Archive for October 16, 2012

Public Toilets and Open Data: A Love Story

We’ve all been there. Strolling an urban shopping district or visiting an outdoor festival when nature calls. You begin scanning the landscape for your options: Duck into a business you haven’t patronized and risk being turned away, or keep walking, fingers crossed for an expeditious solution to appear like an oasis in the desert.

Cities embracing transparency and open government are finding that publishing data sets on public resources are bringing about many new apps for public use. It seems logical to assume there’s an … uh … appetite for information on public bathrooms, right?

You’re in luck if you’re outside North America. In this case, the U.S. isn’t No. 1.

According to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Great British Public Toilet Map grew out of a program aimed at using technology to help improve the mobility of Great Britain’s senior citizens. The theory is that senior citizens don’t go out as often due to fears over the availability of restroom facilities at regular intervals.

Researchers from the Royal College of Art populate a Web-based map — also smartphone-enabled — with information obtained from local authorities. The site encourages users to contact councils in London to request that they share their data on public restrooms. To date, ESRC reports that two London councils have obliged, and two others are considering it. Users click on a facility plotted on the map, and get details including exact address, hours of operation and whether it’s wheelchair accessible.

Australia’s National Public Toilet Map is a comprehensive, feature-rich list of public restrooms throughout the country. The country’s department of health and aging maintains the site.

Brussels, Belgium; and Paris also have open data sets for toilets.

Efforts in the U.S.A. have been more scattered. While many U.S. restroom locator apps have sprung up for users of Apple and Android products, most seem to rely on crowdsourcing from users to populate the sites. Have2P reveals which restrooms are open only to customers, and offers user reviews on cleanliness, and locations mapped using GPS. The Sit or Squat app (brought to you by Procter & Gamble) collects data on public restrooms around the globe. Users can add facility information, including features and ratings.

Open data leaders in the U.S. are making many kinds of public facility data available to the public, fueling apps like Adopt A Hydrant, engaging volunteers in cities like Boston and Madison, Wis., in keeping fire hydrants accessible throughout the snowy season. Police and fire stations, public parks, senior centers and libraries are often offered up by cities as well.

The chances of a national Adopt a Restroom app seems far less likely because a) it’s gross; and b) comprehensive data sets are few and far between.

The recently launched Cities page on Data.gov, as previously reported in Government Technology, now features data sets from San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and New York in the hopes that a multi-jurisdictional clearinghouse of information will lead to applications with benefits beyond individual cities. A search reveals that to date, Seattle is the only participant to offer a short list of public restroom facilities, excluding those in public parks.

Have we missed open data sets about public toilets that are worth mentioning? Tell us in the comments section below.

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Texas HHS Agencies Consider Telework Expansion

In Texas, there are five health and human services (HHS) agencies — the Department of State Health Services, the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, the Department of Aging and Disability Services, the Department of Family and Protective Services, and the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), the administrative head of all five. In total, HHS employs 54,000 people and takes a bite out of 32 percent of the state’s budget.

With that many people, the agency leaves a large office space footprint. In September 2011, now-outgoing HHS Executive Commissioner Tom Suehs created a workgroup to determine whether allowing more employees to work virtually — that is, from home or somewhere else outside the office — could increase job efficiencies and reduce costs. Earlier this summer, the workgroup, which included supervisors of current virtual workers, returned its findings to Suehs and identified the risks, challenges and benefits for mobile workers and teleworkers.

I asked Suehs about HHS’ current virtual worker policies and what benefits the five agencies could realize from a virtual worker expansion. His edited responses appear below.

The Texas health and human services agencies have telework policies to address specific issues at their agency. Any HHS agency employee may apply for telework. The request is then evaluated by the supervisor and, if approved, reviewed by the supervisor’s supervisor. Final approval comes from the agency commissioner. HHS policy requires the employee and their supervisor to sign a telework agreement that details expectations (for example, work hours) and performance standards. We have the ability to stop telework for staff who aren’t performing.

Mobile workers, on the other hand, have job responsibilities that require them to be out of the office; this includes facility inspectors, child protective services workers and health inspectors. Requirements for such staff are embedded in their job descriptions. As mobile workers become equipped with technology and no longer need to come into the office on a regular basis to do things like enter data or meet with supervisors, it’s been recommended that HHS establish appropriate HR policy. This is now in progress.

