I recently attended the Accela user conference in San Diego. At a number of sessions, Intel, Cisco, Accela and other companies discussed the new Digital Communities initiative and the Web site being developed with Government Technology that will go live this coming week. We've been writing about "e-government" for years, and I was hoping Digital Communities would offer something new -- a step beyond Web sites, URLs and hot zones.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Intel and its partners are doing some important work in cities and counties to bring to the streets the applications we've known could transform government, and improve cities and civic life.

For example, remember CAMEO ("Computer Aided Management of Emergency Operations")? I covered it as something fairly new back in 1989 when I first started with Government Technology magazine. I found out that CAMEO is still being used by emergency responders who face chemical hazards, but primarily as a reference manual for toxic substances, and a plume-tracking and mapping application. Originally, the idea was to map building interiors to show first responders where chemicals were stored. That proved to be too big a job for software running on a 1980s-era Macintosh, especially in large cities with hundreds of large buildings. But as I found out at the Accela conference, incident responders are now using wireless devices to tap into files at that level of detail for the buildings they are entering.

Cleveland's Todd Q. Adams talked about the realities of deploying an enterprise licensing, permits and inspection application through 11 city departments. After the session, a former CIO explained that prior to the enterprise system, everything was paper based and often backlogged, and it took months to get a building permit or a restaurant inspection entered into the system. Now, the enterprise application and wireless rollout are speeding up the process, making it more accurate and getting departments to work together.

The conference sessions were well attended with lots of interaction and plenty of hard-nosed questions from people who are implementing these systems or are considering them. Questions like: "$40-60,000 per square mile to roll out wireless? How do you expect me to sell the city council on that?" Discussion included costs, and return on investment. Intel developed an ROI calculator that looks at the realities of these systems, and includes strategies to reduce up-front costs. Presenters said they expect it to be featured on the new Digital Communities Web site.

I was impressed at how the presenters from Accela, Intel, Cisco and other companies opened up to questions, and didn't PR their way around the tough ones. After a full day of the conference, I think the Digital Communities initiative has the potential, the street smarts and the industry backing to help cities, counties and regions take the next steps beyond "e-government" and "hot zones" and to engage information technology in the task of building the truly connected and prosperous communities we have envisioned.

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.