February 28, 2006 By Government Technology
New Orleans CIO Greg Meffert inherited an IT shop that was 100 percent mainframe, and a one-page Web site with a picture of the mayor on it -- the wrong mayor -- in a city that offered zero online services.
Today, New Orleans basks in the glow of having tied for first place in the Center for Digital Government's 2005 Best of the Web awards in the city portal category, after finishing dead last prior to Meffert's arrival. The city now offers 30 online services and a portal accessible to handicapped citizens.
Meffert also developed a surveillance camera system -- one of the few systems not felled by Hurricane Katrina, which helped the federal government during the evacuation process. The system consists of high-resolution cameras combined with motion detection software that works in conjunction with zoom capabilities.
Immediately after Katrina, the city's Web site developed into a source for New Orleans residents to get data on rebuilding efforts, including an interactive map that showed flood levels. After Mayor Ray Nagin expressed interest in a Web site to collect donations, Meffert and his staff constructed one in less than two days -- within 36 hours, credit card payments were being taken. The site has continued to morph into a source of data for rescue, recovery and restoration.
Meffert has said Hurricane Katrina changed the way he looks at disasters from an IT perspective. But the greatest reward thus far, he said, is the feeling he got when he personally hoisted drowning victims to safety and saw the look of relief on their faces.
-- Jim McKay
Sarasota County, Fla., Schools
A Vision for Schools
Garry Norris signed on as superintendent of the Sarasota County, Fla., Schools in April 2004, and immediately joined with county administrator Jim Ley to consolidate IT functions of the two entities.
"Gary has a technology vision for schools," Ley said, adding that his vision helped consolidate the county and school district CIO positions into a single post. Each entity now pays half the salary of CIO Bob Hanson. This has allowed both entities to get much more value out of the position and put Sarasota County schools on the fast track to the elite in terms of the high-tech classroom.
Sarasota classrooms now feature electronic boards, teachers with microphones, and very soon, cameras will let parents peek into their children's learning experience.
Furthermore, the school district plans to adopt thin-client computing technology. "In the school business, given the limited size and space, to bring in desktops for everybody is not a good solution," Norris said. "And those school districts bringing in laptops for everybody are beginning to experience maintenance costs and damages. Not all laptops are made for elementary students -- or high-school students for that matter."
Servers to support the thin clients will be housed in a new central processing center the school district shares with the county. Norris said putting thin-client terminals on students' desks will be more cost-effective than handing them laptop PCs.
"I don't know what the exact number is, but it may save us 50 percent of our planned budget."
In its newer schools, the district is also exploring a floor system that uses inch-thick carpet or tile squares that accommodate power and network cabling. "Then if you want to reconfigure your classroom, it's easy for the maintenance staff do that," Norris said. "We're moving to a whole new level."
-- Jim McKay
Chief Technology Officer
Acting Like an Enterprise
Comfortably settled into the private sector, former Pennsylvania CIO Larry Olson didn't expect to return to public service. But Olson's home state of Texas made an offer he couldn't refuse: Legislative leaders were ready to overhaul how state government acquires and uses technology -- and they wanted Olson to lead the initiative.
"There was a desire to really move the state to the next level," said Olson, who left his position with a Pennsylvania-based IT management consulting practice in 2004 to become chief technology officer for Texas.
"At the time, I said I wouldn't get back into public service for anyone else," he said. "This was an opportunity to give something back to Texas, which has been very good to me."
Now, almost two years later, Olson is well on his way to consolidating Texas state data centers, expanding cooperative purchasing and implementing shared IT services under landmark legislation known as HB 1516. Through a mix of strong legislative backing -- the bill gave broad new authority to Olson's Department of Information Resources (DIR) -- and careful attention to collaboration, he's convincing famously independent Texas state agencies that the consolidation plan offers a better way to conduct government business.
Purchasing through the DIR's cooperative contracts grew by nearly 30 percent in 2005, totaling $667 million, Olson said. He expects that figure to reach $750 million this year, as state agencies comply with mandatory use of DIR contracts for most IT hardware and software buying. Furthermore, the DIR intends to award a contract for consolidation and operation of the state's 27 largest data centers this month.
Olson gained first-hand experience with statewide IT consolidation during his four-year stint as Pennsylvania CIO, where he helped the state save nearly $300 million.
But making Texas IT behave like an enterprise posed an even bigger challenge. In 2004, Olson estimated that Texas spent almost $2 billion annually on technology -- most of it on an agency-by-agency or project-by-project basis. And, unlike Pennsylvania, power in Texas government is widely dispersed among state lawmakers, boards and commissions.
Given that reality, Olson takes an inclusive approach. He hired former state agency CIOs to run the DIR's cooperative purchasing and shared data center programs. He tirelessly promotes collaboration among state agencies and between state and local governments at events throughout Texas. Olson even installed a new DIR representative in the Texas Emergency Operations Center so the agency could more quickly assist other state agencies and local governments during a disaster.
These efforts are paying off. Olson said support for the Texas consolidation plan is coming together faster than in Pennsylvania.
"It really reflects the philosophy that you have to work for buy-in from everybody," he said. "If you treat everyone as peers and talk to them in business terms about the benefits of doing this, they'll respond."
-- Steve Towns
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