Using Technology to Better Serve Customers

Carol Haddock, Director, Houston Public Works
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Carol Haddock, Director, Houston Public Works

Carol Haddock, Director, Houston Public Works

Technology is changing the way cities across the country operate and provide services. Houston Public Works is no exception. We must modernize the way we solve problems from the roads we drive on to our drinking water to how we communicate with customers. The City of Houston is consistently turning to innovation to improve how we deliver services which improve the quality of life for more than two million residents. This directly impacts how the industry functions today and tomorrow.

As Houston continues to grow, the city is constantly searching for ways to improve our transportation system. Earlier this year, Houston participated in Transportation for America’s Smart Cities Collaborative program with 22 other communities. Houston has been an early leader in adopting advanced traffic signal technology. Right now, Houston Public Works maintains and operates 650 Bluetooth Automatic Vehicle Identification (AVI) readers at traffic signals. This technology utilizes Anonymous Wireless Address Matching (AWAM) to detect vehicles equipped with enabled Bluetooth networking devices such as cellular phones, mobile GPS systems and in-vehicle navigation systems. Each AWAM reader senses the devices as they pass through a traffic signal and transmits the time and location of the device to a central host system. As data comes in from other traffic signals, the host system calculates average travel times and speeds for a roadway segment. This data is distributed to the hub of our transportation operations, Houston Transtar, and used to track corridor speeds and travel times allowing us to study demand patterns and trends. This information can then be relayed to the community to assist commuters in route selection, which can minimize delay and emissions. The public also continues to search for green transportation. Houston is consistently focusing on emerging technologies such as transportation network companies and dockless bikeshare. We continue to explore the possibility of improved first mile/last mile transit access with an expanded high capacity transit system. This could vastly improve Houston’s congestion problem. We’re also interested in using parking data to adjust our parking policies such as dynamic pricing and progressive pricing. New tools can improve our transportation challenges. By working with different communities, we can combine ideas to implement new mobility technologies and policies. These tools require our industry to change how it does business and the techniques we use in everyday operations.

  Community engagement represents another key to reshaping business model with technology   

Innovative software programs are giving customers real-time results. We’ve seen huge success with the city’s Pothole Repair Initiative. Citizens can report potholes over the phone or through a 311 app. That information is then relayed to software programs used by workers in the field. Crews use tablets in the field to relay information about when and where a pothole is repaired. It’s transmitted back to a website which gives users updates on repairs by the hour. City employees proactively repair potholes, then relay information about those locations through their tablet, too. Since implementing the program, the city has repaired more than 150,000 potholes in less than three years. Houston Public Works is currently working to improve on this technology even further. Software programs are eliminating paperwork and time consuming written reports. Data can be computed and analyzed in minutes instead of hours, improving the workflow from our employees and the success rate of the program. Results already show the more effective the program, the fewer potholes there are to fill. This type of collaboration between field construction and software enables workers to fill hundreds of potholes in a day compared to dozens. Houston Public Works was recently awarded 2018 In-House Project of the Year for pothole repairs by the APWA – TPWA Texas Chapter.

Over the past few months, the City has been supported forward-thinking to advance our water/wastewater technology. Houston Water partnered with Accelerate H20 to launch the country’s first large-scale technology demonstration hub in 2017. We promised our customers access to the most innovative water and wastewater technology in the nation. This allows us to improve our work-flow practices. By integrating technical and engineering programs, we can reduce our waste and optimize the overall system. This requires additional training for the workforce. The Houston Water Innovation Hub will not only improve our operations, but allow us to share information with other cities. This will ultimately improve our real-time forecasting in response to Flash-Flood Alley (Dallas to San Antonio) and the Gulf Coast.

Community engagement represents another key to reshaping our business model with technology. Whether it’s through social media, online surveys or community meetings, working with the public can transform the construction industry. For example, Houston’s Adopt-a-Drain program allows the community to prevent future flooding, save taxpayers’ dollars and keeps our neighborhoods clean. The program prevents the City from having to use valuable staff time to clean drains. Residents adopt drains in their communities and promise to keep them clean from leaves and trash, especially before it rains. This type of engagement not only improves the relationship between the city and the community, but allows Houston Public Works to utilize workers for more valuable resources. Looking forward, cities can expect drastic change in how we conduct operations thanks to emerging technologies. It will streamline processes and improve connection between the public sector and the community.

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