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Progress Report

Houston CIO Richard Lewis discusses the state of technology in Texas' largest city.

by / October 29, 2007

Houston CIO Richard Lewis oversees technology operations for the largest city in Texas. In an interview with Texas Technology, Lewis discussed a wide range of IT-related activities, including Houston's now-troubled plan to create a 640-square-mile municipal Wi-Fi network.

In addition, Lewis talked about how Houston's experience during Hurricane Katrina response and recovery in 2005 shaped the city's current approach to disaster management. Houston housed, fed and cared for more than 150,000 evacuees who were displaced by the storm. Since then, Houston has created numerous applications designed to strengthen response capabilities and improve situational awareness.

Lewis became CIO in 2002. Prior to that, he held a number of other city positions, including deputy chief administrative officer, director of finance and administration, and acting director of the municipal court.

 

Houston had an agreement with EarthLink to build a $40 million Wi-Fi network. The death of EarthLink CEO Garry Betty and the company's decision to scale back its municipal Wi-Fi business threw that industry into turmoil. What's the status of the city Wi-Fi project?

Lewis: The CEO who was in charge when we did the deal passed away, and they backed out of that. I don't think anybody could have anticipated that. We had a tough contract, and they're going to have to pay us a $5 million penalty. So we'll have a nice nest egg to go forward with that. EarthLink could come back. They get a nine-month option period for paying the $5 million.

I've reached out to a number of other entities to help us with this because a lot of cities have the same interests. I think we're going to do an assessment on the municipal wireless market and study when the best time will be to go back to the market for a Wi-Fi network or some kind of wireless infrastructure.

 

That whole market certainly is in flux right now.

Lewis: Well, it went away with EarthLink's announcement. So there is not a market today for municipal wireless. It'll come back though, because wireless is the future and the wired world is the past. It's just a question of how long it takes and how much tweaking of the business model is required.

 

So the city remains committed to developing a municipal Wi-Fi network?

Lewis: Absolutely. There are three basic business objectives for the city in this field. Number one is to bring the cost of broadband down, and we've already accomplished that. As soon as we announced what we were doing, Comcast and AT&T dropped their rates. Before our project in Houston, the broadband/DSL rates were anywhere from $30 to $50 per month. Today they are $15 to $20.

The second objective is to reduce the city government's cost of operations. With a wireless provider like EarthLink and the pricing we had under our contract, I could reduce our T1 expense by about 40 percent. Plus I've got 2,000 police cars, and 500 fire and EMS apparatus that need mobile connectivity. The monthly cost per vehicle for Wi-Fi is about $10 versus $45 for a cellular card from Cingular or Verizon.

The third objective is to be sure that we don't leave the low-income communities behind as we go digital. So those are all three very meritorious objectives, and they're still objectives. This is a bump in the road; the question is, how big of a bump? And how long will it take that market to reconstitute itself? We're going to do an assessment that will forecast where this market is going over the next 12 months, and what's the optimum time to go out there with a new solicitation. The mayor has talked about responding to proposals, but not

having a formal solicitation during EarthLink's nine-month option period.

 

Houston took in an unprecedented number of Hurricane Katrina evacuees in 2005. What role did technology play in the city's response efforts?

Lewis: In the early morning hours of Wednesday Aug. 28, 2005, I looked at the map of New Orleans and estimated that there would be 100,000 to 150,000 people coming our way. By Thursday night, the buses were coming from New Orleans into Houston. They started arriving at the Astrodome in the early morning hours - it was just an unbelievable sight to see.

Usually in a hurricane event, we respond to outages of the network and applications. We deploy teams across the city, and as the wind recedes below 50 mph, we dig our way out and restore critical systems. In this case, we didn't have that. This was an event that occurred 400 miles from our location. We were operating as a reception-type location. We didn't know what our role would be until my deputy went to the Astrodome and saw what was going on.

The Red Cross set up an evacuee registration system at the Astrodome and began to process people through that on Thursday. By Friday afternoon, the crowd had overflowed, and we set up another evacuee registration center at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

We quickly realized that setting up Web-based operations - providing access to the Internet so families could locate missing members - was a crucial area where we could help the Red Cross. When the Red Cross began providing assistance vouchers, we basically set up the IT environment for them, and we did the same thing for FEMA's disaster recovery center.

None of that was in our disaster management plan. So it took some agility - I think it's important for an organization to be agile, mobile and hostile. By that, I mean agile enough to accommodate changing environments, mobile to quickly accomplish business objectives and hostile in terms of being very hostile to threats to your success. I think those attributes were a significant part of the response to Katrina - clearly the first two were.

 

Then Hurricane Rita arrived shortly after?

