As a product marketer, it’s valuable to hear from customers about what’s happening in their world — the day-to-day agency challenges, feedback from residents and staff, and thoughts on improving their Accela solutions. Most frequently, I interact with customers through success interviews to write the case studies and success stories featured on Accela.com, but getting the opportunity for face time is invaluable.
Earlier this month, I traveled to Orlando to attend Accela’s Florida Users Group Meeting, one of the largest in the Accela customer community. What stood out as unique about this user group (especially compared to ones I’ve attended in other roles) was the collaborative nature and willingness to share what each jurisdiction and agency is doing to solve their most pressing issues. Having worked almost entirely in the private sector, my customers were often competitors and reticent to share inside details on a weakness or pain point that another organization could exploit.
Among governments, however, it was entirely the opposite because of their willingness to take the microphone and say, “We have a problem, and our workflow(s) to address it could definitely be improved.” Each time this happened, the speaker was met with empathy from colleagues who were ready to share how they were tackling the challenge. Because each jurisdiction does things a bit differently, this sparked conversations around the room with product managers moderating and sharing how Accela could solve the problem and offering to work closely on a solution.
At the event in Orlando, over 100 customers from cities and counties came together to engage with each other, Accela’s leadership, and product managers, to collaborate on topics such as disaster response and data protection. And recently, my Accela colleagues on the West Coast hosted user group meetings for Northern California and Arizona. My takeaway from the engagement levels at these events was enlightening; coast to coast, our customers are connecting to address the topics of biggest concern.
Tackling timely and topical themes
With hurricane season running from June through November, disaster response is always top of mind in Florida. Counties and cities work together with numerous stakeholders locally at the state level, with FEMA at the federal level, and with vendors who stay ready to make repairs to critical infrastructure. I learned that historically, municipalities would send out inspectors for “windshield damage assessments” immediately after the storm to record observations about damage to buildings, infrastructure, and other property, and then share that data with FEMA who will gauge their response from it. From there, full inspections would begin. But with storms becoming more severe and more frequent, many jurisdictions are skipping straight to the full inspection stage because FEMA immediately declares a disaster instead of waiting on local data.
Enter the role of technology—Using Accela tools, agencies are overcoming the immediate challenges of power and internet outages to quickly gather data in the field to share upstream with the state and FEMA, while rapidly reviewing and approving repair permits to get relief funds as quickly as possible.
This was the case for Manatee County, FL. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Ian, just three staff members had access to power and Accela’s cloud-based applications, yet they didn’t miss a beat. Leveraging Accela, the county was able to start assessing and meeting residents’ and business owners’ permitting needs immediately.
By removing the need to manage an on-premises implementation and backup infrastructure, agencies are able to focus on the critical work of responding to disasters and put their resources toward rebuilding and repairing as quickly as possible. Charlotte County, FL is one such example of a jurisdiction who was able to quickly react when another disaster struck, Hurricane Irma, in 2017.
Another topic, data management, was a continuing theme at the User Group meeting in FL as well, especially as it relates to transparency and access rights among staff and residents. With each transition from a paper-based to a computer-based solution, large amounts of data are generated, and those data sets must be organized so that the right people can access them.
‘Protected parcels’ was also a hot topic and a great example of a shared challenge where staff must take care to hide or shield parties who are protected by law from having their property details shared publicly, like judges or law enforcement personnel. This was discussed in the context of when it might be necessary to hide building plans of new construction projects—like hospitals or public infrastructure—from potentially bad actors while maintaining processes to request information through proper channels.
I was interested to learn that this type of information must be proactively marked inside of GIS-enabled search tools to hide it and ensured not to “leak” across other search tools and record sets available to users that wouldn’t otherwise have access. During this discussion, customers passed the microphone back and forth, sharing their techniques to build rules and workflows that cross-reference this information and either automatically hide it or flag it for review by a staff member. Along the way, product managers clarified questions to offer expertise and discussed where our roadmaps would specifically address these needs.
Meanwhile out West…
At Northern California and Arizona User Group meetings, the agenda was flipped with customers leading presentations that highlighted what was trending in their agencies. Topics leading the way included cloud migration and improving back office operations with a focus on drilling down to get more out of their data. Both groups shared they are making significant strides by automating time-consuming processes and extending their remote work capabilities for field inspections.
In our sunniest states, solar is a high-growth area with a never-ending stream of permit applications coming into municipal governments. In response, the State of California funded CalAPP to assist local governments with establishing online, automated solar permitting via $20M in grants. The city of Santa Rosa shared its success automating the issuance of permits using a combination of Accela, SolarApp+, and ePermit Hub DRP, joining Pima County, AZ, Tucson, AZ, Menifee, CA, and Sonoma County, CA in saving thousands of hours of review and revision time and improving the permitting experience for residents.
Pima County, AZ shared how it integrated Accela with Vuspex to remotely perform inspections that pair the inspector with a field representative, using a live link to share video, take pictures, and add notes from their office and use a geolocator to verify the inspection location is the same as the permit address. The county has created a fully digital, streamlined process that starts with online permit applications, then inspection scheduling, and now remote inspections that save all parties significant amounts of time and money.
Accela User Groups are a great way for customers to get the most out of their Accela investment and capitalize on the opportunity to network with like-minded colleagues who want to provide the best experience for the communities they serve. Accela customers interested in learning more about starting a local group should get in touch with their account representative.
We invite all jurisdictions innovating on behalf of your residents and agency staff to share what you’re doing with colleagues across the entire Accela community in a breakout session at Accelarate 2023. You can submit your idea here. We appreciate your willingness to highlight your success with the Accela community and will be accepting submissions through August 1st. All accepted presentations will receive one free pass to attend Accelarate 2023!