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GIS: tracking signs of the times

CityWide Service Solutions, a company with an annual turnover of $70 million that started as a contender for rubbish collection contracts, is looking to geographic information systems (GIS) software to fuel national expansion.

The company, which has most of its business in council contracts for maintenance, street cleaning, parks and roads, has developed a mobile asset-condition device that is streamlining its maintenance work for the City of Melbourne.

And while sales and marketing manager Paul Gillmore says CityWide doesn’t want to be a software company, it hopes to use this software to sell itself to potential clients. Most of the councils CityWide works with, or would like to work with, have some kind of GIS system in place, albeit with varying degrees of functionality.

CityWide was set up in 1995 by council staff, with council backing, to bid for their jobs during an intense period of outsourcing, and has become a leading player in what’s known locally as the “civil infrastructure” market. The 450-person company has contracts with Melbourne and the bayside city of Hobson’s Bay in Victoria, and tree maintenance, parking meters and some floral display contracts for the City of Sydney. It is also bidding for work in other states and territories. It’s wholly owned by the City of Melbourne but operates as an arms-length commercial entity.

The mobile mapping system CityWide has been developing with GIS consultancy Rapid Map Global for the City of Melbourne over the past six months uses a MapInfo database the city built in 1999.

The database comprises several layers of physical information, including road conditions, street signs, street furniture and trees. CityWide has taken the assets it is responsible for and then split the maps into geographical areas for downloading to two Hammerhead computers from a US company called Walkabout. Essentially specialised laptops, the machines are Intel-based with 128MB of RAM and 6GB of storage space.

This gives operators as much information as possible about the area they’re in; when they move on to a new area, a different map segment is downloaded. Two operators are on the road most of the time, checking each “asset” carefully and entering its condition Every bin, seat and sign appears as a dot or icon on the laptop-sized, touch-sensitive screen, and a few taps with a stylus bring up records of the asset’s condition, who checked it last and so on. A digital camera using a USB interface can record details of assets that are hard to describe.

Back at the office, the Hammerhead is connected to the CityWide database and, when condition reports fall below set levels, repair job sheets are automatically generated. When work crews report the repairs done, the database is then updated.

Projects coordinator Olga Szkandrij says the work used to be done with pen and paper, and long explanations of location and work needed were used. She works with the operators to make sure their assessments of asset conditions are similar. The updates are also helping to improve the city’s core database; CityWide’s depot in North Melbourne is networked directly into the main system at the town hall, so any changes or assets that might have been overlooked in the first survey are automatically added.

Apart from better maintenance and more efficiency, a big selling point of the system is the accuracy and time-recorded nature of the information. If, as happens from time to time, a council is sued for an accident related to its signage or the condition of its streets, the system can generate a snapshot of the area’s condition at that time. Gillmore says such comprehensive record keeping is the way local government is going, and CityWide hopes it will ensure its own future as well.