Articles

Petersburg, Va., Looks to Embark Upon Tech Structure Overhaul

Though it will continue to be a long process, the city is starting to take steps forward to install an updated technological culture within the city government.

by John Adam, The Progress-Index, Petersburg, Va. / August 8, 2017
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(TNS) -- PETERSBURG — As the new city administration gets to work, officials are trying to bring attention to a problem that has contributed to the city's financial woes — inadequate technology.

The city is looking to overhaul a technological structure that is, in the words of new City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, "extremely outdated".

"We have a very qualified IT department, and we're going to have to invest in ourselves," said Benavides. "We need to improve our automation."

Though it will continue to be a long process, the city is starting to take steps forward to install an updated technological culture within the city government.

During an interview at city hall, Gerrit VanVoorhees, the director of Information Technology, and Dileep Rajun, a Data Analytics specialist, talked about moving the city's technological architecture into the 21st century, both literally and figuratively.

Petersburg currently houses basically all city data in a main system called BAI AS400 Municipal Software. The financial data and reporting for payroll, general ledger, treasury, and utilities are all in the BAI system. The system has many drawbacks: The information the system houses, especially for utilities, is very difficult to read and analyze: the system overall is outdated, with much of its software hailing from '90s-era computing. Benavides joked that the AS400 system was the one she worked with while in Chicago in 1997.

One of the biggest problems with the AS400 is that it's a framework system, meaning only several city employees, VanVoorhees among them, have the ability to access the data it houses.

"Right now, we're completely dependent on Gerritt with the BAI system," said Rajun.

VanVoorhees is currently leading the slow process of getting all the data out of the BAI system, in preparation for moving to a completely new system.

Though it's still in the works, VanVoorhees said he is slowly preparing for when the city will move completely out of the AS400 system. This is more of a long-term project, as both VanVoorhees and Rajun hope for the city to eventually move to a cloud-based system, meaning the city's data can be accessed via the web, and not be imprisoned in a system that is only accessible to several people.

Though it's a ways off, VanVorhees said he has already done some research as to what cloud-based systems would work best for the city.

"I have sketches of RFPs (requests for proposals) for when that day comes," he said.

Rajun and VanVoorhees say the cost of switching systems could be in the hundreds of thousands, which is another reason it's unlikely the city will be able to switch over anytime soon.

If the city were to move to a cloud-based system provided by a company like Amazon, the data it houses would become instantly more accessible and clearer. For things like utility billing, which has experienced many issues over the past several years, more transparent data would allow citizens to trust their bills. The city would also benefit from not having to worry about the security of the system, as it would be the responsibility of the company providing it.

"We are living an intermediary life," said Rajun. "Until we fully remove AS400 out, and every module that's plugged into it, you are living with a patchwork of systems."

The intermediary life Rajun is referring to are the several new systems that the city has recently booted up, including OpenGov and CityWorks. OpenGov is a site which allows citizens to see all the financial records of the city. CityWorks, which city employees are currently being trained in, is a program that manages public work service requests. City workers can go into the site and put in a request for repairs for city operated facilities. From there, department heads can keep track of where problems were found, and if they're being addressed.

Both those programs are plugged into the AS400 system, and would have to be moved out if the city moves to a different main operating system.

©2017 The Progress-Index, Petersburg, Va. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.