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Austin City Government
How Knack helped the Austin government
unblock data gridlock.
A Data Jam in the Department of Transportation
John Clary was hired for a very specific purpose: to help the City of Austin’s Arterial Management Division move from chaos to order.
Arterial Management is a division in the Department of Transportation tasked with enabling safe movement for all modes of transportation on the city’s high-traffic roads. From traffic signals to real-time monitoring to working directly with citizens, they handle a lot of data.
Before John, they didn’t have a good way of handling all of that information. The division’s haphazard data processes reached a boiling point when they realized it was actively impeding their goals of solving problems.
John walking the Knack team through his app.
“There was pain at a high enough level,” John said, “that the division hired someone just to help us get this sorted out.”
Arterial Management needed a better way to handle their data and enable their team to do the job they were hired for. After exploring numerous solutions, it was Knack’s combination of flexibility and powerful features that proved to be the exact solution the city of Austin needed to end its data gridlock.
How Not to Solve Traffic Problems
Before Knack, managing the division’s multiple streams of data and workflows was described as “utter disarray.”
It started with asset management, where data was spread out with no single source of truth. “Assets were stored in multiple copies of spreadsheets”, John explained. “Things just wouldn’t be current.”
Even worse, the field technicians responsible for resolving issues were using processes that were largely paper-based. Requests coming from a 311 system were copied to paper tickets and handed off to a technician. After completing the work, technicians returned the ticket to the office, where they were manually scanned and closed. Nothing was automated or available in real-time.
Experimenting with equipment the technicians work with.
Reporting on any of this data was basically hopeless. The work tickets were organized on a shared storage drive, so it could take over 30 minutes for two people to pore through these folders just to find specific details on a work ticket. “It was really hard and really time consuming to manage these information requests,” John said.
Before they could effectively solve traffic problems they needed to solve their internal data problems. That was where John came in.
Navigating to a Better Place
Data management had always been a key aspect in John’s work. However, this was the first time he was in charge of building a data management process from scratch. Though he had quite a challenge ahead of him, he looked forward to the opportunity to make a difference.
Since the division’s workforce is largely mobile, John started his search with cloud-based database solutions. He also defined major goals for a new solution:
- Open enough to integrate with other solutions
- Powerful enough to accommodate custom workflows and a mobile workforce
- Flexible enough to handle some very specific features that were critical to their work
John needed a solution that could meet Austin’s complex real-time data needs.
He had a surprisingly difficult time finding a solution that could meet these goals, despite the fact that their problems were common to city governments everywhere. The “flexible” database tools lacked functionality. The off-the-shelf tools were not flexible enough. All were difficult to use. They even considered an expensive, multi-year contract for a tool they wouldn’t be able to validate until after purchase.
Finally, John stumbled across Knack. The low barrier to entry allowed John to avoid the friction of corporate IT and purchasing. Instead, he could dive in right away to start exploring, learning, and building.
It didn’t take long for John to create a couple of demo apps and start validating that Knack could solve the major data challenges facing the Arterial Management Division.
The application has only what we need it to have. The enterprise alternative would be really bloated with a bunch of functionality that we don’t need.
A Roadmap for Success
Starting the Knack experiment was an easy decision for management. “Because you have tiered subscription levels, we could start small, and there’s very little risk,” John explained. “Being able to frame it as doing things in small steps and working iteratively was an important selling point.”
The first stage consisted of getting a handle on the city’s asset inventory, from traffic lights to repair equipment. John added features to track where the city is installing assets and using equipment, creating a single source of truth for their data which was updated in real time.
Next, John turned to integrating Knack seamlessly into the division’s workflow. The field technicians who were doing the day-to-day work of the division were still tied to paper processes. John moved to create a truly mobile workforce by integrating their 311 system with their Knack apps. When citizens call the 311 system to report an issue, such as a traffic light that’s out of order, new tickets are automatically created in Knack via Knack’s API.
Technicians can login through mobile devices to access these tickets in real time. This automated much of the paper-based process and reduced direct staff involvement from six stages of their workflow to only two.
Throughout the entire build process, John was able to add features incrementally, making small tweaks in minutes and not needing to rely on corporate IT. He managed to avoid a weeks-long IT change management schedule for every tweak, big or small. This has saved them months in development time and accelerated the eventual full adoption.
One of the iterative apps John built: a visitor sign-in tracker.
This iterative approach also allowed John to onboard technicians in small batches and react to feedback rapidly, ensuring early buy-in and engagement from the app’s most important user group.
At the end of the process, Arterial Management had the exact solution they needed. “The application has only what we need it to have,” John explained. “The enterprise alternative would be really bloated with a bunch of functionality they we don’t need.”
To anyone who needs to find reliable, authoritative information around here – it’s now so much easier with Knack.
An End to Gridlock
The whole division can attest to the significant time and money savings achieved by switching to Knack.
They are now able to respond to infrastructure issues much more quickly. The route from citizen request to technician ticket is much more direct. They no longer needed staff dedicated to scanning paper tickets, and when their part-timer left for another job, they didn’t even bother searching for a replacement.
Their information is now readily available to any citizen who requests it. For example, if someone was involved in a car accident, they would need to share information about the operation of the traffic signal at the time. “Before, we had to go through all of the folders and just look to try to find the last time a work ticket had happened at that location,” John said.
With Knack, that same request takes one person five minutes to complete. Whether they need to search 34 or 300 days worth of tickets, the amount of effort to query Knack is the same. At over a half-dozen of these types of requests a month, the time savings are substantial.
The simplicity of querying in Knack also eases internal reporting requests. Previously, when it came time to run reports, John explained, “someone would have a crazy sheet with a bunch of formulas on it that would be broken. It would take a day to report on some basic asset stuff.”
The team now has a solid understanding of their assets at any given moment. “We’re confident that our inventory levels are accurate now,” said John, something he would not have been able to say before Knack.
These improvements enable the City of Austin’s Department of Transportation to better serve its constituents. Thanks in part to Knack, they make transportation in the city faster, easier, and safer for all.
Knack gives us information we’ve never had before about how well we’re serving the public.
Now that Knack has given Austin’s Arterial Management Division a handle on their data, they are now in the position to do the kind of proactive work they could not have dreamed of before. This means building more apps and fulfilling even more goals using Knack.
The Austin team chatting with Knacksters at a Knack Meetup.
John recently finished a new app for residents to apply for permits, giving staff insights into optimizing around wait time. This is an exciting development for John and his team: “We’ve never had information like this before about how well we’re serving the public.”
One of John’s next projects is to analyze patterns related to equipment failure. By tracking data related to location, weather, and model, this can help him anticipate potential problems.
Once John’s colleagues witnessed Knack’s impact, they clamored to bring Knack to their own divisions. At this point, it’s only a matter of time and resources. John is hoping to bring on another staff member to manage Knack in the next year.
Besides expanding Knack’s use to further help the City of Austin, John hopes to share what he’s built using Knack with other governments. Now that he’s found such a successful solution for his city, he hopes to share the wealth with others who could reap similar benefits. That’s a roadmap we can get behind!