Mountain View introducing the iCouncil

Committee to test the use of iPads to save paper

In hopes of saving a lot of paper, three Mountain View City Council members will be ditching their inches-thick weekly reports for slim electronic readers next month in an experiment.

Part of every City Council member's job is to read a staff report on each agenda item within the five days before every council meeting.

But when she recently purchased a new iPad, it occurred to council member Margaret Abe-Koga that lugging around those massive weekly staff report binders, as thick as 6 inches on busy weeks, made little sense when she could read the reports on her iPad. After all, this is Silicon Valley, saving paper is always good, and the city could always use another way to save some money.

At 25 cents a page, finance director Patty Kong estimated that the city could save $18,000 to $20,000 a year if the entire City Council used iPads to read the reports, and even more if the city's 11 department heads joined in as well. That doesn't include the cost of having a private courier service deliver the packets to council members' homes on Thursdays.

Kong said that the seven-member council had 21,000 pages sent to them, collectively, between April and June this year.

"The idea is to cut back on administrative work," said IT manager Steve Rodriguez. "We've only got two people in the copy center." On those days when the staff reports are being made, "everything else stops."

As part of the test, the city has budgeted for two iPads at $600 each for council technology committee members John Inks and Mike Kasperzak to use. Abe-Koga will be using her own iPad.

There may be a few drawbacks to going paperless, Abe-Koga said. For example, it is not yet possible to highlight or write on portions of a document while using an iPad as one would on paper report.

"Its fine for me but not everyone may like it," Abe-Koga said of using the iPad. "Maybe people won't like the fact they can't scribble on the page."

Then there is also the issue of accessibility for members of the public who may have no access to the internet. The city plans to keep printing the reports on paper for those few, Rodriguez said.

A key component of going paperless, say Abe-Koga and Rodriguez, is "streamlining" the city's online document retrieval system to make it more user friendly.

Retrieving a staff report now involves navigating a maze-like file system and slowly loading the reports a page at a time. Reading reports as efficiently as possibly involves finding a tiny button to download reports as PDF files in portions limited to 75 pages at a time.

Those who are less determined and tech savvy are unlikely to get that far. But it may be possible soon to download the entire weekly report packet in one click.

"Right now if you want a staff report you have to go in all these little folders," Abe-Koga said. "We are trying to see if we can format it so if you go to council meetings from July 27 to see the agenda, you can click on an agenda item and it will take you to a staff report."

The documents will also be reformatted into a higher quality Adobe PDF format so they can be read on iPad app Goodreader.

Reformatting the reports so that they can be viewed on an iPad is maybe an extra 20 minutes worth of work every week, Rodriguez said. "But all the extra effort goes away and we still get the same result."

An added benefit is that the staff reports could become text-searchable and indexed by a search engine, Rodriguez said. That is impossible with the current format, which is simply a photo of the paper document.

The lack of a text search function has been pointed out by the likes of council candidate Dan Waylonis and Mayor Ronit Bryant, who has complained about having to use the Voice archives to recall when the council had discussed a certain topic.

If the idea gains support, council members already have funds buy their own iPads. Each member is given $3,600 every four-year term to buy electronic equipment, such as a cell phone, computer or fax machine, to use for council business.

Members receive another $500 a year for "management development," which could also go towards the purchase of an iPad, Kong said.

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Like this comment
Posted by bp
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 19, 2010 at 11:16 am

congratulations to Mt View for thinking environmentally, while saving money instead of making more busy work. Take note Palo Alto council

Like this comment
Posted by A-Journey-Of-1000-Days-Starts-With-A-Single-Step
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 19, 2010 at 11:25 am

> congratulations to Mt View for thinking environmentally

Well .. maybe .. but the real win here is that all of this information is now digital, can be indexed and placed on line for access by the general public. No more trips to a medieval library to look at a packet, to find out what business is before the city council.

Maybe the environment was behind MV's decision to move forward, but public access is the big winner here.

Oddly, the City of Palo Alto still has its head where the sun don't shine on this matter.

Like this comment
Posted by Get a clue!
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 19, 2010 at 11:58 am

Palo Alto posts Council and Commission packets on the City website. Any Council Member, Commissioner or member of the public can view them on a PC or iPad. Each citizen just has to provide his/her own machine. The real question is whether Palo Alto will supply the iPads and then stop providing paper copies.

Like this comment
Posted by A-Journey-Of-1000-Days-Starts-With-A-Single-Ste
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 19, 2010 at 12:27 pm

> Palo Alto posts Council and Commission packets
> on the City website

Really .. indexed and searchable? No, they are not.

What's needed here is a commitment to digitizing as much of the materials that the city government has produced over the past decade or two into a convenient, and coherent set of materials that can be found on line forever. Budgets should be online not only as searchable PDFs, but as .xls files.

Whatever Palo Alto has done in this department is little more than a flip of the middle finger to the problem of e-government, and on-line, accessible, public records.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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