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Smithtown rolls out phone app to expand digital reach

John Gonzales on Thursday with the new Smithtown

John Gonzales on Thursday with the new Smithtown phone app that he designed. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Smithtown’s first mobile app is available for download, part of a digital effort that town officials say is likely to grow in coming years.

Free and designed for Apple and Android users, it pulls together resources such as the Public Safety Department’s emergency preparedness and road condition alerts, town and utility websites and archived footage of town meetings.

It also lets users contact town departments with questions or service requests by filling out an electronic form.

“This is about customer service, transparency and getting information out,” town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo said, adding that town council members will still be available for telephone conversations or in-person meetings with residents.

While Smithtown was one of the first municipalities on Long Island to create its own website, in 1997, the town has moved tentatively on some digital platforms. The website, which officials plan to overhaul, is ill-suited for mobile use. Smithtown’s Public Safety Department didn’t begin tweeting its alerts until March and by last week had only seven followers. The town’s Facebook page, used to announce pending legislation and events, is older and has about 2,000 followers.

At least seven Long Island municipalities operate their own apps, with reach that varies greatly. Suffolk County’s Public Works Department fielded just 77 requests for service through its app from January 2017 through March 2018, a period in which the department took thousands of requests by phone, a spokesman said. Hempstead Town’s app has about 2,500 users; the town now receives about a quarter of all service requests through the app or online forms.   

Some apps let users pay bills and fees or make a request for help with a problem — a flickering streetlight or blocked storm drain, for example — that’s geotagged and accompanied by a cellphone picture. Huntington pays $16,500 annually for its app and accompanying technology to manage residents' requests for service; Nassau County pays about $12,000 for its Nassau Now tech, which officials said they plan to revamp and expand in coming months. 

Smithtown’s app doesn't cost the town anything, but does not offer those features. Garguilo said town officials may add them in the future but hope first to get feedback from about 400 users who have downloaded the app.

From a public safety perspective, at least, officials say the app can be a valuable tool, partly because of cellphones’ ubiquity. “We live in such a mobile age now that people are sitting in their own living rooms using a handheld device to look up information,” said John Gonzales, the Smithtown Public Safety Department communications technician who built the app over three months of part-time work. “Think about having access to tens of thousands of users in an emergency situation.”

Jessica Bertinoia, vice president of Qscend Technologies, a Waterbury, Connecticut, company that built apps for North Hempstead, Huntington and Hempstead Village, said that many of that company’s municipal clients use their apps as part of a broader approach to customer service or 311 technology that automatically routes residents’ emails, texts and tweets to the responsible employee. “What happens on the back end, is if the issue isn’t resolved, the system is going to be notifying people until it’s taken care of.”

Some early adopters are using similar technology to give residents more of a voice in budget and policy decisions, said Stephen Larrick, city partnerships lead at Stae, a Manhattan-based technology company that helps cities use municipal data. 

While the tech is getting cheaper and easier to use, the real work for government is "building two-way relationships, and that takes work,” he said.

Available on the Smithtown app:

  • archived meeting video
  • contact form for town departments
  • village and utility websites
  • weather and traffic

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