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Our Council wants to improve communication between local councils and residents

Dealing with government agencies for various services is never exactly a barrel of laughs, but luckily, for most of us, our main dealings with them revolve around the occasional visit to Medicare or Centrelink to sort out paperwork, or renewing a license – until it comes to council services.

From requesting a garbage service to reporting a maintenance issue at your local park or even searching the council library catalogue, searching for information on the average council website usually takes at least three times longer than it should because the website is stuck in 2003.

NSW startup Our Council wants to drag local councils around Australia into 2016 through the creation of an app that puts all the information a resident would ever need or want to know about their local government services into an easy to read and easy to search format.

Founder Pia Jackson describes Our Council as a “positive communication” app for councils, with its main aim to help residents discover information about local services, whether they be events, the change in date of a garbage collection, or the status of development applications going through council, as well as give feedback or make inquiries about different issues.

Jackson originally came up with the idea a couple of years ago through her work with local government.

“I’ve seen a need for the younger generations to have more communication between councils and themselves as communities, and we’re all wanting everything in our pockets so I thought an app would be a useful idea,” she said.

“Often Government websites are very complicated because they have to put on so much information and that is very hard as well. So I’ve tried to simplify it for all generations as well as having all the content there.”

Living in a small town in the Snowy Mountains, Jackson said she was pushed to make the idea of the app a reality because, while big city councils may have the staff and expertise available to build something similar, she has seen that smaller towns don’t.

“Rural and regional communities don’t have that, but we still want to be connected with everybody else,” she said.

Having first begun talking to developers about the idea in April 2014, Jackson said the response from councils has shifted over the last two years.

“I’ve been to a lot of annual general conferences over the last two years, and a lot of councils are very interested in technology but some of them are quite scared by it due to their lack of knowledge or the fact they are of an older generation, so it’s been a process of sort of educating them around that technology,” Jackson said.

“Some say, we don’t want that now, we’ve just got Facebook, and you think to yourself, how long has Facebook been around? That’s very trying for the public, who want to get this information at that exact time. Councils are kind of archaic in their way of thinking, but they really need to bring their thinking forward to meet their public’s needs.”

Over the last six months, however, Jackson said interest around the app has “started to explode”, with a number of councils around NSW showing interest.

“NSW is going through a lot of changes with the amalgamation of local councils, and I think a lot of people are realising that the information, whether it’s there or not, should be easily accessed, and that’s their thinking around it; if they are going to change, they need to change and do it properly, and come around full circle to where their public is,” she said.

Jackson’s original vision for Our Council was to create bespoke apps for individual councils, but recently decided to launch a general app incorporating information about various councils, and then offer a white labelled version specific to individual councils should they want one.

While the general app could technically work through information Our Council obtains from council websites itself, Jackson said it will incorporate data obtained from the councils directly only.

“Whether or not you can find that sort of information on their websites, when it comes to that information being in everyone’s pockets on a smartphone, and being able to push through notifications about road works or water main breaks, for example, a partnership is key to be able to do that,” Jackson said.

“Councils could ask to put in the waste services, all the tip opening hours, if there’s an election you could have all your councils put all their voting information in there. It will be a little bit different for each town – obviously my small town will be slightly different to say Randwick Council for example – but in general, all those services and things that the community want to be involved with will be available as a blanket to all councils,” she said.

Jackson, who has self funded the development of Our Council thus far, is hoping to provide the general app free to users and monetise it in some other way. She said she has also been careful to create an app that can be of use to a broad age group, from young couples in their first home through to seniors.

The app will be available to users over the next month or so, with Jackson hoping to launch with at least four councils on board.

Image: Pia Jackson. Source: Supplied.





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