Connecting Columbus

Gary Cavin developed an app that builds a bridge between the Ohio city's government and its constituents

Challenge

When Gary Cavin stepped into the role of director of technology and CIO for the City of Columbus, Ohio, in 2005, his main objective was to put the city on the technological map.

Cavin didn’t have heaps of technology experience at the time—he started his career in the accounting world and was later named deputy chief of staff for Columbus’ then-mayor Michael B. Coleman—but he’d witnessed the gradual integration of technology into the public sphere and knew his city was due for an upgrade. So when Cavin accepted the CIO role—and with it, oversight of all of Columbus’ tech and IT functions—he set out to do just that.

“I wanted Columbus to be ahead of the curve — not just for the sake of being noticed, but also for the benefit of our customers,” Cavin says. “ I knew I could use tech to move the city forward.”

Research showed Columbus residents, particularly young consumers, were highly receptive to mobile-based initiatives. So, Cavin’s team decided to implement a mobile solution that could help Columbus better serve its audience while hurtling the city toward a more connected future.

“I wanted Columbus to be ahead of the curve—not just for the sake of being noticed, but also for the benefit of our customers. I knew I could use tech to move the city forward.”

Solution

In 2006, the city launched MyColumbus, a free mobile app that provides residents and visitors access and information related to community services.

To create the digital infrastructure, Cavin’s team partnered with a graduate class at Ohio State University, which built the foundation for the app as part of its curriculum. Then, to work out the remaining details, Cavin brought in the Columbus-based mobile software development incubator eProximiti.

Creating a networked, green city

The MyColumbus app combines the functionality of many different apps in a single outlet, allowing Columbus residents to get the most out of the city’s services. With smartphone usage rising, Cavin aims to put everything at residents’ fingertips. MyColumbus users can utilize GPS capabilities to map out everything from parks to entertainment venues. The app also uses RSS feeds to provide news feeds. MyColumbus’ Social Media Center allows the city’s residents to connect their Twitter and Facebook accounts in order to share exciting stories about the city and interact with their neighbors. Moreover, the app encourages users and organizations alike to take on more sustainable lifestyles. MyColumbus highlights the city’s Get Green initiative, promoting sustainable behavior, as well as offering guides detailing which local restaurants, businesses, and non-profit organizations participate in the program.

At the outset, Cavin wanted MyColumbus to be the city’s premier app—and to not get overshadowed by other city-centric applications. So, to spread awareness, his team forged relationships with private businesses and neighborhood pride centers (venues peppered around the city dedicated to solving community issues) to advertise and create some noise about the app.

The first version of MyColumbus, which rolled out in conjunction with a better-designed city website, featured components that are still popular today, like a 311 complaint tab and “GreenSpot,” an initiative designed to inspire residents and business owners to implement environmental best practices. Next, the team rolled out more complicated capabilities, like “My Neighborhood,” a tab that tells new and prospective residents about police precincts, school districts, and restaurant inspections in their area, and “Get Active,” a tab that aims to fight obesity with “food and fit tips,” bike-path information, golf tee times, and more.

Recently added features include trash and recycling-collection schedules, information about city council meetings and, most notably, “warrior watch,” which updates and informs citizens about snow removal.

“Mayors have lost entire elections because of how they’ve dealt with snow removal,” Cavin says. “It’s a big deal in our city.”

Results

In the years since its launch, MyColumbus has been warmly received by residents and visitors alike—as of January 2016, the app had been downloaded more than 30,000 times.

Likewise, because MyColumbus makes it easier for users to file 311 service requests—“someone can take a picture of a pothole, send it in, and it gets repaired three times faster with the app,” Cavin says—the city has saved an incredible amount of time and “millions of dollars” since its introduction. Other features like “GreenSpot” and “Get Active” have led to a sort of technological kinship throughout the city.

“People can see that this app has a great deal of value,” Cavin says. “They use it to pay traffic tickets and to look for jobs. They use it to map bike paths from end to end, and if they’re like me, they use it to check on golf tee times. It’s been a big hit.”

Today, the biggest challenge Cavin’s mobile tech team faces is keeping MyColumbus’ content fresh and relevant. But they’ve learned to combat stagnancy by soliciting feedback from their users and by holding annual focus group meetings to see what they can do to improve the app. Cavin, who heads all technological aspects of the city—from phone systems to television, website, and data centers—attributes the success of MyColumbus to a theory he posited when he first took the position: technology can be a powerful government tool.

“It’s certainly not the solution to every problem,” he says. “But it’s an important way to reach customers and stay ahead of the game.”