Cambridge Lends An Electronic Hand

Cambridge, Mass., developed a Web page, without using tax dollars, to aid its residents.

by / March 31, 1996 0
PROBLEM/SITUATION: The city of Cambridge, Mass., wanted to provide information and services to the community outside regular work hours.
SOLUTION: City officials developed a Web page that residents can access to obtain information and fill out forms without having to physically visit City Hall.
JURISDICTION: Cambridge, Mass.
VENDORS: Digital Equipment Corp., Continental Cablevision, BBN Planet, Apple Computer, MIT, Cisco Systems, Netscape.
CONTACT: Valerie Roman, MIS Director ; phone 617/349-4140; WWW: .

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------In his inaugural address of 1801, Thomas Jefferson spoke of how a frugal government shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.

One hundred and ninety-five years later, that idea is still alive and flourishing at City Hall in Cambridge, Mass. Without using tax dollars, the city established a public Internet link between City Hall, local schools and the public library. Support for this project came almost entirely from local businesses and educational institutions in the greater Boston area.

The Internet project is the collective brainchild of the Cambridge City Council and departments headed by MIS Director Valerie Roman, City Manager Robert Healy, City Clerk Margaret Drury and Library Director Susan Flannery.

"We wanted to find a cost-effective manner of providing information and services to the community outside regular work hours," said Roman, adding that City Hall is open 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., five days a week. "We wanted to save people a trip to City Hall and make access to it more convenient for them."

The online City Hall project was not intended to cut personnel or time spent with citizens, but to increase City Hall services without increasing costs. Under the old system, filling out forms and applications required a trip to City Hall. Now, a resident can download and fill out forms on their own schedule. One example of this process is the release of voter information. A requestor can download Form CDP-7A, fill it out, and submit it to the Election Commission without ever going to City Hall.

The Cambridge project began in the fall of 1993, when steps were taken to develop a blueprint of what services an electronic City Hall should offer. All of the city departments were surveyed to determine exactly what the public was calling and asking about. "There were more than 40 departments and agencies. Numerous calls were being received by all of them," Roman noted.

As part of the development process, other public information systems like Hawaii FYI and Info California were scrutinized. The final solution chosen for City Hall was a Web site. To ensure easy access, city officials included a provision for public Internet access terminals in the city's public library.

Soon after, the city sent out a letter requesting grants for the project. The letter stated that city resources -- both people and funding -- were scarce, and grants were needed to support the project. The letter was sent to all prominent businesses and educational institutions involved with the Internet, inviting them to participate. "The response was overwhelming," Roman said.

The first feedback came from a public forum held during the spring of 1994. "The room we booked was completely full," noted Roman. Attendees from the academic community included both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Digital Equipment Corp.(DEC), Continental Cablevision, BBN Planet and Apple Computer came from the business community. The Chamber of Commerce and many parents also participated in the forum. The final specifications resulted from this forum.

In the summer of 1994, MIT offered the use of their Web server to host the new City Hall home page. "We used all their hardware and software," said Roman. The artificial intelligence lab group at
MIT assisted the City Hall MIS staff with software development and setting up the information. "MIT was very instrumental at the beginning."

Because of their generosity, City Hall never outgrew the MIT Web server. When more space was needed, MIT provided it. Roman noted, "We were like the uncle that wouldn't leave. We ended up staying on the MIT server for longer than we, and they, had expected. It was really wonderful that it never became an issue."

Eventually, the increasing need for system resources forced City Hall to seek their own Web server. "We wanted to get onto our own system," said Roman. Later in 1994, DEC offered a corporate grant of a server and other hardware. DEC engineers installed the system in City Hall. Support for the new Internet activities is being provided by the current City Hall staff. No additional staff members were hired.

One important requirement was keeping the Web page at a very high level of quality. The department heads felt it vital that Cambridge maintain a positive image on the Internet. Roman said, "We read the comments of people who have accessed the system the day before." Webmaster Todd Marinoff updates the pages and current events almost daily. The area's large, high-tech population leaves positive, to-the-point comments in the Web page guest book. Guest logins are currently running at 1,200 per day. The International City/County Management Association rated Cambridge as the best home page for cities with populations under 100,000.

The two public Internet access terminals in the city library are Macintosh Centris 610s provided by a corporate grant from Apple Computer. The Center for Civic Networking assisted with setting up the library terminals. They are connected to the Internet via a cable TV connection grant from Continental Cablevision. The connection is nominally rated at 4 to 6 Mbps. "We're the first city in the country able to provide Internet access via TV cable," said Roman. "Continental Cablevision is in the final beta testing of providing all residents Internet access via cable TV."

The first stage of basic city information, event calendars and business procedures is now in place. Much of this information is now available in multiple languages. In the future, the city looks toward performing more online transaction processing. Bill paying, recreation sign-ups and building permits are being explored as future applications. Piggy-backing city information onto a proposed statewide information kiosk is another idea being investigated.

The Cambridge City Hall project is the result of business, education and government working together for the common good. The icing on the cake is accomplishing it without relying upon tax revenues.


BBN Planet is the key Internet Service Provider in the area. It provides an Internet connection to City Hall using a 56kb leased line. This line connects the BBN Cisco router with a DEC Bridge 900Mx plugged into a DEC Hub 900 MultiSwitch. The line is adequate for now. Growth projections indicate a T1 line will be needed in the future.

The Web server is a 125 MHz DEC M300LX with 32MB of RAM, and an RX26L 1.05 GB hard disk. Plans are in place to upgrade the operating system from OSF/1 3.0 to Digital UNIX very soon. The HTTP daemon being used is from NCSA, and is freely available at . A donated Sun 3/60 is used as an anonymous FTP server for both incoming and public files.

Network cabling is comprised of 10baseT internally, and fiber-optic cabling between buildings. No firewall is currently in place, as the public Internet access system is not connected to the internal network. Plans are in place to purchase a firewall system. When the firewall is in place, the stand-alone Internet system will become part of the internal network.

The library terminals access the City Hall server from the Internet. Originally, the browser software was Mosaic, but it was replaced by Netscape. The terminals are just like home computers. Roman said, "We wanted to make sure that people who didn't have Internet access from their homes or business could come in. We have many kids doing homework on it in the afternoon."