The Southeast Morris County Municipal Utilities Authority (SMCMUA) identified the need to improve communications with its public officials, community leaders, and customers when working on large capital improvement projects. The need was driven when planning a $3.2 million renewal project for a water main that runs through the heart of the business district in the town of Morristown, New Jersey, which also includes high-density housing. The project includes the replacement of 1.25 miles of main and associated improvements for new service connections, water meters, meter pits, hydrants, and valves. The main renewal was critical since the original main was constructed circa 1890 and was at the end of its useful life, and failure of this main would create a large disruption to the businesses and residents. This main renewal project provided an opportunity to improve the resiliency and reliability of the water supply and enhance water quality and fire protection for this section of the service area.
Understanding the high-profile business and residential district of Morristown, SMCMUA recognized that any water supply and/or quality disruption, noise generation, and general pedestrian and vehicular traffic detours could trigger a chain reaction of inquiries from members of the general public, who would contact their elected public official and/or community leader, who would then contact the authority to address the issue.
Larson Design Group (LDG) has been supporting SMCMUA on geographic information system (GIS)-related tasks around field data collection, enterprise implementation, and operational workflows. The concept of the Project Hub originated through discussions about providing a platform to effectively communicate critical project information in real time, and in a centralized platform, with the general public along with public officials and community leaders. LDG has been coordinating efforts with the various division leads throughout this project, promoting the use of GIS and looking for areas where efficiencies could be gained using Esri applications. The Project Hub communication tool was supplemented with a parallel communication effort that utilized RAVE Smart911 to issue mass communications via text, email, and voice messages to residents, businesses, public officials, and community leaders.
SMCMUA experienced challenging improvement projects in the past in which expectations, construction schedules, and service disruptions were not fully understood by affected parties due to ineffective and/or lacking communication methods and tools. Although the customer service and billing (CSB) manager and IT director implemented the use of the RAVE Smart911 application that provided the ability to issue text, email, and voice mail messages, which made a significant improvement in customer and community communications, they knew more was needed. In anticipation of the Morristown main renewal project, it was identified that additional communication methods needed to be developed to effectively convey the details and potential impacts of the project. LDG suggested the use of Esri technology and the development of a hub site that could be utilized for this purpose.
SMCMUA funded a new project with LDG to develop a hub site specifically for the Morristown main renewal project. LDG worked with the executive director, executive administrative assistant, IT director, CSB manager, and chief engineer and staff to develop the Project Hub.
The project team worked with LDG to design the Project Hub content that would be most useful for the community impacted. LDG determined that the best solution would be a visual representation of the project and the ability to tell its story through maps, applications, and interactive maps. SMCMUA decided to make ArcGIS Hub the backbone for its communication and engagement efforts.
ArcGIS Hub and ArcGIS Online were configured to satisfy the team’s communication requirements. LDG set up the application, modified the HTML scripts for one-click dialing, set alerts and notification messages, then provided documentation for customer service staff to maintain. LDG was also responsible for standing up a Will I be Affected? application using ArcGIS Online web applications and widgets. With this easy-to-use application, residents can enter an address or click a location to see if it’s within the project area, if their service line will need to be replaced, if traffic would be impacted, or if they would have intermittent service disruptions. Just by entering their address, residents can see the impact and the duration of the project. The hub application also shows the project status, allowing a resident to monitor the construction progress as milestones are achieved. This offers a visual explanation of how far along each segment of the project is and the ability to gauge the level of impact to the resident in that section. Additional components incorporated were a frequently asked questions section to cut down on calls, a project timeline, and a construction calendar. For residents who wanted to learn more, an About the Project interactive map was created that goes into greater detail of the segments of the water main that are being replaced, what homeowners are responsible for, and why the project is important. There is also a short interactive map covering hydrants and valves that are being replaced, which tells the story of what to expect and where that work is happening. SMCMUA staff also embedded a link to their Water Alert registration page to allow residents to opt in on project-related texts and emails. This hub application gives SMCMUA staff the ability to communicate construction activities, disruptions, and key milestones with residents, businesses, and community leaders within or around the project areas.
Great care was taken to employ a mobile-first mentality when planning the hub application, as a majority of residents will use it on a smartphone or tablet. The very first thing the resident sees is the scheduled impact, which is updated by the SMCMUA customer service team daily. Readily available links to Zoom calls are also available in this alert window.
SMCMUA is about halfway through its water main replacement project, and the hub site has been a huge success in keeping the community informed of the project impact and disruptions. In the first six months, the site had 15,000 views by the public. The site continues to be viewed, resulting in very few calls from the public with questions.
The hub site has also had an added benefit of keeping the main renewal project on track and has served as an additional project management tool. It has enhanced communication between various SMCMUA divisions, namely the customer service and engineering divisions, each being responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of their own sections of the site. It was essential for the project that the site never become dated. With that in mind, the authority eagerly took on the training required to update the site alerts, calendar, and applications to properly reflect progress and disruptions. This helped gain the trust of the residents who were using the site to make daily decisions.
The impact and usefulness of this project is so apparent that the authority plans to implement similar public-facing applications around main breaks, lead replacement and education, as well as other customer service applications that will record types of complaints and response times to completion. The hub application clearly answered the needs of the authority, which has been evident from the positive feedback received from the Morristown community.
LDG was involved with this project from the beginning and suggested the use of public-facing ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Hub applications to fill the communication need for SMCMUA. The SMCMUA team understood how efficient this approach could be and was enthusiastic to learn about all the facets of the hub site and how to maintain it. LDG worked with the various divisions of SMCMUA to capture exactly what an end user would be looking for. LDG was able to configure applications to fit the needs based on understanding communication pitfalls from previous projects. The site and various applications were set up and reviewed with the divisions. SMCMUA project team members made suggestions, and LDG built their workflows to be more effective and informative based on that input. The customer service team and other divisions contributed to the creation of the About the Project interactive map to take a deeper dive into why the project was happening. LDG worked with engineering division team members to get the project details, set up the maps and applications, and review the sections that they would be maintaining. The creation and review of the entire site was done during the COVID-19 pandemic, so all the planning, implementation, and training was completed remotely. Many focused meetings were scheduled to iron out the details to make this project a success. Detailed documentation was created for all the updates; what HTML code would need to be edited for the alerts; and how to update the calendar, the project timeline, the applications, and hub site content. LDG remains available for support to answer any questions that SMCMUA may have.
The CSB manager was the most integrally involved as an end user of the Project Hub due to the accountabilities of responding to customer inquiries, issuing public notices and communications including mass notifications, coordinating field operations for in-house staff, and implementing good customer communications. The CSB manager also took the lead on maintaining an updated hub site.