Buildings & Inspection #4 | Government & Technology

On my first visit to City Hall, my supervisor Scott decided to show us interns the bureau that dealt with Freedom of Information requests. He gathered us around a strange machine in a small, slightly claustrophobic room full of cabinets, pulled a small box out of a cabinet, and asked, “Does anyone know what this is?”

A hesitant silence. Then –

“Microfilm,” said Scott. “Used to preserve old documents, and also saves a lot of space. Not as prevalent nowadays – because now we just digitize everything – but you’ll find technology from a lot of different eras here. Some of it is state-of-the-art, but a lot tends to be older.”

I’m reminded of that day since lately we’ve been testing a new, long overdue version of the Elevator Inspection information management software. The current system is quite the workhorse, but sorely needed an update – it had no copy and paste capability, among other technical performance drawbacks. Unrelated but also of note is the fact that it was rocking an aesthetic straight out of Windows 95 – which, as I later found to my delight, was code-named “Chicago”.

The new version comes in two parts. The front-end part is a website for inspection companies and building owners to add elevators, request inspections, and conduct other business. All of their changes and requests get transferred to the back-end, a database of all the elevators in Chicago that need to be inspected, along with information about the buildings they’re housed in and their inspection histories.

The front-end was designed to be intuitive, and during testing sessions it proved to be very much so. Whether testing as a company or a building owner, the page layout and formatting made it clear which buttons to click, what to type, and so on, all without the help of a manual. However, some test scenarios – such as a web account holder suddenly leaving a company, account admins deleting each other from the company, and conflicts of interest between building owners and inspection companies – showed that safeguards were needed to prevent users from messing up the system. There needed to be a balance between making the system easy to use, and making the system easy to misuse.

The back-end was more equipped to deal with lots of data. By my supervisor’s count there are roughly 10,000 elevators in the City of Chicago – which sounds like the answer to a interview question Google might ask, by the way – and each elevator was linked to a building, a manufacturer, an address, an owner, and other information. The back-end was designed to sift through all this information to make searching easier and quicker, and also to make entering information faster. However, because the back-end was designed to deal with data first, it’s much less user-friendly than the front-end. This means a steep learning curve for the people who have to record results – the inspectors! Here, there needed to be a balance between the data-intensive needs of the system and the ergonomic needs of the inspectors.

The site goes live in three weeks. In the meantime, testing continues, and the inspectors keep working on the old system until they receive training to use the new one. I can’t help but imagine the backlash when the inspectors moved from file cabinets of paper and microfilm to the (then) state-of-the-art Windows 95 system, but now they’ll have to do it again. An innovation becomes a standard, a standard becomes obsolete.

Then it gets used for government work! (I kid.) And the cycle begins anew.

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