Future-Proofing City Services with Low-Code
To better serve its community and meet business needs, the City of Rochester leverages Mendix to standardize development and upgrade its internal databases.
Today, the public sector faces increased pressure to improve citizen experiences with the help of technology. With digital solutions, governments can modernize their IT infrastructure, automate business processes, and improve citizen development. However, lean technology budgets and a competitive labor market often make execution a challenge.
Situated in Upstate New York, the City of Rochester is home to nearly 200,000 people with over 3,500 employees dedicated to serving its citizens. Historically the City’s in-house development team would deliver software with traditional code, and when they couldn’t, teams would defer to manual work and paper processes to carry out their services.
The City’s technology leaders saw a pressing need to address this paradigm in software delivery. In 2022 their team adopted the Mendix low-code platform and has since improved project management, standardized their development, and delivered a rapid response tool for its Crisis Services department.
Meeting Digital Solution Demand
Data and Digital Services Manager Chris Kight oversees the City of Rochester’s technology projects. When he joined one year ago, he realized that Mendix would help fill the gaps in the city’s development strategy.
“The city was deep into building in-house solutions. There wasn’t any real oversight, feedback, or understanding of what everyone else was doing,” Kight said. “The IT team was learning firsthand the risk of building so much in-house without having a plan for how to support it in the long-term.”
“Now, there’s a score of solutions that we consider part of our technical debt. It’s a three-year backlog,” he added. The city saw a low-code platform being a resource-efficient way to deliver the solutions they needed and minimize the IT team’s backlog.
Before Mendix, the digital services team relied on Power Apps to deliver bespoke digital solutions, but not without limitations – difficult configuration, high cost, outdated design, and lack of integration capabilities held them back.
“There are better opportunities for integration and better ways to solve problems that don’t involve people having to get a Microsoft 365 license. PowerApps didn’t bring enough value to merit the costs we’d be paying in licensing fees as we expanded.”
In 2022 the city began exploring new enterprise-grade alternatives to combat siloed software development and digitize manual employee work. They eventually decided on Mendix due to its:
- Compatibility and integration capabilities with other systems
- Flexibility and version control
- Alignment with agile principles
- Leadership in analyst reports
- Cost-effective pricing as the city scales out its users
“Power Apps doesn’t support that kind of approach. It’s much easier for us to see what work people are doing in Mendix, which was new for the team,” he added.
A Digital Solution for Times of Crisis
The City of Rochester selected a flagship use-case to demonstrate the potential for Mendix to the broader organization by providing support to a critical citizen-facing team: the Crisis Intervention Services (CIS) unit.
The unit is made up of the Person in Crisis Team, Homicide Response Team, and Community Support Team. Formed in 2020, this group of dedicated individuals provide “response, support, intervention and resource information to those affected by crisis, trauma, and crime.” Their purview also extends to:
- Citizen training and professional development
- Workshops and speaking engagements
- Community outreach
- 24/7 support which can be carried out in-person, on-site, over the phone, and through walk-ins
Leading this unit is Alia Henton-Williams, who has dedicated over 30 years to serving her community. “It’s very important for us to streamline our work and to follow best practices and processes. We know that it’s in the best interest of our community to remain true to what we do and ensure our service delivery is top-notch,” she said.
However, accurately capturing and tracking the work of the CIS team was a challenge, as Henton-Williams and her team had to rely on paper note-taking and then force-fit this information into a system that was being borrowed from another department.
The CIS team has been using iCarol on loan from the city’s Monroe County 211 team for case management since 2020. As a basic contact management system, iCarol doesn’t provide the data management capabilities the CIS team need to meet their new goals.
“It’s an off-the-shelf piece of software,” said Shalimar Lake, a Data and Digital Services Developer for the city. “The big thing this team was lacking was an ability to get data about their cases easily.”
“We had to use what was there,” Henton-Williams explained. “We were able to make adjustments, but it was constantly adding along the way, and we would have to ask someone else to add it for us.”
The CIS unit needed a curated solution versus a borrowed system with limitations. In January 2023 the City of Rochester began developing their first project, the DHRS Case Management application. They were able to build the solution in 9 months with platform training from the Mendix Expert Services team and working within the agile methodology.
The DHRS Case Management app supports roughly 40 users and leverages various integrations to capture basic citizen information, such as addresses, and feed the data to PowerBI. “These integrations will allow the CIS team to build custom reports off of the data they capture in the app from the field,” Lake said.
