Across Texas, IT leaders are finding new ways to make government more efficient, effective and responsive to citizen needs.
This year’s Best of Texas Awards highlight a range of creative tech implementations, from a massive telecommunications network overhaul to a simple campus app that aims to heighten awareness around cybersecurity. There are tools to enhance interagency collaboration and a chatbot to boost citizen service.
Some years a common theme emerges: Cloud, data, cyber. In 2018, it was basic block-and-tackle for many in Texas IT. Rather than chase fads, these leaders sought out the tools they needed to get the job done. They streamlined forms, made critical information more readily visible, and pared back overly complicated processes, all through the intelligent application of IT.
“Governmental and educational leaders in Texas are leveraging technology to improve cybersecurity, enhance citizen service and advance emergency response, among many other things,” said Teri Takai, executive director of the Center for Digital Government.* “Congratulations to this year’s Best of Texas winners for the vital role they are playing in advancing information technology in Texas.”
This year’s award for Demonstrated Excellence in Project Management went to Jeff Kersey, a Senior IT Tech Analyst with the city of Fort Worth. While the biggest projects aren’t always the most noteworthy, there is something to be said for coping with the sheer scale of a major civic undertaking. Kersey oversaw a massive network infrastructure upgrade project in support of data and telephony services.
The project “brought about a complete overhaul of the telephone and network hardware, as well as upgrading many of the sites to a redundant fiber network backbone,” said Kersey, who was responsible for network architecture design and hands-on network configuration changes, scheduling, coordination and installation of a fiber ring that connected 66 key locations. The project incorporated 180 uninterruptable power supplies, 300 network switches, 4,500 VoIP phones, and 5,000 patch cables. It resulted in a more reliable and secure network for more than 6,000 city of Fort Worth employees and many other users.
Cooperative efforts also shone brightly in Texas this year and were highlighted in the two award-winning projects in the category of Best IT Collaboration Among Organizations.
The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles’ eLICENSING System shifts licensing online, getting rid of burdensome paper applications and manual payment processing. In a broad collaborative effort, the department consolidated two standalone licensure systems into a single system and streamlined the process for ease of use. The resulting system “speeds up and simplifies the licensing process for motor vehicle and salvage dealers, allowing them more time to focus on serving their communities,” said Adam Shaivitz, a spokesman for the department.
Harris County likewise looked to drive collaboration as it planned for Super Bowl 51 (SBLI) last year. Harris County Central Technology Services (CTS) worked with public safety stakeholders from the city of Houston and Harris County agencies to launch the first operational deployment of Public Safety LTE, bringing to multiple stakeholders a range of communications functions including picture and video sharing; group messaging; a global user directory; voice over Internet protocol (VoIP); and video conferencing. Features like this enabled seamless information sharing and interoperability across the various agencies supporting the event.
While interagency coordination is always important, issues of interoperability become especially urgent in times of crisis. Emergency responders from disparate agencies need to have shared situational awareness and open lines of communication in order to operate effectively.
During Hurricane Harvey, Harris County Central Technology Services implemented a collaboration app to deliver to collaborate share information among multiple agencies. One of this year’s Best Applications Serving an Agency’s Business Needs, the app included features such as group messaging and media/file sharing, which enabled law enforcement agencies to coordinate high-water rescues. In the wake of the storm, community service officials used the same app to coordinate logistics for supplies, while engineering professionals leveraged it to manage clean-up and inspections of roughly 30,000 privately-owned properties that flooded during the storm.
The Bob Bullock Award Goes to …
This year’s Bob Bullock Award for Outstanding Public Stewardship went to Phil Wilson, general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority.
“LCRA’s mission is to enhance the lives of the Texans we serve through water stewardship, energy and community service. Technology plays an ever-increasing role in our efforts to fulfill our mission,” Wilson said.
A former Texas Secretary of State, Wilson also served as the chief elections officer and the chief international protocol officer for Texas, as well as chair of the Governor’s Competitiveness Council. He took on his role with the Lower Colorado River Authority in 2014.
