Now, we not only have the ability to perform annual and seasonal analyses, but we can also give our residents visibility into how hard we work, along with real-time updates, and make decisions based on data. It's a win-win for everyone.
The Secret to Keeping a Town Clean: The GIS Effect
Seasonal population increases in coastal communities are a way of life for local government officials, and Emerald Isle, North Carolina, is no exception. With the ebb and flow of residents and visitors, town staff are always looking for ways to improve their services to the community.
This small town is in Carteret County, in a place known as the Crystal Coast. Emerald Isle's year-round population is less than 4,000 people, but it surges to 50,000 from late spring to early fall, a 1,150 percent increase. Tourism is the main industry for this beach town, but the influx of owners of second homes and visitors sometimes places great demand on the services offered by the town.
Due to its geographical location, this area is prone to tropical storms and hurricanes, which have created extra challenges for the town's yard waste pickup program. To solve this issue, Emerald Isle staff turned to a data-driven solution.
The Emerald Isle Public Works Department offers yard waste pickup to property owners and utilizes two trucks to traverse the area. There are approximately 6,500 land parcels in the 5.6 square mile town. According to Public Works Director Artie Dunn, anywhere from 60 to more than 100 stops can be made on a typical day, and they average two or three loads a day. Once the trucks are full, they go off the island to a landfill, then return to repeat the process. During the off-season, this load is manageable for the two employees and trucks. However, during the peak times in the spring and fall, particularly after a severe weather event, there may be just 25 stops with large piles and up to four truck loads picked up in a single day.
"This lasts maybe a month or more during the fall," said Dunn. In turn, this can lead to calls from property owners who are wondering why their yard debris piles have been sitting by the curb for an extended amount of time.
"Our residents in Emerald Isle, especially those that live on the island full-time, are used to our public works team easily managing yard waste pickup and providing them with a service they expect will occur without interruption," said Dunn. "However, with more and more people visiting the island in the summer months and an increase in severe storms along our coast, we can't always keep up, no matter how hard we try. We knew we needed a better solution to meet demand."
As of early 2021, the town's public works department was still tracking its operations with pen, paper, and spreadsheets. While effective, it was a time-consuming process and one that made it difficult to quickly analyze trends and information.
"I needed people to see that we are running eight hours a day, and there is really nothing more we can do," Dunn noted.
Town Manager Matt Zapp and Dunn turned to Greg Flinn, an independent geographic information system (GIS) contractor who had previously worked with the town during two storm events to help problem solve and find solutions to meet the needs of that time. After brainstorming with Dunn and conducting extensive research, Flinn recognized the power and potential of using a workflow focused on live mapping and location analytics and presented it to local leaders, who agreed to pursue this option.
Flinn proposed a solution that entailed leveraging ArcGIS, a complete GIS system that lets you create, map, analyze, and share geospatial information, into the yard waste pickup program to provide transparency regarding the yard debris trucks to the public works director, Emerald Isle staff, and residents.
To start, he needed to analyze how much yard waste the town was picking up and how often and when were the pickups, to provide the information without creating a burden on the staff to learn the new technology.
After looking at the data, the decision was made to purchase two network-enabled tablets with location tracking. Flinn then designed a survey template in ArcGIS Survey123, a simple and intuitive form-centric data gathering solution that incorporated the date, load size, and location of a pickup and included the option of adding a photo if there was a pickup that went against the town's ordinance.
He then created another survey to be filled out daily, to capture mileage and the total number of truckloads taken to the disposal area. With some assistance from the solution engineers at Esri, the first step was in motion.
Each survey from the new tracking system provides Dunn with a better understanding of his drivers' daily operations and productivity. However, when the influx of tourists in the summer comes, the need to precisely know who is where becomes greater. The town equipped each driver with ArcGIS Tracker, an app that captures location tracking data of assets or personnel.
The second step was to find a way to make the information, including the real-time truck locations, easy to access and view. Flinn opted to use ArcGIS Dashboards, a configurable web app that monitors operations in real time, to effectively display the town's ArcGIS Survey123 and Tracker data. The app can be filtered by date and provides live updates. Dunn is now able to see vehicle locations and review where they have already stopped and where they are heading next. In turn, this allowed him to relay accurate information to anyone who needed it.
The final step was to provide the link to members of the public, so they could easily view the live location of the trucks without calling the town's public works department.
"Transparency between the town employees and our residents is one of our top priorities," said Dunn. "Now, we not only have the ability to perform annual and seasonal analyses, but we can also give our residents visibility into how hard we work, along with real-time updates, and make decisions based on data. It's a win-win for everyone."
The new system has already proven its worth by saving Dunn numerous hours of administrative work each week as well as simplifying the record keeping process along the pickup routes. As a result of this investment, Emerald Isle has also seen a reduction in yard debris-related inquiries.
Zapp agreed and noted that this new service model will not only help during regular seasonal pickups, but it will also be useful following a severe storm.
"By utilizing the program Greg has created for us, [we can] quickly analyze information following severe weather and collect data that will then be released to FEMA following a named storm event," he said. "We are thrilled to have him working with us, so he can improve our services and communication with our residents."