State and local government IT professionals in Massachusetts now have the benefit of InfoExchange, a forum they use to communicate and collaborate like never before.

InfoExchange, a collaborative effort between the commonwealth and its largest city, has allowed Massachusetts IT specialists to get acquainted via a statewide mailing list server and online seminars.

Boston CIO Craig Burlingame and Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn hope the system fosters innovation, helps IT officials implement best practices and allows collaborative projects that will better serve Massachusetts residents.

The InfoExchange seminars are held via Boston's distance learning portal, which was originally implemented for its own IT employees, but the city extended the portal's capabilities to IT employees and procurement officials statewide. Massachusetts has also made its list server technology available to InfoExchange members to stimulate more frequent communication.

The city has hosted several monthly online seminars that gave attendees an interactive way to familiarize themselves with common issues, their counterparts in other towns and state agencies, and statewide IT initiatives.

Seminar participants -- whose presence is noted on the right of the screen -- listen to presentations, and can use emoticons that appear next to their names to laugh, clap, disagree, request that the speaker go slower or faster, express confusion or understanding, or raise their hand to speak. When participants are allowed to speak, they can use a microphone to speak to the group and use tools that allow them write, type or point on an electronic "whiteboard." Participants can also send notes to other individuals in attendance or to the whole group.

Presenters can gather input from the group by pushing surveys out to participants.

Recordings of seminars are available for members to listen to after the events have passed. So for example, those who have not been members from the beginning can still listen to the first session, which contains an introduction to the portal and its tools.

So far, Burlingame, Quinn and other officials from the state and from Boston have led discussions on such things as procurement, network security, and using open source software and tools, and Quinn said he hopes cities and towns will get more involved.

"Our goal is to start having the cities -- some of the other cities and towns besides Boston -- actually come to the table and start talking and presenting some issues they're doing or that we collectively want to address," he said.

Big Benefits for Small Towns

Prior to becoming Boston's CIO, Burlingame worked in Massachusetts state-level IT and in a smaller Massachusetts town. Having seen IT in Massachusetts from several angles, he recognized the need for more communication, especially for small towns.

"They're the ones that stand to benefit the most," he said, noting that getting people from smaller towns to travel to attend meetings is sometimes difficult. "Little places that only have one or two IT people are very reluctant to say, 'Yeah, go to a meeting all day.'"

Michael Deltano, information systems manager from Easton, Mass., said he agrees. Aside from a programmer who works on the town's financial system, Deltano is Easton's only IT employee. Though he finds time to attend the Massachusetts Government Information Systems Association (MGISA) meetings, the main forum for IT employees in Massachusetts, he said many small towns can't attend.

"I'm sure there are a lot of towns that don't have IT managers or computer people as full-time employees, so it's tough to get them involved at all," he said, adding that of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, approximately 40 to 50 regularly attend MGISA meetings. "That's not a lot of input from the other 300."

Aside from the MGISA meetings, Deltano said communication between state and local IT officials was virtually nonexistent.

Emily Montandon  |  Staff Writer/Copy Editor