October 2006: Strategy + Innovation

A roundup of articles showcasing the latest IT initiatives.

Paper Cuts

As the administrator of state employees’ pension plans, the Arizona State Retirement System (ASRS) was drowning in a flood of documents, generated by its 420,000 members’ thickening files of employment-related paperwork.

Anxious to stem this tide of files and folders, stored on paper, microfilm and microfiche in increasingly expensive buildings around the organization’s Phoenix headquarters, the department began investigating ways to automate the time-consuming, tedious and costly process. After researching its options, ASRS opted for a solution based on a FileNet P8 platform, which was designed to streamline and automate business processes, access and manage all forms of content, and automate records management to help meet compliance needs.

“We have a file for every one of our members — whether they’re active, inactive or retired,” says Patrick O’Keefe, network information systems manager at ASRS. “The membership files typically get very large when somebody has been with a department for a long time.”

The department rolled out the FileNet system to support one program, and is now expanding the project to encompass all of its records, O’Keefe says. “They have a very rich set of APIs [Application Programming Interfaces], so the interface is phenomenal,” he adds.

The results were also phenomenal: The department was able to reassign 18 of its 28 employees, and employees seeking information now receive it in about 10 days, compared with six to eight weeks previously, O’Keefe says. — Alison Diana

Oregon Legislator Stumps for Open Source Software

For more than three years, a member of Oregon’s House of Representatives has been trying to ensure that open source software is given careful consideration for all new software acquisitions.

Introduced by Representative Phil Barnhart, a Democrat representing Central Lane and Linn counties, the proposed legislation would require state agencies to not only review the use of open source software, but also to provide justification to taxpayers if they elected to buy proprietary software.

“Oregon could save millions of dollars, while achieving very high reliability in its computing needs,” Barnhart says.

The U.S. Department of Defense uses open source software because of its security attributes and reliability. Rhode Island is switching to open source software, while several other states are considering it, Barnhart says.

When the House reconvenes in January, Barnhart plans to raise the issue once again.

“He introduced open source legislation in the last few sessions, but it got held up in committee,” said Jared Mason-Gere, Barnhart’s legislative assistant. “He thinks open source will save the government quite a bit of money and will help it alter its IT systems to better meet its needs.”— Alison Diana

New Jersey Puts Affordable Housing Online

For lower-income citizens, finding affordable and accessible housing has always been a challenge. However, an innovative Web-based service introduced by the state of New Jersey is opening the door to a more efficient match of property owners and prospective renters and buyers.

The New Jersey Housing Resource Center (www.njhousing.gov) lets landlords and sellers list their offerings at no cost, while providing free searches for citizens. The site, which relies on technology and support from Socialserv.com , a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people access affordable housing and support services, has tabulated more than 2 million searches and has matched more than 5,200 renters and buyers with properties since its introduction in August 2005.

“The Housing Resource Center site has eliminated what was a hit-or-miss proposition,” says Susan Bass Levin, commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.

The agency lists as many as 1,100 units at any given moment, and offers the ability to search on 90 criteria and view photos. Moreover, those without online access can call a toll-free number and speak with a live agent, who can also mail listings or walk callers through the process over the phone. — Samuel Greengard

State Security Grants

At a time of heightened security, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices has awarded grants of $25,000 to six states to help them improve their information-sharing technologies.

The grant program, funded by the U. S. Department of Justice, is designed to help states build on promising practices in areas where there remains tremendous opportunity for improvement in justice information sharing, says Erin Lee, program director of the association’s Homeland Security & Technology Division.

Michigan, for example, will use the funds to support its Statewide Network of Agency Photos (SNAP), a digital-image database of mug shots, scars, tattoos and other identifying marks. Alabama has earmarked the grant to finance a pilot program to demonstrate the interstate sharing of critical justice-related information.

Delaware, Illinois, South Carolina and Wisconsin are the other grant recipients.

“Each state came up with innovative ways to use technology to support [its] information-sharing initiatives,” Lee says. — Alison Diana

High-Tech Bus System

The transit authority that serves the 250-plus square miles of Florida’s Hillsborough County will soon kick off an ambitious project that includes computer-aided dispatch, on-board video camera surveillance and vehicle tracking.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) in Tampa will spend $9.2 million — federal grant money it has saved over several years — to create the system, developed by Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Transportation Management Systems and various value-added resellers.

“Over the last eight years, we have been assembling funds to equip our entire fleet of 300 vehicles to improve communications between them and our dispatch center,” says Justin Begley, HART’s operations project manager. The 18-month project will improve fleet radio communications and set up global positioning systems that will enable dispatch to keep track of each vehicle on screens at its operations center, he adds.

Orbital should begin installing the new system, starting with a camera set up in a pilot bus, in the next eight to 10 months, Begley says. The authority anticipates that the new system — similar to one developed by Orbital that the City of Los Angeles expects will pay for itself in five years — will improve driver and rider safety, increase productivity, and cut down on meritless lawsuits and workers’ compensation suits. — Alison Diana

311 System Springs Into Action

For citizens, dialing into local government for nonemergency information can seem like a journey into a bureaucratic abyss. However, a growing number of municipalities, including Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston and Miami, are taking action. They’re establishing 311 services, which allow callers to access local government information for everything from potholes to a barking dog.

“It’s asking a lot for people to navigate through thousands of phone numbers in a directory,” says Kathleen MacKenzie, a councilwoman for Denver’s 7th District and chair of the city’s Technology Services Committee. Denver went live with its 311 system in July and is already receiving 5,000 calls per day.

The first local implementation of the 311 number was by the Baltimore Police Department in 1996. Since then, the use of nonemergency numbers has grown significantly.

In September 2005, Miami-Dade County switched on a 311 service that links 36 municipalities. With a database of 11,000 topics, it handles approximately 150,000 calls per month.

“There is no more red tape,” says Becky Jo Glover, assistant director for the county’s government information center. “We provide the information people need without needless transfers and long waits.” — Samuel Greengard

Real-Time Transit Information

Technology that offers real-time transit information — such as digital display signs that post the time until the next train or bus arrives — is common in many countries and is gradually being implemented in the United States. Some smaller U.S. transit authorities already have such technology in place, and larger entities are beginning to deploy systems that provide real-time information.

In August, the Chicago Transit Authority launched its Bus Tracker pilot program, which monitors CTA buses in real time and provides estimated bus arrival times. The tracking system uses global positioning system (GPS) technology to identify bus locations and provide that information to customers via a dedicated Web site and one light-emitting diode (LED) display located at a bus shelter.

The move to real-time transit systems is a “very positive trend,” says Alan Pisarski, an independent transportation consultant based in Falls Church, Va. “I think most of the people in the profession recognize the fact that waiting times are often given a much heavier weight by travelers than actual time in motion,” he notes. “Anything that can be done to solve that is very positive.”

The CTA is testing Bus Tracker on a single bus route and at one bus stop along the route. The authority has developed a Web site to enable people to track bus locations from notebook computers and Web-enabled personal digital assistants.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is using a Web-based vehicle location reporting system that uses GPS and wireless communication to enable passengers and traffic controllers to get accurate information on the whereabouts of buses. Called NextBus, it is being rolled out fleetwide through 2007. It provides real-time vehicle location information accessible via computers and cell phones. — Bob Violino

Oct 31 2006