E-Docs: Technology Solution for the City of Fort Collins

A 907Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Nestled against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Northern Colorado, is the City of Fort Collins, the home of Colorado State University. Fort Collins encompasses 49.43 square miles and has a population of approximately 127,000 residents. With a moderate, four season climate and an average of 300 days of sunshine, Fort Collins has quickly become a growing community for families and a notable retirement destination.

To keep up with the growing needs of the community and rapid development, the City Survey Department followed the lead of other government agencies by positioning all of the aliquot corners in the urban growth area and establishing a horizontal control network. Along with a vertical control network, the networks became the base of the City GIS mapping system and is also published on the city website for use by the community.

In the late-1990s, the City Engineering Department was faced with a physical storage problem, so we decided to evaluate the use of new technology as a potential solution. We soon discovered during our research that technology would provide a wonderful solution not only to physical storage problems, but better access to documents, as well as reducing reproduction expenses for customers at our service counter and increase employee productivity. With technology such as GIS, GPS, and the Internet becoming main stream, it seemed reasonable to look at a technology solution. The question that we faced was what was the best use of taxpayer dollars? Would it be better to invest in another hanging file box with limited capacity and require additional physical space, which was in limited supply? Or would it be a better investment to purchase some type of technology that had greater capacity and reduced physical space requirements? The obvious answer was to invest in technology.

Prior to implementation, a team was assembled to create a vision for this new way of doing business. The team consisted of the city surveyor, the development review manager, an engineering drafting technician, and me. After soliciting and reviewing 15-20 Requests for Proposals (RFPs) from document management vendors, it became obvious to us that in order for the document management project to be successful and enduring, we needed a well-thought-out indexing system. We spent months debating the pros and cons of various indexing methodologies and continued to ask ourselves, "Twenty years from now, when none of us are here and processes have changed, will people still be able to find the documents?" This question was the cornerstone to the development of the entire project and continues to be the critical question we always ask when developing new phases to the project. The team was fortunate to have the city surveyor, Wally Muscott, LS, on the team because he brought a wealth of experience to the table. Said Muscott, "Having spent the first twenty years of my career in the private sector, I realized the value to the client of crew time and billable time, and anything we could do to help save the client money would be a valuable tool. I also knew that it had to be user friendly or it wouldn’t be used."

The other critical element of the project was defining our "customer." Without question we knew the public was a customer, but was it our primary customer? Who exactly was our public customer– residents or the construction and development community? What about internal customers–who used our documents within the organization? What we discovered during our long debates was that the definition of our customer depended on what service we provided. The next logical step was to better define the business of the City Engineering Department. We eventually defined and prioritized our customers and found that the development and construction community was our primary customer, internal city departments that were involved in the development process constituted our secondary customer, and the general public was our third customer.

Next, we needed to decide how the project would provide good customer service. The answer was to make the documents available to the public via the Internet. The document management software that we purchased was selected because it was the one product that could handle large engineering drawings and had a web component that would allow us to share the documents on the Internet without incurring additional expenses for software licensing.

In the spring of 2000 the Engineering Department purchased document management software from Alpha Numeric Systems in Salt Lake City, large format scanners, and computers; then we began the long process of scanning all of the 24×36 documents into electronic .tiff format. We also gave our project a name, E-Docs, an acronym for Engineering Electronic Documents.

In addition to scanning the documents we then began planning the next step, which was how to make the documents available via the Internet. We began a partnership with web developer, ISTS, Inc. in Fort Collins, to develop a user interface that allowed our customers to access the documents online. By March 2003, we had developed an internal Intranet site that we debuted to internal city staff. The internal intranet site was a preliminary testing ground to solicit feedback from city staff on the functionality and layout of the site. A customer kiosk was placed at the customer service counter in the drafting area to encourage people to learn about the site. The response from internal city staff was fantastic, and our external customers soon began asking when the site would be available on the Internet, leaving their names to be contacted when it was ready. While my fellow team members were excited about this success, I was more concerned with the work that was in front of us; getting the site on the Internet!

