Out of Necessity Springs Innovation

When the city of Corpus Christi, Texas, couldn't afford to buy cell phones for all its police force, IT solved the problem by deploying Voice over IP softphones.

Like many municipalities, the city of Corpus Christi, Texas, is faced with a substantial budget deficit. As local governments' financial conditions become more and more difficult, the need for innovation increases.

When you can't purchase a solution, sometimes all it takes is a little creative problem solving. For example, the Corpus Christi Police Department needed mobile phone service for our uniform patrol supervisors, but we couldn't afford to buy or lease cell phones and the accompanying service charges. We solved the problem inexpensively by using hardware and software we already had.

Creative Calling

Innovation is the use of people, processes and/or technology to create new value from previous investments in materials, knowledge and experience. Innovation lies in the middle of a continuum, with invention (or the creation of something new) at one extreme, and optimization (making what exists more useful or efficient) at the other. Innovation tends to happen at the edges of things, such as when multiple technologies intersect. Innovation happens because someone is dissatisfied with a product or process or because there is a problem to be solved and a solution cannot be bought.

Our softphone solution came about because our police department's uniform division supervisors needed phone service on the go. Though supervisors in other divisions are given cellular phones paid for by the department, the budget doesn't allow for it for that division.

The supervisors contact parties with complaints and questions on a daily basis, so they had been using personal cell phones and incurring out-of-pocket costs the city didn't cover. What's more, this created privacy concerns because officers had to supply citizens with their personal phone numbers.

During a casual discussion among three or four people, the problem was redefined to focus on how to provide voice communication, and not how to afford cellular phones. The "aha!" moment came when the group realized the city was already providing voice services on its wired and Wi-Fi networks.

Corpus Christi uses a Cisco Voice over IP system and recently upgraded the phone system at the police department. All notebooks used in public safety are connected to our network via AirCard modems and NetMotion virtual private networks.

In an attempt to provide phone service for the patrol supervisors, we installed Cisco softphone software in a test vehicle. The phone administrator created a test number for the vehicle. On the first test of the equipment, we used a stereo headset with a boom microphone and it worked. All calls to internal city lines and external phone numbers were clear, and there was no noticeable latency in voice transmissions. We decided the patrol supervisors would not, and cannot, use a standard headset in the patrol cars for officer safety reasons, and we found the Eutectics IPP200 Internet Power phone was ideal for our application. The handset connects to the PC through the USB port and doesn't require additional software.

We were able to provide a good solution using what we already had, but in a different way.

As tough as things are, people will innovate. It's our nature as humans. And one thing remains absolutely certain: Nothing makes you more innovative than being broke.

Key Ingredients

Innovation requires:

  • A precise understanding of the problem or issue
  • Deep knowledge of the capabilities of tools and materials (systems, processes, etc.) at hand
  • Organizational tolerance for a certain level of chaos and failure
  • Employees who are free to say "What if we...?" and managers who are inclined to say "Let's try it."
  • Time to try new things
  • An understanding that cost reduction is not always the goal of innovation, but is sometimes an outcome
Sep 07 2010