As LCRA’s 11th general manager, Wilson serves as the organization’s chief executive officer, managing LCRA’s relationships with its customers and stakeholders, appointing and directing executive staff, and overseeing projects and operations that support the agency’s public service mission.
Among his other accomplishments, Wilson helped land the agency a place in the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Leadership Circle, a group of organizations that have achieved recognition for their financial transparency.
Also taking home an award for Best Application Serving an Agency’s Business Needs is the Texas Military Department for its Texas State Guard J6 - Readiness Management System (RMS). The system provides a platform for data, inputs and outputs that help the Texas State Guard command understand "force readiness."
With an effort underway to more than double the authorized State Guard member strength, the RMS provides a critical mechanism for tracking new personnel, with real-time displays of guard member data overlaid against a geographical map-view of Texas. That same data was used during Hurricane Harvey to support response planning and deployment. Bottom line: “Speeding up the decision and response times for the Texas State Guard results in the faster delivery of emergency response personnel to our Texas communities,” said Sgt. 1st Class John Gately, Texas State Guard – Army.
While some turned to apps to enhance business process, others turned to data. Take for instance the Texas Workforce Commission, whose Texas Labor Analysis (TLA) won this year’s award for Best Business Analysis/Data Analytics Project.
An online suite of labor analysis tools, TLA offers insight into Texas’ labor supply and demand, generating wage data and occupational projections, along with insights into the current labor supply, job posting data and other key metrics. TLA allows users to create in-depth regional reports detailing labor supply and demand, with downloadable reports as well as features that enable users to compare current labor supply and demand by occupation and by region.
Just as some focused on internal-facing applications, others looked outward, leveraging IT to enhance citizen service. Both the city of El Paso and the Texas Workforce Commission earned recognition this year for the Best Application Serving the Public.
El Paso IT officials implemented “Ask Laura” in 2017 on the city’s Purchasing website as a way to provide an enhanced customer service experience. Driven by artificial intelligence, the chatbot has since been added to the city’s Tax Office website, Planning and Inspections website and will soon be added to the Airport Department’s website.
The Texas Workforce Commission meanwhile addressed the public with its Texas Reality Check, an online application that allows students to describe their lifestyle choices, create a desired budget and then view the occupations and preferred education levels needed to support those choices.
It’s become the most popular application of the Labor Market and Career Information Department (LMCI) of the Texas Workforce Commission. The application gives students a clear sense of how much their desired lifestyle will cost and what it will take to get there.
In addition to creative Web-based apps, various government entities have been looking to social media as a means of citizen engagement. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department won recognition for this year’s Most Innovative Use of Social Media/Citizen Engagement, with its Inland Fisheries Texas ShareLunker Mobile App.
Seeking to increase public participation in its ShareLunker fisheries program, the department built a mobile and Web app that gives citizens an easy way to take pictures and enter a bass they caught into the program using Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. The mobile app “has allowed the program to expand and include more participation and data without additional staff requirements,” said Mark Miller, a team lead in Application Development. By enabling quick catch-and-release, the app “is better for the health of the fish and for the angler’s fishing experience, while still allowing the angler to be recognized and providing biologists valuable information.”
In the realm of mobility, this year saw Bell County and Texas A&M Division of IT each take home an award for Best Mobile/Wireless Project.
Bell County won recognition for its Mobile Electronic Traffic Citation System, which replaced paper ticket books and got rid of cumbersome data entry work. A driver’s license scan speeds the citation process, with wireless uploads cutting the processing time by as much as a week. The application runs on a variety of mobile devices, including laptops and tablets.
The system is “transformative,” said Adam Ward, Bell County director of Technology Services. “The application makes the process faster, more accurate and less expensive.”
Texas A&M Division of IT went mobile with a campuswide cybersecurity awareness game, “Keep Tradition Secure.” Players track a hacker known as Bad_Bull across campus by answering cybersecurity questions and riddles regarding Texas A&M traditions.
The website, game and information campaign “helped educate the entire Texas A&M campus community on the importance of cybersecurity and internet safety,” said Communications Coordinator Bobby Bernshausen. “Since universities are a prime target for cyberattacks, we hope the campus community and the entire state benefited from the campaign and the awareness it created.”
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.