Edmonton Transit’s new lost & found system: Foundtastic by Hybrid Forge

A little over a year ago, the City of Edmonton held an open house for a new initiative known as Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally (LTEL). The initiative was created as a way to allow the City to gain access to innovative local technology companies who may not otherwise have the scale or resources to participate in a traditional RFP process. The pilot project was a replacement for Edmonton Transit System’s electronic lost and found system. A total of fourteen local companies proposed solutions and the field was narrowed to six finalists in January: Hybrid Forge, Aldata, Aurora Bar Code, Damaag, Stage 2, and XEA Services.

Hybrid Forge was selected in February, and they started work on their lost and found solution in early spring. Called Foundtastic, the application goes live today and tomorrow at the City of Edmonton.

Foundtastic

I caught up with Geoff Kliza and Chad Smith from Hybrid Forge, as well as Loren Andruko and Bruce Beecher from the City of Edmonton, to talk about the process and the new solution.

Geoff and Chad told me they “underestimated the seriousness with which ETS treats lost and found.” This is good news for you, the transit user! Here’s how the process worked before Foundtastic:

  1. You lose something on the bus in the morning.
  2. Later that day, at the end of his/her shift, the driver collects all the items found on the bus and hands them off to the dispatcher at the garage (there are six garages, plus DATS, and the ETS security officers who also find items).
  3. The dispatcher does the paperwork for the lost items and prepares them for transport to Churchill Square.
  4. The items are transported to Churchill Square, and the items are entered into an Access database.
  5. By the middle of the next day, your item has been catalogued at Churchill Square and is ready for staff to respond to your requests.

Certain items are special, of course. For passports, driver’s licenses, cell phones, or other easily identifiable items, ETS will proactively try to contact individuals. But for the most part, that’s the process. There are signoffs along the way, so that ETS can track items from bus to customer.

There are a number of issues with that process. Two of the most obvious issues are the disconnect between the paper trail and the database at Churchill Square and the time delay between an item being found and that item being searchable. If you called on the same day you lost your item, staff would tell you to call back the next day because they’d have no way of knowing if something was found until it was in the Access database.

Foundtastic solves both of these problems, and more. The process is largely the same, except that dispatchers no longer need to catalogue items on paper. Instead they enter them into the system directly. A paper manifest is still kept at each garage, but it is printed now, reducing the likelihood of mistakes or illegible handwriting. And by enabling each location to add the items into the database directly, the delay for customers is also removed. Now staff can tell you the same day if its likely that your item was found or not. Auditing is greatly improved now too. The system records whenever a change is made, whereas in the past something could be scribbled and crossed out on paper, making it difficult to track.

I asked whether the idea of using scanners or photographs as part of the process was considered. Maybe using barcodes at the garage and Churchill Square to further automate the process of ensuring that everything that was found made it to the station. Both sides looked at the idea, but ultimately decided that the costs outweighed the benefits.

Chad told me that like most software projects, the scope evolved and changed over time. Instead of “here’s the problem, give us a solution” it evolved into more of an agile development process. When it became clear that the paperwork could be reduced by allowing dispatchers to enter items directly, a slight business process change was required. That’s where Loren came in – he played a key role in the process, acting as the key connector between the City and Hybrid Forge. Chad remarked that Hybrid Forge “would not have been successful if Loren had not gotten involved” in the project. Loren was equally as positive about working with Hybrid Forge, saying he would love to work with them again.

One of the most interesting things I learned is that Foundtastic is software-as-a-service, which means Hybrid Forge is responsible for hosting the application. At the open house, it was specifically stated that the solution would have to run in-house, so I’m quite pleased to see that the City relaxed that requirement (they indicated they would as the deadline for submissions approached). Foundtastic is an important system, but it’s not mission critical, so it was a great opportunity for the City to experiment with SaaS.

Foundtastic

An interesting challenge that Hybrid Forge ran into was the interface. As you can see, they’ve created an attractive user interface, but it was actually scaled back somewhat from their original designs. The application needs to be efficient for staff to use, so maintaining the Access-like data entry interface was important. While tabbing from column to column and making extensive use of the keyboard is the way Access works, that’s not typical on the web. Hybrid Forge used jQuery to maintain that experience for users. For those of you interested in the technical side of things, Foundtastic is built using ASP.NET MVC 2.

With Foundtastic, the City of Edmonton received a cost-effective piece of software, with a user interface that isn’t typical of City applications, and the opportunity to explore SaaS. For Hybrid Forge, the opportunity to showcase what they can do and the ability to count the City of Edmonton as a customer were both positive outcomes. And for you, the transit user, improved customer service is the big win.

The idea that the LTEL project would be a way for local companies to springboard into a larger market seems somewhat less successful, however. While the City has arranged contracts and such to ensure that Foundtastic could be used in other departments, there are no immediate plans for that to happen. And Hybrid Forge would of course need to spend the time and money to identify opportunities and market their solution if they wanted to sell it to customers beyond the City, something they’re not likely to do as a company focused on custom solutions rather than product development. It seems that aspect of the project is something that TEC Edmonton could have helped with, but they were not involved beyond the initial selection process.

