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The ratepayers’ desktop

The ratepayers’ desktop

“Oh dear,” you think to yourself when Ewen Church strides purposefully into the Upper Hutt City conference room. He looks so much like adventurer Peter Hillary we wonder whether they’ve got CIO confused with a healthy lifestyle magazine. But there it ends. The Upper Hutt City CIO’s agenda is distant from the aspirations of a professional adventurer.

“Oh dear,” you think to yourself when Ewen Church strides purposefully into the Upper Hutt City conference room. He looks so much like adventurer Peter Hillary we wonder whether they’ve got CIO confused with a healthy lifestyle magazine. Maybe, we think, they’ve got Hillary on community assignment to cut down on the valley’s obesity problem. The resemblance is that close, even down to the half smile.

But there it ends. The Upper Hutt City CIO’s agenda is distant from the aspirations of a professional adventurer. Church’s working life has been dedicated to eliminating excitement and the untoward, to avoiding adrenaline rushes and sidestepping surprises.

His compass and map to navigate the avalanches and crevasses of an IT life does have some similarity, though, to the instruments used by explorer types such as the Hillary.

Church has been greatly helped in his navigation by local government’s long-term realisation that shared learning is sensible because councils are all doing the same thing, albeit in different locations.

Church takes very seriously the Association of Local Government Information Managers and the Society of Local Government Managers. In ALGIM and SOLGM he sees two vital clearinghouses for early peril warnings that will keep practitioners such as himself on the right path.

“We are all largely doing the same thing: collecting rates, administering community services, and looking after the infrastructure,” comments Church in his matter-of fact way.

A recent trip to the US to watch the equivalent ALGIM and SOLM in action underscored for him just how standardised and cut-and-dried was the New Zealand local authority scene. “There (in the US) they are responsible for looking after the police, education, and so on.”

Church describes Upper Hutt as a Microsoft shop, hardly a surprise. Nor are there any surprises when he talks about the non-Microsoft products in use. Chief among these is the Napier Computer Systems package for local government.

Crafted specially for New Zealand conditions, NCS processes “things like dogs and liquor licensing, consent regulations, service requests…” In other words the tricky minutiae of local government work, which, if handled incorrectly gives rise to angry letters from ratepayers.

Upper Hutt was once the northern pole of the Wellington region rust belt, the southern pole being Lower Hutt. By the end by the 1990s came the final death throes of the car assembly, tyre and chemical plants, which for three generations had provided most of the employment. Upper Hutt is now mainly a dormitory town as many workers commute daily to Wellington. For Church, this situation has meant much of the council’s consent process has had to be moulded around the internet, where it can be accessed by people on the move.

Church has been at Upper Hutt for nearly seven years and, as he modestly concedes, much of the groundwork in his job was made “before my time”. It is, in fact, based on the ESRI GIS approach, managed for Upper Hutt by Explorer Graphics of Whitby, another Wellington commuter area.

But there is no doubt that Church vigorously followed through on the concept. and now GIS is there on every one of Upper Hutt’s desktops.

Remember the days when you would go into your local authority to get, let’s say, a drainage map for your section. You’d press a button, tinkle a bell, and after a while -- often quite a long while -- someone would shuffle out and hear your request. Then they would sidle back behind the glass partition and you would hear a muffled and muttered conversation. A new person would amble towards you and tells you that the individual in the diagram-finding department is on holiday/sick/has left/is at lunch/is not there. You can’t have your diagram until they reappear.

Thankfully that won’t happen at Upper Hutt because access to your diagram is available on every PC via a few keystrokes and at your own PC via the internet connection. Each month as many as 25,000 maps and diagrams are distributed this way.

“There’s no need for people to go to the trouble of calling us at our offices,” notes Church. Even so, Church knows the dangers of complacency. He intends to lift the browser GIS access quite a bit more, as it turns out. He is looking hard at a professional-level subscriber service for contractors, builders, architects, valuers, and other sectors that require a denser browser output.

“We are evaluating whether to let specialist log on to our Xplorer (the service brand name) concept for extra information.” Xplorer as it currently exists is designed for public use, as a simple but functional application that can be used with various levels of computer It supports use of geographic and related information including aerial photography. It also provides the ability to view data such as property or land information, infrastructural services and the proposed district plan. An additional links is provided to Quotable Value (QV) Online.

Also being integrated is a document management system, which in turn will integrate both paper and digital document into the total weave.

Church has reporting to him just one systems administrator, a GIS specialist, and an assistant. “We are very lean” he says.

Church came to Upper Hutt from the Bank of New Zealand where he was a key figure in setting up the ATMs. – Peter Isaac

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