Smartphone app could bring town information to residents’ fingertips

PARIS— The look is familiar: head lowered, hands at belly-button level, fingers blazing as they type on a three-inch LCD screen; a smartphone is being used to communicate information. As usage booms in the United States, apps for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pandora encourage users to freely share their life on customizable platforms.

The Town of Paris, Maine? Well, there may soon be an app for that.

Town officials are considering bringing the issue before selectmen whether to develop an app allowing users to access town-wide information, pay bills, and even report nuisances – say a pothole on Ryerson Hill – all from their finger tips.

Earlier this month Town Manager Amy Bernard attended a virtual conference with Provo, Utah-based Parlant Technology Inc., a company specializing in designing apps for school districts, towns and cities, and associations whose members are looking for real-time updates and reminders.

‘It works very well and there’s very minimal work on our end. It syncs with our website and Facebook. I wanted to let the board know I was approached,’ Bernard said.

The company’s municipal product, CloudSpeaker, allows users who’ve downloaded the app to individualize the information they received about the town to their tastes. Want to know when the latest budget committee meeting is, license a dog, be notified of impending or get Facebook updatesfrom Paris’ Facebook page? According to company spokesperson Adam Bushman, the program digs for reports and notices that can be hard to find, putting them one click away.

While Paris already uses a Facebook page and website, the move toward smartphones reflects demographic trends: according to a Pew Research poll released in December, 55 percent of American adults own a smartphone, and among cell phone owners – 91 percent of Americans – 61 percent are smartphones.

Translating this information into practical advice for towns, Bushman said the app makes life simpler for residents to stay in touch.

‘We live in a busy world, our attention is always being stretched, and a lot of times if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. The mobile app allows people to live in the present, be aware of where they are, and what they’re doing,’ Bushman said.

The key to its success, Bushman said, is not unlimited information, but the right kind. The app functions by allowing users to tailor what notifications they receive a town derived, pre-approved list of topics. According to Busman the town maintains the list, creating or retracting topics they think residents will most want to use.

‘As a resident, some of that might be very important to me, some of it might not be important at all,’ he said.

Bushman said the company wants the app to be useful to residents, enticing them to return it time after time.

‘One of the things we’ve observed as we’ve been putting apps out there…the apps that keep people coming back over and over again, are the apps that are the most relevant, and the most personalized.’

Once a town publishes new information pertinent to a user, an alert is sent to their phone.

‘Instead of having to wade through a bunch of things you don’t care about, you can see the stuff that’s important to you. We live in an attention economy they say, where the most scarce resource is time and attention.’

According to the Pew Research Center poll, computers remain widely used among adults – 78 percent – though growth in thier ownership is decelerating in comparison to smartphones, a trend Bushman believes will continue in the future.

‘We think there’ll be a time when everybody will own a smartphone,’ he said.

There’s minimal research on the number of Maine, or Oxford County, smartphone users. Research from the Pew poll shows the majority of smarthphone users are generally young, between 18 and 24 years old; according to a 2010 Maine Census, roughly 16 percent of the population in Paris falls into the same age bracket. About 20 percent of Paris residents are 65 or older, with whom smart-phone usage is 18 percent.

Unlike apps that cost money to download, Parlant charges municipalities $.5 per househ old to implement CloudSpeaker according to Bernard. With over 2,000 households in Paris, that’s about $1,000.

Paris has yet to take up the issue at a selectmen’s meeting, and calls to chairman Robert Kirchherr were not returned by press time. Bernard said she’s informed selectmen about the app, and it’s up to them to decide if they want to go ahead.

‘It’s worked well for towns even much smaller than us,’ Bernard said.

At the moment the company doesn’t have any other Maine clients, though Bernard said she spoke to town managers across the state who said they had been approached.