I asked all four gentlemen if they’d do the LTEL process again, and if they’d recommend it to other software companies or other departments at the City. All said yes. That to me suggests that the pilot was a success! Of course, there are lots of improvements that will be made, and Bruce said the City is now operationalizing the process, and that an LTEL2 seems likely. I hope it happens.

In the next six to eight weeks, another key aspect of Foundtastic will go live. Instead of having to call ETS to check if your lost item was found, you’ll be able to fill out a form on the website. You’ll be asked for some identifying criteria, and the system will tell you whether or not it’s likely that your item was found (it’s important to avoid specifics, to reduce the potential for abuse) and what the next steps are to retrieve it. It’s another improvement to the customer service experience made possible by Foundtastic.

Kudos to Geoff, Chad, and the team at Hybrid Forge for showing the City of Edmonton what local software development companies are capable of. And kudos to the City for experimenting with something new. It’ll be interesting to see how LTEL evolves!

Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally (LTEL) Application Deadline: December 15

Just a reminder that if you’re planning to participate in the Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally (LTEL) initiative, you have until next Tuesday to declare your interest! If this is the first you’ve heard of LTEL, check out my recap of last month’s open house. Expressing interest is easy – just fill out this online form. You’ll need to provide your personal and business contact details, as well as:

  • A description of your solution in 100 words or less
  • An overview of your solution in 200 words or less (no I don’t know how the description and overview are different)
  • The top 10 features of your solution
  • The technical specifications of your solution
  • Direct & indirect benefits and costs of your solution
  • An explanation of how your solution will address the technical and operational needs of the customer and end-user
  • A preliminary timeline for your solution

Interestingly, there’s also room for three team member profiles, and comments on product differentiation, commercialization potential, and financial considerations. So if you have sales projections or plans to look for investment, you can mention that up front.

The website has a number of useful documents that might be of interest, including a scan of the current Lost & Found form and tag (pictured above). You can also download the City’s IT standards, which have been clarified:

The City does not wish to dictate the technologies proposed by the applicant, however, the solution must run in the City’s technical environment, as City staff are expected to use the application on a daily basis. In addition, the City is open to considering proposals that include hosting of the proposed application.

Emphasis mine – that’s great to hear!

If you’re chosen to continue, the next step in the process is to present your solution to the selection panel on January 28, 2010. Your solution doesn’t need to be complete by that date – mockups, prototypes, or whatever you’re comfortable presenting is fine. The selection will be announced on February 3, 2010.

For more information, check out the LTEL site. If you have questions or other concerns, email LTEL@edmonton.ca. Have a great idea for a new Lost & Found system? Apply now!

Recap: Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally Open House

Last night was the open house for the City’s new Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally (LTEL) initiative (you can read my previous coverage here). The event was meant to provide more details to the community, and to introduce the people behind the scenes. David Faber from the Deputy City Managers Office, Kamren Farr from TEC Edmonton, Keith Chorley from CoE IT, Bruce Beecher from CoE IT/Transit, and Cam Linke were all on hand to introduce the idea and answer questions. Roughly 25 people attended.

Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally

David began by giving the pitch, essentially providing the same information he shared with me last week. He stressed that this is a pilot program, and that it’s okay to fail. The City of Edmonton is hoping to learn from the experience, and will be reporting back to Executive Committee with the results. David highlighted the intent of LTEL:

  • To communicate the services that the City of Edmonton provides.
  • To build bridges with the local community, to enable small tech companies to use the City of Edmonton as a sandbox.

Next up was Bruce, who provided some information on the challenge – creating a replacement for Edmonton Transit’s Lost & Found system. The current database was built with Access 97, and the IT branch is keen to replace it with something more modern. A few details on the system:

  • Roughly 1700 items are tracked per month
  • Items are stored for 30 days, and if not retrieved are then donated, auctioned, or otherwise disposed of. Passports, for example, are returned to the government, and cell phones are returned to the carrier.
  • Items are stored tagged in bins in a storage room that is roughly 20 feet x 20 feet.
  • Most wallets, cell phones, backpacks, and purses are collected within 2 days.

The basic business processes are:

  1. Enter articles – start tracking lost items
  2. Search articles – when someone calls with a description
  3. Claim articles – individual signs the tag upon retrieving the item
  4. Purge articles – items removed from database after retrieval or 30 days

Some of the opportunities identified include:

  • Improved security and access control
  • Multiple item search (currently you can only search one item at a time)
  • Track people inquiring about items
  • Enhance reporting
  • Potentially something generic enough that other CoE departments could use it

Kamren was up next, to provide the preliminary market assessment. He talked about the “lost and found” industry, and highlighted solutions at TransLink and the New York transit authority as best-of-breed. There are four existing types of lost and found systems:

  1. Public – transit, etc.
  2. Private – hotels, etc.
  3. Return service – you pay for tags or some incentive to return
  4. Online classifieds – lost and found posters, basically

He went on to talk about market segments, and highlighted some of the market drivers, opportunities, and challenges.

The challenge was eventually described as:

Use technology to reduce costs for the customer (City of Edmonton) and increase recovery rates for users (people who have lost things).

