Community of the Week: Howard County, Maryland

The county will soon complete the Inter-County Broadband Network (ICBN), which will connect nearly 1,000 city halls, fire and police departments, courthouses, colleges and universities, libraries, and schools.

by / January 25, 2013
Ken Ulman

Howard County, Md., has received numerous awards and honors, including one for "best educated adults," another for having "one of the best school systems in the nation," "number one in public library systems," and the "second most technologically advanced U.S. community." The county was also named to the top 10 in "quality of life."

County Executive Ken Ulman -- who was born in Howard County and is a life-long resident -- isn't resting on any laurels, however. He is about to complete something called the Inter-County Broadband Network (ICBN), which will connect nearly 1,000 city halls, fire and police departments, courthouses, colleges and universities, libraries, and schools.

When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act launched a few years ago, the broadband initiative focused on underserved or rural areas and economic development. Ulman didn't think Howard County would be competitive applying for the grant by itself, and came up with a different strategy.

So Ulman and CIO Ira Levy reached out to Howard County's public-sector neighbors. "We put together a consortium of 10 jurisdictions along the 95 corridor," said Ulman, "including Baltimore City and County, Prince George's County, Montgomery County -- the largest counties in Maryland -- and we brought in all of our CIOs." As a result, the consortium won a $72 million grant for broadband rollout.

"We realized there is a lack of connectivity among jurisdictions," said Ulman, "so if our schools want to purchase an IT solution together and deploy it through a network from school system to school system, there was really no mechanism to do that."

In addition, he said public safety needed to connect all the 911 dispatch centers so they could back up one another. And the broadband network would enable public safety agencies to share things like GIS systems on a common server. What resulted, said Ulman, is a sort of "public-sector cloud."

But it's not exclusively public sector. "We are leasing out fiber to the private sector," said Ulman, "because we go so deep into neighborhoods, by the nature of where the anchor institutions are located like elementary schools, fire stations and libraries ... We don't want lack of capacity to be a barrier to businesses growing and thriving in Maryland."

The network will be finished ahead of its August scheduled completion data, said Ulman. "We will finish this spring, and will begin to light up sites."

Information Technology and a Stellar CIO

Ulman says Howard County prides itself on diversity, innovation and a commitment to public-sector technology for quality delivery of services. The county was one of the first in the country to put GPS on snowplows, he said, so people could track where they were in realtime. 

"We also became the first in Maryland to launch the interactive parking map. We put sensors in all of the paid parking places in the historic district of Main Street -- Ellicott City -- and so you can see on your smartphone in real time where parking spaces are available. You can also pay for them with your app, by putting in your code."

The key to innovation and a solid technology infrastructure, said Ulman, is a great CIO. "Many governments promote that person who seems to understand computers; they keep getting promoted and the next thing you know, they are running the technology systems of a major enterprise without necessarily the background to be doing that."

Ulman says that hiring the right CIO and compensating them well are essentials. "This is the person who's making decisions on tens of millions of dollars of expenditures that frankly, very few people in county government understand … So you've got to have the right people making the decisions, and you've to have all the agencies on the same page following the direction of that technology leadership."

Ulman said that when he took office, departments were buying their own software solutions in silos, so planning, zoning, licensing and permits were all on different software systems, and inspectors couldn't enter in the same data across agency lines. "So we immediately consolidated and said every technology purchase has to be signed off by the CIO."

The county also had the CIO create a team and inspect every agency to find any technology barriers. As a result, the county eliminated its print shop and changed its cell phone policy, since employees had run up data overage charges. Instead of using county-owned cell phones, employees are now required to have a personal mobile device, and the county awards a stipend for government-related use of iPhones, Androids or Blackberrys.

Ulman, who calls Howard County CIO Ira Levy "phenomenal," said, "You've got to have your CIO integrated into every significant decision, and then bring all the department heads on board with a consolidated focus."

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.