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More details unveiled in Civic Accelerator process

Solving municipal problems in a different way
20160818 Accelerator ro
Guelph City Hall is in the process of embedding employees from private company's to find solutions to planning notification, and water data problems. It is part of the Civic Accelerator project. (Rob O'Flanagan/GuelphToday)

It’s a kind of experiment in municipal procurement. And while it may sound as dry as a planning document, the City of Guelph’s Civic Accelerator pilot project is beginning to net results that are exciting to many inside and outside of city hall.

Last week during an event at Innovation Guelph exploring the future of local government, possible key elements of that future were detailed.

The Civic Accelerator project is seen by people like Andy Best, Guelph’s program manager of open government, as a different way for a local government to solve problems.

He indicated that a number of municipalities are carefully watching what Guelph is doing, and what solutions it comes up with.

Some of the city’s contemporary problems need new solutions, solutions rooted in emerging technologies that have the potential to work, but aren’t necessarily tried and try.

Out there in the heady world of new digital technology, there are companies itching to get their products and services into action.

Traditionally, municipal government has been hard to work with because of the slow-moving bureaucracy involved. The civic accelerator process aims to expedite the process through a unique, mutually beneficial partnership that is low-risk.  

The city put out a request for proposals earlier in the year to attract partners to help solve three nagging problems. They include better early detection of costly water leaks, frozen pipes and floods, fuller involvement of the citizenry in planning and development, and the downtown’s parking woes. Two out of three found partners. Parking did not.

On Thursday, details were unveiled by Kitchener-based Alert Labs president George Tsintzouras about a very capable little orange box that straps on to a conventional water meter and provides water-use data, cellphone and email alerts, and more to homeowners.

If there is a spike in water usage, especially at a time when there shouldn’t be one, the homeowner will know and be able to respond quickly. It also detects near-frozen pipes.

Instead of getting your water use information once every month or every three months the conventional way, the Alert Labs tech provides it right now.

Tsintzouras said most people would be surprised at how costly a simple leaking toilet or water pipe can be to a property owner. They can add $200 per year to a water bill, or $20 a day, depending on the size of the problem.

 A typical basement flood, whether in a single-detached home or apartment building, can cost an insurance company $25,000 or more, he said.

A building owner himself, Tsintzouras said he searched for a solution to his own water-use problems, and a way to prevent water disasters.

“But there was nothing out there for us,” he said. He teamed up with others to form Alert Labs and develop the digital sensor. The technology basically “hijacks” a typical meter and provides “deep, rich analytics,” he added.

Representatives from Milieu spoke of the current problems associated with connecting citizens to urban planning in a more democratic way. Paper-based communications and public input sessions are often ineffectual at attracting strong public input and creating vibrant civic engagement, company officials said.

Ontario cities, including Guelph, are going to get much bigger in a hurry, said Milieu data scientist Trevor Deley. It is important that the growth is planned and built in a smart way, he said.

Company cofounder and president Luisa Ji said public participation informs and improves the planning decisions that are made at the local government level, and fosters trust and accountability.

What’s needed to solved current planning and citizen engagement problems, Ji said, is a better system of getting the message out to more people. The current approach is far to complicated and not very user-friendly, fraught with “inconvenient participation methods” that lead to “citizens distrusting local government,” she added.

Like Alert Labs, Milieu personnel have been embedded in Guelph City Hall for the past three months, with access to city data and staff – all working together to find solutions.

Milieu is working out an online platform that uses big data at its core, but a fairly simple, interactive interface on the public side.

The application utilizes a simple, visually approachable “card” system that engages citizens in planning, monitors that engagement, and measures the general mood of the populous on urban development plans.

Andy Best said no dollars are changing hands in Civic Accelerator experiment, which is a kind of “try before you buy” approach to civic procurement. At the end of the process, the city may have the solution it is looking for, while the partner company has a product or service it can sell to other municipalities.

Best said there are solutions to municipal problems in new emerging technology. The pilot project is progressing towards finding out if Milieu and Alert Labs have two of the solutions being sought.

That should be known by December.