All of this information will be made available on the LTEL page. The only other pertinent detail is that the upper limit for the budget is $75,000. Technical requirements and other details will also be posted on the website.

Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally

My Thoughts

I talked with a number of people after the session to get their perspective. Most folks seemed excited about the idea. Andrew from dub5, in particular, said he was impressed that the City of Edmonton took the time to get this pilot started, and suggested that it was a big step in the right direction. Bruce Winter echoed that sentiment, but like me, was hoping for something a little more visual.

Here are my thoughts on the open house:

  • The City needs to do a much better job of spreading the word. I realize they wanted to manage expectations, but I don’t think enough people knew about last night’s event.
  • I would have loved to have seen the format of the event mimic DemoCamp. Instead of slides full of bullet points, why not demo what they currently have?
  • I get that a lost and found database isn’t particularly exciting, but that doesn’t mean that the presentation can’t be. Instead of telling us there’s a 20×20 room packed with items, why not show a photo?
  • This is going to sound harsh, but Kamren’s presentation wasn’t much more than a Google search. Very basic business concepts (competition, market segments, opportunities, challenges) and nothing more than the names of some other lost and found systems. I’m still wondering what exactly TEC Edmonton and EEDC bring to the table, besides a couple more names?

My biggest concern however, is related to the very first question I asked. I wanted to know if there were any technical requirements, and specifically, if the application had to be on-premise (meaning the City of Edmonton hosts and manages it). Keith answered yes, tech requirements would be provided, and that yes, the solution needs to run in the City of Edmonton’s existing infrastructure. One of the stated goals of LTEL is to expose the City of Edmonton to some of the innovative ideas of the local tech community, so this seems like a big step in the wrong direction. Maybe there’s a good reason for this particular solution, but if so it was not made clear. I think putting up big restrictions like that right from the start limits the potential solutions the City could learn about. (Also, I was under the impression the City wanted to get out of the tech business, by not doing custom development and reducing the burden of hosting and managing systems.)

This criticism is meant to be constructive. Overall I think LTEL is a good thing, and I want to see it succeed. I look forward to the rest of the process!

Stay tuned to the website for updates and an application form. Companies interested in developing a solution have until December 15 to express interest.

Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally – Open House on November 17

As you may have heard by now, the City of Edmonton is hosting an open house on Tuesday, November 17 (on ShareEdmonton) at City Hall to present a pilot project to interested members of the local tech community. The initiative is known as Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally (LTEL), and the open house follows on the report that was presented to Executive Committee back in August. I’ll get to some of the event details in a second, but first I want to offer some background.

I heard about the open house late on Monday afternoon, and immediately posted a tweet. You might think that the City’s IT department would be behind it, but many of them only learned about it because of my tweet! And that’s where things get interesting.

I had the opportunity this week to sit down with David Faber, one of the folks making this initiative happen. David is the Executive Director of Enterprise Strategic Management in the Deputy City Managers Office. His involvement means that this initiative is happening at a level slightly above IT, as David is (along with his team) charged with strategy, direction, accountability, and stewardship for the entire City of Edmonton, not just IT. David’s job is to bring the City’s Vision and Strategic Plan to life, and LTEL is just one of the ways in which he’s doing that.

As you might expect, David oozes passion for Edmonton. He’s been with the City of Edmonton for 12 years now, and even spent some time working in IT, so he has some experience in the field. For David, the LTEL initiative is about innovation and economic development, as well as the opportunity to simply connect with startups and other small tech firms in Edmonton. He outlined a few key goals of the initiative:

  • To bring the community together with the City, and to open the door at CoE for smaller companies.
  • To build shared learning by using the City as a sandbox and by not being afraid to fail.
  • To be supportive of the City Vision, which is to say that the LTEL pilot must be repeatable and sustainable.

I agree with Chris LaBossiere – this sounds like we’re on the right track.

I did explain to David that I was highly critical of the original report, and that I along with others in the tech community are concerned about EEDC and TEC Edmonton’s involvement. Unfortunately, David didn’t say much to alleviate my concerns when I asked how specifically those organizations would be involved, suggesting only that they would provide resources. I’m willing to wait and see how things turn out, because it certainly sounds like TEC Edmonton is less central to the pilot than was suggested in the original report.

We’ll learn more about the project at Tuesday’s event, but here’s what we know already:

  • The problem is to come up with a replacement for Edmonton Transit’s current electronic Lost and Found system.
  • Prospective participants must be incorporated companies by February 3, 2010, must have annual revenue of $2 million or less, and must be located within the City of Edmonton’s boundaries.
  • Prospective participants have until December 15, 2009 to express interest.
  • Potential solutions will be presented on January 28, 2010.
  • A selection announcement will occur on February 3, 2010 with the pilot project starting March 1, 2010.

The Lost and Found system was selected for two important reasons: it’s tangible, and already has funding attached. Representatives from IT, DCMO, ETS, and TEC Edmonton will be on hand to provide more information.

I’ll be there on Tuesday to learn more about it, and I hope you’ll consider attending as well.