In September 2003, we debuted the Internet E-Docs site, www.engrdocs.com. In order to get the word out, we sent letters and postcards to every group we could think of who would use our documents. When customers came to our service counter, we took the time to promote the website and show interested parties how to use it. The site requires a user name and password, but to encourage people to use the site, a guest account was established and still exists today for the first time user (Figure 1). We currently have 230 registered users and growing. Just when I start getting worried that I haven’t received any requests for a new account, two or three come in! Most of the new account requests are coming from outside of the state.

Since March 2003, two customer surveys have been conducted to gauge the use of the site and solicit feedback on how to make the site better. Based on the survey responses, we have redesigned the site to be more intuitive and userfriendly. Chad Washburn, LSI with JR Engineering said, "It’s great! We use it all the time because it’s extremely convenient."

One improvement that we made at the users’ requests was to create a search method to find property information by address (Figures 2 & 3). Since our site is based on project and/or subdivision name, we worked with our GIS Department and created a connection to the GIS site which allow searches based on addresses. Our goal is to keep the site as up-to-date as possible and continue to address the needs of our customers.

The surveys have also provided a wealth of information regarding the benefits of having these documents available electronically. While we do not have solid evidence, it appears that the number of customers that are coming into the servic
e counter has gone down while the number of users of the website has gone up. We are seeing a reduction in our expenditures on blueprint supplies as well. This reduction at the service counter has freed up staff time to work on other projects.

Some of the additional benefits that the users of E-Docs have noted include:
• reduced travel time
• increased access to information (the site is available 24/7)
• cost savings for out of state consultants who access the documents
• reduction in reproduction expenses since portions of the drawings can be printed without purchasing a 24×36 copy
• increased availability of staff members who no longer have to spend time searching for documents.

We have also found that oftentimes a paper copy of a document is misplaced and the only copy that can be retrieved is the electronic version in E-Docs.

Steve Lund, LS, with King Surveyors recently was quoted as saying, "The EDocs site is quite helpful. It saves us client time and reduces budget needs. I go to the city E-Docs site first before going to other government sites because I can find a lot more information, such as easement documents. I use the section, township, range search features all the time."

In addition to providing our customers with electronic access to these documents, another goal of the project was to provide access for our city staff members, particularly our field inspectors, when away from the office. With Internet access over cellular telephones and wireless connections with laptops, our field crews now have the option of connecting to the website and pulling up documents electronically.

While we were converting the large format documents, we began to implement other phases of our project. We began scanning standard size documents into the electronic system that were supporting documents to the large format documents, such as legal documents and staff notes. The City Clerk’s office is the city’s official record custodian, so we forged a partnership with the clerk’s office to scan in all original legal documents, easements, dedications, vacations, and so forth, and agreements that related to business conducted by Engineering, such as capital improvement projects and development related projects. This phase has now been completed and provides additional information to our customers. As a result of this partnership, the clerk’s office has been able to reorganize and document their records, making for a more consistent records management system.

We are currently in the phase of converting staff files related to development into electronic format. When this phase is complete, all Engineering documentation related to development will be centrally located in the E-Docs system. Following this phase, we will convert capital project staff files so complete project information will be available with the drawings. Currently the system has 66,402 images with additions daily.

The ultimate goal of the E-Docs team is to provide a tool to the community that’s valuable and will save them time. We think we’ve been successful in reaching this goal, but there is a lot more to do! Fort Collins resident Linda Berger recently said, "Brenda keeps her users up to date on the attractive and very user friendly E-Docs website. E-Docs is a time-saver for all of the citizens of Fort Collins and a wise use of City funds; we only miss going into the city and chatting up the staff."

Brenda McCoy-Manfredo is a Systems Specialist/Project Manager with the engineering department of the City of Fort Collins.

A 907Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE