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Dream I.T. Projects

Five government IT executives talk about their ideal projects — and some formidable roadblocks — in StateTech's first City IT Wish List. Dream on.

COME ON...DREAM A LITTLE. You know you've got a killer IT project in mind that would make your city the model of efficiency.

Perhaps you want Wi-Fi to cover the entire city, or you want to equip all government employees with mobile technology that can transmit city data to anyone — instantly. You might want to have leading-edge GIS (geographic information system) capabilities that can pinpoint trouble down to the manhole cover on the street. Or you may wish the city had surveillance cameras posted on busy street corners to thwart crime.

Maybe the dream is more citizen-focused. Do you wish every book in the city’s libraries was available in digital form? Or do you want residents to be able to pay late utility bills by cash or check without going to city hall?

The five government technology executives interviewed here have their own IT dreams, and they’re working through the roadblocks that impede these pet projects. With the vision and leadership of government IT staff, these Wish List projects are headed toward reality.

1. CREATING A MESH SAFETY NET
LEMONT, ILL. POPULATION: 50,000

The village of Lemont, in Cook County, Ill., is home to businesses and government agencies that house hazardous materials. Argonne National Laboratory, one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s largest multidisciplinary research centers, resides on the north side of town. An oil refinery operates several miles to the west of downtown, and the Sanitary and Ship Canal cuts through the middle of the city. “There are a lot of potential hazards,” says Jim Orange, village network administrator for the Lemont Fire Protection District.

Dream Project: Install a full wireless mesh network covering 44 square miles to help all village agencies communicate and access information in the event of a hazardous materials disaster.

Lt. Dave Boersema, a network co-administrator, got the wireless ball rolling in 2002 when he led the installation of a broadband wireless system for fire department communication. Now, the city is looking to migrate to a mesh network that features capabilities not found in first-generation Wi-Fi-based systems.

A mesh network operates by bouncing radio frequency signals between access points and repeater devices. This would be especially useful to Lemont because of its uneven terrain. The system would require mobile Tablet PCs for police, fire and public works employees and district schools.

“We would like to be able to access online information about different types of chemicals and weather information,” Orange says. The village also wants to make available its computer-aided design database — which keeps blueprints of all district buildings — in all emergency vehicles. Eventually, the network would expand to offer Wi-Fi services to businesses in the village, as well as providing wireless hot spots in all public areas.

Estimated Initial Cost: $2.5 million to $3 million

Benefits: The mesh network would provide the village with real-time access to files, audio from 911 dispatches and video from security cameras. Schematics of any affected buildings could be viewed instantly by typing in the address. The village also wants to communicate with 911 callers through the mesh network.

“Right now we can hear [a call] through one of our stations,” Orange says. “But we would like to transmit that among all [four] stations” and out to police squad cars. Reaction time would decrease, he adds, if the caller were talking directly with an incident commander in the field.

ROI: Streamlining communication will result in an impressive return on investment (ROI): It will save time and money — and perhaps will even save lives. And when the Wi-Fi system is complete, Lemont residents will get wireless capabilities free (for students) or at a nominal fee.

Estimated Staffing: The village would add four or five IT employees to maintain and manage the system once it is implemented.

Schedule: Orange hopes to see the network running for public safety functions by October 2006 and have the entire village equipped with Wi-Fi by early 2007.

Potential Roadblocks: Funding. “There was talk of a referendum [to fund the project],” Orange says. The village and the fire district are also looking into funding from mesh network vendors, and grants from the Department of Homeland Security are being considered as well. “Money is tight everywhere,” Orange says.

2. CONNECTING WITH CITIZENS
OGDEN, UTAH POPULATION: 80,000
Jay Brummett

It’s very common for citizens in Ogden, Utah, to approach the mayor or a city council member and complain that they “told the city” many times about a neighbor’s possible zoning violation or suspected criminal activity down the street, says Jay Brummett, chief technology officer. In reality, that citizen has complained to the garbage collector, water meter reader or some other city employee who often doesn’t know what to do with the information.

Getting information from a citizen to the right agency for action “is sometimes very difficult,” according to Brummett.

Dream Project: Ogden officials want to implement a complete, integrated information lifecycle management system that manages the acquisition of information from city workers in the field — public safety, parks and recreation, and sanitation employees — and channels it to city offices. Data would then be recompiled and routed to the agency or person who could act on it. For starters, this would require new servers, wireless connectivity, voice recognition systems and mobile communications devices for field workers.

Estimated Initial Cost: Brummett says the city is spending in the mid-six figures to develop and deploy its own field applications. Each project has been approved on a case-by-case basis where the ROI can be clearly identified, he adds.

Benefits: Ogden’s first efforts to share city data have already yielded impressive results. More than a year ago, the city learned that rental properties use three to seven times more police and fire services than single-owner residential properties. So the city took data from water, zoning, police and business license databases to find out where most problems arose and how to fix them.

With that data, Ogden launched its Good Landlord Program, which requires participating landlords to take an eight-hour course taught by police officials on implementing lease agreements, evicting problem tenants and doing background checks on renters. In return for taking the course, landlords are refunded all but $13 of a $186 impact fee per rental unit that the city usually charges to offset the disproportionate cost of emergency calls.

ROI: Burglaries, robberies and other crimes involving victims at rental properties fell 24 percent. Police and fire calls fell 6 percent. By expanding the sharing of city information on a larger scale, Brummett hopes for similar results in additional areas.

Estimated Staffing: The Good Landlord Program didn’t require new IT staff, but was part of a shift in focus from technology to business processes. “We’re utilizing technology to increase citizen services while reducing costs,” Brummett says.

Schedule: 36 months

Potential Roadblocks: Funding and conversion of technology. The costs of high-performance systems such as Tablet PCs, voice recognition systems, smart phones and various wireless technologies are coming down. “[Now] our vendors who serve the government sector have to conceive, develop, test and field the applications” that can bring a common format to all of the city’s data and make it easily accessible from all types of wireless devices, Brummett says. “We’ve got all the pieces,” he adds. “We just need to put them together.”

3. KIOSKS HELP RESIDENTS PAY BILLS
DENTON, TEXAS POPULATION: 100,000
(PLUS 35,000 COLLEGE STUDENTS EACH YEAR)
Alex Pettit

As the world moves toward transactions made primarily with credit and debit cards, the majority of residents in Denton, Texas, still prefer to pay their bills with cash or checks. That’s because many are students at the city’s two universities and one college, and they often split the utility bills with roommates. Others are low-income families, many of whom don’t have a credit card or access to a computer.

What’s more, as in many cities, some residents need a warning that their gas or electricity will be turned off if they don’t pay a bill. This ties up customer service representatives and the technicians who must disconnect the service and then reconnect it when the bill is paid.

Alex Pettit, Denton’s chief technology officer, wondered, “How do you reach this group that doesn’t have the financial instruments to pay? It’s a difficult thing for us to do — but it would be a huge benefit for them and for the city.”

Dream Project: Install conveniently located kiosks that let residents pay utility bills by cash or check. About a dozen self-service kiosks would be located wherever they would be helpful, says Pettit, such as at a shopping mall, inside a recreation center or in the universities’ student unions.

Estimated Initial Cost: Denton has piloted a kiosk inside its city hall for $25,000. Pettit estimates additional kiosks would cost $15,000 to $20,000 each.

Benefits: The piloted kiosk took in $100,000 in bill payments. Future kiosks will help residents pay bills more conveniently and reduce the city’s customer service costs.

Using kiosks to receive payments prompted the city to look at how it makes payments to its payroll. The question became, “How do we pay people without having to cut them a check — especially people without a bank account?” Pettit is considering paying those employees with some type of debit card. “With an entirely paperless transaction, I [would be] able to reduce costs and my exposure to fraud,” he explains.

ROI: The city spends $40 every time it has to roll out a truck to disconnect a city service. “To reconnect, I charge a fee, but every time I do that, it takes a customer service specialist, a technician and other resources,” Pettit explains. “If I can reduce that by making it more convenient for the resident [to pay bills], it’s enormously helpful to the city.” The kiosks could also reduce the number of hours employees spend working at the city’s bill payment office.

Estimated Staffing: Pettit plans to keep the staffing level as the city grows. “We should be at 200,000 [residents] by 2020,” he says. “We’re hoping the number of customer services reps can remain the same by reaching those groups with our technology.”

Schedule: Four years

Potential Roadblocks: Community acceptance. “It really depends on the shifts in the community,” Pettit explains.

“It took a lot of time for ATMs to get accepted here. Everybody used to go to the teller to get their business done. That’s the same path we’re going down. But as the price of labor goes up and cities become more conscious of costs, we’re looking at ways to drive toward self-service.”

4. ONE CITY — ONE ERP SYSTEM
MACON, GA. POPULATION: 95,000
Thomas Tourand

With the hopes of bringing its government offices into the 21st century, in 2001 the city of Macon, Ga., hired its first chief information and technology officer. Thomas Tourand, the new CIO, had helped perform similar magic during his tenure with the Atlanta city government.

In Macon, each city department has “disparate silos of software bought over the years,” Tourand explains. “We don’t have any unified work-order management systems or inventory control systems. Customer service is basically a modified word-processing document — no ticklers, no alerts, no tying of resources in projects.”

In addition, city executives don’t have a big-picture view of government operations because “the system doesn’t have the components it needs to give an intelligent report every month,” he adds.

Dream Project: Tourand wants to implement a single citywide enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, with built-in customer relationship management capabilities that would replace all the city’s disparate financial and human resources systems. It would also provide new capabilities that never existed in the city, such as work-order management, inventory control systems and reporting capabilities for an executive overview of city operations.

What’s more, the ERP system could perform some minor back-office functions that are now outsourced to the county’s IT staff. Macon currently pays the county to handle these outsourced functions.

Estimated Initial Cost: $1 million

Benefits: The system would streamline operations, save time and money, and unify city applications and processes.

ROI: Tourand estimates that the city’s investment would be returned in 18 to 36 months from the implementation date.

Estimated Staffing: The project would not require additional IT staff; existing workers would be retrained on the new system. “We would probably end up reducing staff citywide through attrition,” Tourand says.

The city government employs 1,500 people, including 750 IT system users. A single ERP system would also eliminate the training curve when employees move from one city department to another, Tourand says.

Schedule: There is no foreseeable completion date.

Potential Roadblocks: The city pulled funding for the proposed ERP project after it lost a large portion of a local optional sales tax, an add-on tax on retail purchases that the city once shared with the county. The move cost the city of Macon about $5 million in funds each year.

“[The ERP project] has been placed on the back burner,” Tourand says. “We’re stagnating at this point due to our financial structure.”

5. TRANSFORMING CITY SERVICES
ROANOKE, VA. POPULATION: 94,000
Roy Mentkow

Roy Mentkow knows firsthand the power of geographic information system technology. As director of the department of technology for the city of Roanoke, Va., Mentkow has watched the city’s GIS capabilities flourish utilizing ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute) software.

It all started in 2001 when the city put its initial real estate system on its Web site, primarily to provide parcel and tax information. Roanoke has since expanded GIS capabilities to include an integrated work-order system that helps city departments manage resources.

“GIS is a transforming technology,” Mentkow says. “It changes the way we do business and provide service to citizens.”

This spring, the city will launch Super Map on its Web site. This homegrown, browser-based program lets the public view nearly all the city’s available topographic information, such as school district boundaries, storm drain information and park locations. But Roanoke won’t stop there. Mentkow foresees the day when its GIS system will hold detailed information on every building, apartment complex, shopping mall and public building in the city.

Dream Project: Implement an emergency management system that utilizes GIS to respond to any natural or man-made disaster in the city’s 43-square-mile area by providing blueprints, gas and electricity routing maps, and other detailed information about any building or land parcel involved.

“It’s a massive undertaking, but if we could do that for the whole city — schools, post offices, hospitals — I would consider that a major accomplishment and something I feel is vitally important,” Mentkow says.

Estimated Initial Cost: Mentkow hasn’t crunched the numbers yet, but funding GIS projects doesn’t worry him, since past GIS projects have already shown extraordinary results. “When we go to city administrators and say, ‘GIS needs funding for these initiatives, and here’s what the results are going to be,’ it is well-supported.”

Benefits: In any emergency, building information would be available instantly to first responders.

ROI: Instant, up-to-date information would be available for emergency personnel, resulting in faster response times.

Estimated Staffing: Collecting data on every building for input into the GIS system would have to be well-planned and coordinated, and would require the help of temporary staff members. The city already has a GIS team to implement the system, but all city agencies would have to commit to keeping their building and land information up to date.

Schedule: Mentkow estimates the project would take years to complete. “You have database design, data collection, quality assurance — and then you need the support of external city departments to keep that current,” he says.

Potential Roadblocks: It all comes down to priorities, Mentkow says. The Super Map project launches in June, and then the IT staff will fine-tune the work-order system to make it hum with the GIS component. Next, the city will collect geographic attributes for all its streets.

“Given time, money and people, we can do anything,” Mentkow says.

Oct 31 2006

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