The City of Cambridge had a crisis on its hands last September.

It started with a toddler pricking his hand on a used needle, an emergency that required the child to be treated for potential HIV and Hepatitis B infections.

The media frenzy was immediate – as was the municipal government’s response.

“It doesn’t matter if the needle was dropped there or washed down [Cambridge’s nearby] Grand River,” IT manager Robert Delorme (above) told the audience during June’s 2018 Municipal Information Systems Association (MISA) Ontario Conference in Hamilton. “It doesn’t matter if the city had jurisdiction along the river or was responsible for public health and social services. It only mattered that it happened within the city of Cambridge.”

In response, a task force was created in October that, Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig promised, would respond to drug-related issues in the community.

Delorme was quick to note that when the needle was found the city, one of many in South Ontario affected by the ongoing North American opioid epidemic, already had field teams in place trained to identify and dispose of sharp debris, and were keeping records of their work.

The city’s efforts did, however, undergo an operational change after the mayor’s declaration, Delorme acknowledged.

“What was missing was a dedicated, visible team within the community and a coordinated, integrated solution to rapidly move from issue identification to resolution reporting,” he said, adding that, “up to that point, we were only responding to public property and not to private property. So we had to come up with a more comprehensive solution than the one that we had been working on.”

By the end of October, the city had already created what they called community ambassador teams (CATs for short) and was working on a prototype field testing application, known internally as CleanUP Cambridge, that went live in early November.

“We brought in the team and ended up creating an input form to collect info and locate the debris,” Delorme explained. “We pushed text and email notifications to field crews to instantly alert them about new issues. We created an app that field crews could use for response and record keeping, and additional tools to expand their operational response potential.”

The entire process, from concept to design to development to prototype to deployment, took about two weeks, he said. The finished product, an Esri-powered public form that invites users to not only submit a name and address, but upload a photo and select a location on one of the GIS software developer’s signature maps, can be viewed here.

“As soon as you hit ‘submit,’ an email and text are sent out to the field crews,” Delorme said. “So they get instant access to any new issues brought to our attention. It goes to the field crews on their tablets, and to their supervisor to determine if it’s a large enough ask, in which case it may need to be passed onto contractors.”

In addition to helping field workers locate drug debris, the platform allows them to quickly and easily identify whether a needle has been found on land that is public (in which case it can be immediately disposed) or private (in which case they must secure the owner’s permission) and report its disposal. The result is a speed of turnaround the pre-digital taskforce could have only dreamed of.

“There is no middle man,” Delorme said. “It all happens really cleanly.”

And because the solution is powered by the Esri platform, it’s also capable of collecting and analyzing data that can easily be reported back to council.

In fact, the teams’ first report showed a substantial enough spike in clean-up efforts that it was reported by the media.

“Senior management was really amazed at what we could do and how quickly we could do it,” Delorne said. “We haven’t exactly solved the opioid crisis but I think we have made it a bit easier for our staff to respond, and to help create a cleaner and healthier community.”

This story is part of a longer feature for the September 2018 issue of MISA’s official quarterly magazine, Municipal Interface.

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