliments three existing City apps, VanCollect, VanGolf and VPLMobile to offer a hub of information, services and access for most of City Hall’s programming, including reporting disturbances, submitting a service request and checking community centre hours.

“Whether you want to report a pothole, find your nearest fitness centre, check upcoming road conditions, or send an idea to City Council, the launch of the VanConnect app means that all the information you need is only as far away as your smartphone,” Mayor Gregor Robertson said during a Thursday morning press conference.

One key feature of the app, reporting a service request, stands out as a fundamental shift in the way City Hall will interact with residents. Users select what kind of service request they would like to submit, including options like reporting an abandoned vehicle, pests, garbage or graffiti. They then take a photo of the issue, write a description and the GPS uses the location of the photo to map where the issue is. After their request is submitted, it is funneled directly to the appropriate department and users can keep track of the status of their request through the app.

To make it even more accessible, the app is currently available in 14 languages with the ability to add more as the demographics of Vancouver change.

Just a selection of the app’s features include:

  • Use the waste wizard search function to find out if an item is recyclable or garbage
  • See current road closures using an interactive map
  • View recreation maps that lists where all the City’s parks, community and fitness centres, ice rinks, arenas, skateboard parks and swimming pools are located
  • Access online services for parking, dog licences, trade and building permits, employment opportunities and tax and utility information
  • Watch Council meetings through live streams and to contact the Mayor and Council directly
  • Stay up to date on the latest news and calendar of events, with direct access to the City’s social media accounts

The City’s total cost of building the app was under budget at $134,000. It will cost an additional $40,000 a year to maintain.

Because 40 per cent of traffic to the City of Vancouver website arrives through mobile devices, the City’s digital strategy team thought it pertinent to build a system dedicated to those users, increase ease of access and streamline operations.

Robertson said the app gives residents and visitors of Vancouver an “unprecedented level of access” to City Hall and is one of the most “comprehensive and innovative city apps in the world.”

Chief Digital Strategy Office Jessie Adcock spearheaded the project first proposed in 2012. “Cities right now are working very hard to catch up to the public that they serve. I think society has really moved along that digital adoption curve quite quickly. Cities are slower to change because there’s tradition entrenched in them,” she told Vancity Buzz.

Adcock says her vision for Vancouver’s digital future is that every resident or business can be able to interact with all aspects of City Hall without having to physically be there.

“At least give them the option. The other channels will always be there but we want to be able to make ourselves available in a multi-dimensional way so people can interact with us when they want in the channel they want any time of the day.”

The app is filling the gap for people who prefer to access City information through digital and the use of open data will enable them to see more of what is going on in Vancouver on numerous platforms. The app functions largely through the use of open data and makes that data available to the public. It can also be consumed via the API, allowing other businesses or organizations to use the data for their own purposes.

“Cities recognize with increased access to data, more and more access to information, cities have to adapt, and become savvier. There’s no doubt that cities are now mobilizing to respond to that.”

Adcock notes New York City as one of the cities excelling in the digital realm that has acted as a sort of model for her team.

“New York City is always the frontrunner. We looked to New York leadership quite a bit. Vancouver is unique. One of the advantages of getting to catch up to other cities is you can learn from other cities mistakes, and not duplicate, but come up with better products.”

Even though some critics may point out the app is lacking certain features, such as access to council meeting agendas and minutes, Adcock ensures the app will be continually updated as more functions become available. After all, if the City waited until the app was perfect, they would never have released it.

Adcock also cited two recent emergencies that reminded her team how crucial it was to deliver the app as soon as possible – the English Bay Oil Spill and the Metro Vancouver Port Fire. Future emergency communications will benefit from the app as it has the ability to send push notifications to users in case of emergencies. “If you have the app, you can get that information without having to monitor your twitter feed.”

Tobin Postma, Manager of Media Relations for the City said that the 2014 SkyTrain shut downs in July and August were a wake up call that more could be done to streamline communications.

“It was probably the first emergency that we were pushing through social media. All the usual things, like putting out a press release, or call a press conference, we weren’t doing that anymore. It was just tweet, retweet, tweet, retweet. And it really changed how the city started to think about things.”

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Jill Slattery Jill Slattery was born and raised in Vancouver, where she also earned an Arts degree from UBC in English and Creative Writing. She is an avid TV-watcher and a shameless Taylor Swift fangirl. Jill is a Staff Writer at Vancity Buzz. Contact her at jill@vancitybuzz.com
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