Lewis: That was about three weeks later. It was about 300 miles south of Galveston. So we had to take all the people with special needs who were in the shelters in Houston and get them out of harm's way. We relocated 9,000 or 10,000 people to Nacogdoches, Dallas, Amarillo, even El Paso. I had been reassigned to the Houston Emergency Center to help coordinate our response. My responsibilities were initially to coordinate the damage assessment from a helicopter flyover with GIS and video. When Rita passed by Houston, I got the assignment to bring back the evacuees we had relocated. It was a three-day operation where if we had buses and airplanes bringing back about 5,000 people, we would unload the buses in front of The Brown, get their luggage, walk them over to a van or cab and take them home. It was quite an experience.

 

How did Houston's experience with Katrina and Rita shape the city's current approach to disaster response?

Lewis: We dramatically increased the number of applications we use at our Houston Emergency Center, which is home to our Emergency Operations Center (EOC). We have 14 different applications for managing the response, recovery, mitigation and preparation phases of a hurricane event. We're deploying closed-circuit televisions across the city. We have dynamic messaging. We're linked to the Harris County system that gauges water levels at bayous in the city. We have an application for roadway weather conditions, a public and emergency response system, and a Web EOC. We make extensive use of GIS technology,

and we have a damage-assessment application that uses base data from the Harris County Appraisal District.

We've made a lot of investments on applications supporting the Emergency Operations Center. We've also totally renovated the Houston Emergency Center, a $53 million building that is designed to be self-contained for two weeks. As part of that, with some of the homeland security money, we've totally renovated our situation room. It's probably one of the more sophisticated audio-visual command consoles in the country.

 

What's the biggest benefit you get from these improvements?

Lewis: I really think it's better situational awareness. You never have enough information to make decisions during one of these events. If you can get the right people in the room, and they have access to the right kinds of information, you can be very effective.

 

What other significant IT projects are under way in the city?

Lewis: When I took this job in 2002, we began upgrading our data network and replacing our ERP system. Because of the Y2K issue, the city had deferred making many investments that were desperately needed - and these were two of the biggest investments that needed to be made.

We did an assessment of our data network, which involved 300 routers and 800 switches that sit across 640 square miles. We have about 300 building locations across the city.

The assessment came back indicating that 90 percent of those devices were beyond their manufacturer's support life. In 2003, we assumed responsibility for the network - prior to that time, departments with IT capabilities managed their own portions of the network - and we've put about $8 million in upgrades into it at this point. Last month, the City Council approved funding for the third and final phase of about $7 million. We will complete that sometime in the fall of 2008. At the time, we will have spent $15 million, and every year from now on, we'll put $3 million into the network to replace devices.

The next thing that we tackled was the ERP replacement. We selected SAP, and the City Council approved a $24 million budget to implement it over 72 weeks. We had one delay, and we had about a 15 percent adjustment to the budget because our contingency was too low. We stood up the financial-purchasing portion in July of 2006 and then stood up payroll and HR in April of 2007. I was losing sleep at night about paying 22,000 people on a new payroll system. I had seen articles where agencies had a 10 percent error rate when they did their first payroll, but our worst department was 99.8 percent accurate. We had a great team, we dedicated staff to it, we managed scope, we made SAP be the integrator so there couldn't be any finger pointing, and it just worked great.

Our Web site - www.houstontx.gov/it - lists 10 strategic initiatives we're working on right now, including the network upgrade and SAP deployment. We also have a new court system we're trying to stabilize. We are implementing a strategic plan for the Houston Police Department that will involve an off-the-shelf records management system. That will be a $15-$20 million project. And we released a request for proposal for a new 700 MHz public safety radio system, which will cost $100 million plus.

We're receiving proposals for Microsoft Exchange upgrade, and we plan to implement Active Directory along with that. We also have a server consolidation initiative. There are about 400 servers in the city - they're in closets, on desks, etc. - and were going to consolidate them into two data centers. At the same time, we'll reduce the number of servers we have.

 

All of this activity must put a premium on project management. What are some of

the keys to doing this right?

Lewis: You need to start with your vision for using IT. Our vision here is to leverage emerging technologies to reduce costs, limit work force growth and improve services to citizens.

On our large projects, we select the best person we can find in the city to be the project manager, and that person is joined at the hip with the vendor's project leader. The SAP project is a good example. Those two people shared the same office. We also took 30 of the best people from our 15 city departments and put them together with 15 people from SAP, and they spent two years making the SAP project happen. We allowed the departments to backfill those positions. We also had 120 super-users. When we had problems during the implementation, they were the heroes. They were the people who knew exactly what to do. We have a total of about 2,500 users in the system, and these 120 super-users made all the difference in the world.

 

Steve Towns Executive Editor