As of December 2011, there were 425 teleworkers across all five HHS agencies in every region of the state. Sixty-eight percent of these staff telework only one day a week, while about 15 percent telework full time. Our teleworkers are diverse in terms of their occupations. Of course, staff who provide direct services to residents of our state hospitals and state-supported living centers won’t be approved for telework. But beyond that, there’s a wide range of jobs that may be performed from home — even if just one day a week.

On the mobile work side, close to 2,000 staff are currently technologically equipped to operate independently of dedicated office space. Eighty percent of these are child protective services workers, with most of the others doing regulatory work.

The workgroup reported a number of positive results for teleworking and mobile working including reduced absenteeism, increased retention, recruitment of skilled staff, cost savings, enhanced customer service, improved work/life balance, a boost in morale, enhanced capacity in such things as business continuity and disaster recovery, and access to work for workers with disabilities.

I also think there’s plenty of productivity to be gained and we’re working to quantify this. For example, a mobile worker who’s able to cut down on the number of trips to the office because they’re technology enabled is a productivity gain. A staff member who eliminates a two-hour commute by teleworking may decide not to look for a job closer to home, and that’s a productivity gain. And being able to attract and retain the next generation of workers — young people who see work as what you do and not where you’re located — that will be a productivity gain.

On the telework side, one of our agencies implemented a small pilot program a couple of years ago that offered staff the opportunity to work from home for one regularly scheduled day a week. The positive reaction of staff and continuing quality of work resulted in an expansion across the agency and now about 150 staff telework from home at least one day per week. A significant piece of the pilot was very good training that was developed — one geared for staff, the other for supervisors — that we’re adapting for use across all HHS agencies.

In April 2012, we started a pilot project with our own agency’s Customer Care Center staff in Athens, Texas. These workers process eligibility changes that are part of a client’s case record. Since those case records are electronic, staff can work on any case, no matter the location. We have about 40 of these staff members working from home. Our preliminary findings indicate that telework has a positive effect on employee morale, can reduce turnover as well as absenteeism and can be an effective recruiting tool. Based on these positive results, we’re planning to expand telework across the five other Customer Care Centers, involving about 500 staff, by the end of 2012. We’re also looking at other areas that are conducive to teleworking within HHSC’s eligibility services division.

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Maryland to Deploy Statewide Health Benefit Exchange in 2013

Maryland is slated to deploy a statewide health benefit exchange platform next October that will allow uninsured residents to determine their eligibility for health-care subsidies and tax credits and help them find an affordable health plan.

Maryland’s deployment a year from now is scheduled to meet deadlines surrounding the Affordable Care Act of 2010. The legislation mandates that U.S. citizens who meet the requirements outlined in the bill have health insurance or they will face a monetary penalty. The requirements will take effect in 2014.

In August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services collectively awarded $765 million in insurance exchange grants to eight states, including Maryland, to develop their platforms. Maryland, Connecticut, Nevada and Vermont received level-two grants, which were awarded to states that “have made more progress in their planning efforts,” according to Kaiser Health News.

Other states, including Washington, Massachusetts and New York have also established a state exchange. Other states are planning a partnership exchange, still studying options, or like Alaska, Louisiana and Maine, have decided not to create a state exchange, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Maryland is contracting with IBM to roll out its benefit exchange, which will be called the Maryland Health Connection. The exchange will be operated on software by Curam, a company IBM acquired less than a year ago.

Once the platform is available, Maryland residents who don’t have health insurance will be able to use it essentially as an online marketplace to choose an insurance plan, said Ernie Connon, IBM’s vice president of health and human services industry solutions.

Within its first year of deployment, the exchange platform is expected to help more than 100,000 residents purchase health insurance and up to nearly 275,000 by 2020, according to IBM.

Because the federal government is still determining some of the rules regarding eligibility, Connon said the Maryland Health Connection platform is being developed to accommodate new rules as they are implemented. Final rules set by the federal government will determine how much an individual may have to pay out of pocket for health insurance, or if he or she will be subsidized or provided for under Medicaid.

“One of the things that we’re doing here is building a solution that allows for the dynamic change, so if the rules were to change over time, we can quickly adapt to that,” Connon said.

In addition to Maryland, IBM announced this summer that the company is developing a similar exchange platform for Minnesota as well as other states. Connon said for one such case, IBM hopes an exchange will create a user experience that individuals with eighth- to ninth-grade reading levels can quickly comprehend.

“You’re having people who are going to come to this application that are going to drive the online experience, but not have a user manual to help them through this,” Connon said. “This has got to be fairly self-explanatory; it’s basically got to help drive them through the whole experience.”

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