Getting Your Message Across

State and local IT leaders turn to virtual platforms such as Second Life to extend their reach.

State and local IT leaders turn to virtual platforms such as Second Life to extend their reach.

Second Life is getting a second look by a number of state and local civil servants.

The virtual reality platform, where individuals interact through avatars, offers unique social media options and the ability to quickly render complex 3D models. An early predecessor of Web 2.0, Second Life is just one option that state and local IT leaders can add to their arsenals as they attempt to deliver more interactivity to citizens but on a much tighter budget. “Second Life is a natural way to exercise the principles of Web 2.0, like collaboration and information sharing, and then creatively bring those principles to bear to provide better services to citizens,” says Barry Condrey, CIO of Chesterfield County, Va.

The problem with Web 2.0, according to Condrey, is that a lot of people think of it as technology. But as Condrey and his fellow IT chiefs emphasize, Web 2.0 is not about technology, it’s about working with other professionals and reaching citizens in new, faster and more effective ways.

To help bridge that gap, Bill Greeves co-founded MuniGov2.0. The group explores Web 2.0 technologies as an alternative means for interacting with citizens and sharing best practices with one another. After launching the group last fall and meeting weekly in Second Life, the members of MuniGov will host their first virtual conference in early April.

“The first thing we wanted to do was to generate more interest amongst our peers in Web 2.0 technology, and not just Second Life,” says Greeves, IT director for Roanoke County, Va. “Even if we never get to the point of using virtual modeling for most citizen interactions, MuniGov has created a great way for our people around the United States and the globe to communicate on a regular basis and exchange ideas that we never would have had the opportunity to do offline or via e-mail,” he says.

Natives Versus Immigrants

The MuniGov technologists hope to connect with citizens who want to interact more often and more effectively with government. “The millennial digital natives of today are the citizens of tomorrow, and they will not get into their cars to drive downtown to get a building permit,” says Condrey. “But there are also the digital immigrants, who discovered the web late in life, and they may want to see a person in person. We have to serve both communities.”

Pam Broviak understands the limitations of a city hall that’s only open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. As the city engineer and director of public works for the city of LaSalle, Ill., Broviak knows that a lot of her citizens undertake home repairs in the evenings and on weekends. She offers the example of a homeowner contending with a sewer backup in his basement. The best time to visit city hall for help is when a problem occurs, she says, whether or not city hall is open.

With tools such as Second Life, “it opens up the opportunity to communicate with government at any time, so you’re not stuck in the 9-to-5-only scenario. City hall is now open 24x7,” Broviak says.

Second Life proved useful in communicating a sewer pipe issue to LaSalle residents last year. The town experienced flooding, and poorly designed plumbing didn’t help. Using Second Life, Broviak diagramed the problem — and a solution.

“The strength of virtual worlds is that you can simulate things that are not easily simulated in the real world,” says Oliver Young, a social media analyst at Forrester. “Modeling in the virtual world is quite effective.”

To help LaSalle residents, Broviak created two different plumbing models in Second Life. The first showed current problematic plumbing architecture that caused sewage to back up through a floor drain. The second showed how to disconnect the sewer pipe to prevent the backup (see sidebar).

“It is usually fairly difficult for someone to understand through just explaining it, and even a sketch is hard to follow,” she says. “But if you have the 3D image, it is easier to see, and it can also be given to a plumber who will understand how to replumb the piping.”

She would like to continue using the site’s modeling capability to showcase other problems and fixes and hopes to make the city’s building code available in a virtual building eventually.

Alternate World

Leslie Fuentes, IT director for the City of Hampton, Va., is also interested in the virtual modeling aspects of Second Life.

Facing a dramatically trimmed budget, she’s hoping to use the virtual platform to create training scenarios for the city’s paramedics. “It may be a way to train them on how to respond to and treat patients, and to get them quickly trained on new treatments,” she says.

Fuentes joined the MuniGov2.0 group last November, hoping to find out about new options for delivering services via the web at low costs. But Second Life isn’t her only web-based bet.

To contend with cuts to the help desk, her staff is creating a self-service site, requiring users to put in their own tickets, which are triaged by IT.

Roanoke’s Greeves also believes virtual training could help reduce costs and also make it easier and faster to train public servants in new skills, such as giving firefighters practice dousing flames in buildings set ablaze.

“Burn buildings are expensive to start up and maintain,” Greeves says. “A virtual burn will not take the place of an actual one, but it could be that middle step between classroom instruction and on-the-job learning in an actual fire situation.”

Along with the technologies, MuniGov2.0 is partnering with CDW•G as well. “This is a group of leading-edge technology innovators, and as Web 2.0 becomes more prevalent with our customers, we want to stay current with their needs,” says Joe Mangano, a field sales manager with CDW•G’s state and local government team. “This group is looking to do things better, faster and cheaper, and as part of the group, CDW•G can learn to understand their challenges and leverage our company’s resources to bring technology solutions to them to help meet their business goals.”

Though useful, cheap and accessible, many are concerned about Second Life’s reputation of attracting unsavory visitors and XXX virtual worlds. “Second Life has a mixture of business and personal content, which makes it risky for many companies to use,” says Forrester’s Young. “Second Life is trying to clean up its act and create a contained virtual red-light district because that aspect of the site scares business users.”

Broviak acknowledges that concern and offers this recommendation: “There are unsavory places in everyone’s community. Just because there’s a bad section of town doesn’t mean you don’t visit the town; you just avoid that area.”

Greeves concurs, and that’s why he feels MuniGov is the right place for civil servants to start, if they’re interested in learning more about the virtual platform. “There are seedy parts to Second Life,” he warns. “So, you want to work with people who know their way around, and that’s one thing that MuniGov is providing to the state and local civil servants who come to Second Life. We want to avoid disappointments and empower them.”

Low-Cost Experiment

When it comes to disseminating information, many organizations are testing the social media waters. Besides Second Life, Chesterfield County is experimenting with Facebook and Twitter to see if county residents wish to receive information via those tools. The county isn’t alone: The Federal Reserve Bank of New York is also trying out Twitter, a messaging utility.

Not surprisingly, social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter are growing in popularity. “175 million users is nothing to sneeze at,” says Young, though he acknowledges that business and government are hesitant to apply the technology broadly because of security concerns. “For government, there is value in making useful data and content available in an easy way, and in the short term — due to costs — social media sites are a logical choice.”

More Than a Virtual Fix

In LaSalle, Ill., some residents often experience water backups in their basements during heavy rain. It happens because some storm sewers are still connected to the sanitary sewers, creating a combined system. When it rains, excess water backs up into basements through floor drains (Figure 1).

To prevent this, residents can disconnect their upstairs plumbing from entering piping in the basement floor and instead discharge this water through a pipe that goes through the basement wall about three feet below the ground. If they have any basement plumbing, they can install a sump pit in the basement floor and collect all the flow in the sump. A pump would then take water from this pit and send it through the same pipe that discharges out the basement wall three feet below ground. This pipe eventually drops back into the person’s sewer — but outside the home (Figure 2).

After making this change, water still backs up when it rains but usually does not rise high enough to get into the pipe that’s now three feet below ground. Even if it were to flow back into the pump in the sump pit, there is a check valve that prevents water from backing up through the pump.

Apr 06 2009