The app helps crisis workers with daily tasks like recording client issues, making referrals, tracking previous interactions, searching for addresses, noting court cases, and more. By streamlining these operations the CIS unit is better able to:
- Capture data about victims in a concise and standardized way. Employees can flow through cases quickly and make sure all the necessary information is included.
- Follow up with individuals after creating action plans based on the type of crisis they’ve experienced.
- Comply with privacy standards. By making the records specific to the CIS’ individual teams, information is only visible and accessible to those directly involved.
“The fields enable them to be more thorough. If they want to go to the next page, the system alerts them if details are missing and the forms prevent them from entering any unnecessary information,” Lake said.
By involving business users in the agile development process, the digital services team is ensuring that the DHRS application can have a community-wide impact. Henton-Williams is collaborating with the data and digital services team to ensure that the app is curated for the CIS unit’s unique needs and will help them more easily transition to paperless data capturing.
On the collaboration between users and the development team, Lake said, “It’s going a lot smoother than other development projects I’ve been involved in because we were able to identify the team’s needs and wants more clearly at the onset. And that’s all thanks to our Expert Services consultant, Mina.”
“Before, we had a very minimal understanding of the requirements to make agile work, but agile allowed us to collaborate with Alia more frequently to discuss important features and address things quickly,” he added.
The DHRS Case Management app offers an improved design, better UI/UX, and allows for more flexibility. “It’s very user-friendly, even for someone like me,” Henton-Williams said. “Technology isn’t my biggest strength but it’s easy to navigate because of how we’ve been able to build it.
“There’s a lot of flexibility for our input that makes it easier for us all around. The experts and developers have been very open to implementing our suggestions,” she added.
“It’s the most that the users have been involved in developing a solution,” Kight shared. “Collaboration has improved leaps and bounds.”
Building a Maintainable IT Strategy
Kight’s overarching goal was to create a maintainable IT strategy that could survive as employees left the city or their user needs evolved. He joined the team after Mendix was already selected by city leadership and quickly created a plan to better leverage Mendix as the city’s new low-code tool.
To accomplish this, Kight put an emphasis on enablement and sent select team members to a Mendix Rapid App Development course to bring learnings back to the rest of the team. He also enlisted Mendix Expert Services to further articulate the value of Mendix and create best practices around developing within the platform.
“We needed to build out the development process structure so that we could base everything on that same foundation moving forward,” Kight elucidated.
Lake recognizes that these efforts helped broaden the range of challenges the digital services team can now address with Mendix. “Coming in, I was less excited for the tool itself and more excited to be doing application development. That’s changed. I’m actually excited to use Mendix now to make a change.”
Providing his employees with tools to perform better also broadened the range of people Kight could bring onto the team. “Now we can hire people who don’t have a seasoned software engineering background because we’ve got low-code tools that are making it easier to support our solutions,” he said.
A new IT approach is also helping the City of Rochester transition away from outdated systems. “We’re trying to standardize our development process in Mendix,” Lake said.
Mendix will be key to solving the city’s enterprise-level business problems. “I’m hoping that my team can transition from building out these low-code solutions as our primary value add to moving into the configuration side of enterprise solutions,” Kight explained.
“That way we’re supporting something the wider organization is using and we’re not creating add-ins that departments think of when they’re filling a gap. We’re helping them evangelize the system.”
Planning for City-Wide Impact
Low-code provides opportunities for cities to not only upgrade internal systems but also transform the way teams work together. By introducing new software like Mendix into the public sector, organizations like the City of Rochester can solve larger organization problems that better support city services.
For Henton-Williams, a fit-for-purpose digital tool will be a game changer for the CIS unit. “The most valuable thing for us is having our own internal system that will make us more efficient and able to address our citizen’s needs.”
“We have buy-in for the tool from our team because they’ve been a part of the process. This is going to improve our impact and our work because we’ll have the data we need to inform our priorities and planning. Crisis services is very new work across our country,” she said.
Now, securing buy-in from other key departments is a high priority for Kight. “I have more of a strategy around project prioritization. We’ve got about four other departments I want to make real wins for, because if we want to expand the use of Mendix, we need to provide value for those units. I’ve got the fire, police, and finance departments lined up,” he shared.
The digital services team already has a few Mendix applications under development, including one that will streamline the application process for Special Events across the city like block parties and festivals.
Today, the City of Rochester can think bigger with the addition of a more robust low-code platform. With new enterprise-grade capabilities and standardized development, Kight and his team are planning for the city’s future.