Public service put in citizens' hands
'ComNet' allows residents to log local problems
Published: May 03, 2008
Elizabeth Shestak, Correspondent

Gutters clogged with leaves, sidewalks riddled with cracks, neighbors parking on their front lawns or better yet, not mowing their lawns? This list of petty-but-annoying nuisances is common to all communities.

In the past, many, if not most complaints of this nature have gone through Durham One Call, the city's central contact for information and services -- if they've been reported at all. In the last few weeks, however, Durham has implemented a new way to document disrepair and code violations and better plan how and when they'll be taken care of. Computerized Neighborhood Environment Tracking, or ComNet, is now available to neighborhood groups willing to take a few hours to be trained on how to operate the handheld devices. Durham is the first city in the state to try the program. Here's the deal:

HOW DOES COMNET WORK? The devices, similar in size to a Palm Pilot, are simply computers with digital cameras. Once a team of residents has been trained on how to use them, they are pre-programmed with an area's geographic layout by a city employee. They try to keep the areas small enough to walk in two or three hours.

When the team notices problems, they specifically note them on the computer using a drop-down menu that has also been programmed in.

WHO GETS TO USE COMNET? Any group of three to four people willing to spend about two hours getting trained on how to properly use the device is welcome, said Jay Reinstein, manager with the city's Office of Strategic Initiatives.

The team of residents is accompanied by a city employee who brings the device and also takes it back to process the findings and download the information. The group walks the neighborhood, on the lookout for pesky code transgressions and disrepair.

One person operates the device, another records the group's activities, and the others monitor the area for offenses.

AFTER THE INFORMATION IS PROCESSED, WHAT HAPPENS? Once the neighborhood has been surveyed, residents can go over the results with city employees from various departments to prioritize repairs. But it's not all up to the city, Reinstein said. A big part of this program is focused on involving the community in neighborhood maintenance.

The city simply can't handle every single complaint, and if a neighborhood is willing to pitch in within its scope -- say, by having litter cleanup events -- then the city can focus on bigger issues. If a problem is beyond a neighborhood's scope but not urgent, it will likely be queued up and tracked by Durham One Call (560-1200).

WHAT SORT OF THINGS CAN IT NOTE? The ComNet computers have a menu of civic nuisances, and that list can be added to as the community finds more ways to note code violations and other instances of disrepair. They are not for reporting criminal acts, however, or emergencies of that nature.

HOW DID DURHAM GET INVOLVED? Julie Brenman, director of strategic initiatives for the city, heard about ComNet last year after learning what other cities were doing to improve civic life and strengthen the voice of citizens. Durham seemed a prime candidate, Brenman said.

"I think Durham has a lot of citizens that are really interested in making our community better, and this is one way we can methodically connect our citizens to our services and use them as an extra set of eyes and ears."

WHAT DID IT COST THE CITY? According to Brenman, the city budgeted approximately $20,000 for the program for the first year, which paid for all training and materials, handheld computers, and the annual service agreement. After first-year start-up costs, the annual cost will be $5,000 for the service agreement plus any additional handheld computers, which cost approximately $800 per unit. As of now the city owns two devices.

WHAT'S IT LIKE TO USE? David Harris of the Old Farms neighborhood in northern Durham said the few hours he spent patrolling his neighborhood with fellow residents were not only productive, but a good time. "It was a lot of fun," he said. It was a way to connect to his community on foot.

HOW DO I GET TO USE COMNET? Once you've rallied a few neighbors to help with the project, interested parties can contact Jay Reinstein at (919) 560-4222 ext. 226, or by e-mail at jay.reinstein@durhamnc.gov. He will set up a training session, program your area into a device and arrange for a survey.

 

GIS analyst Terri Birth deomonstrates the use of a ComNET handheld device. Durham has become the first city in North Carolina to the use the system to log problems within a particular community.
Staff Photo by John Rottet