Critics Light a Fire

South Dakota is pushing for increased information access and an education extranet under the governor's directive.

by / July 31, 1998
In November 1997, South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow issued a directive to throw more money and people at the Internet after a national report criticized South Dakota's efforts in making information accessible to residents. The governor's directive was aimed at getting people more involved in government by better using technology and the Internet to distribute information.

However, like many state and local governments, South Dakota had to mobilize about 40 people across state agencies to develop and maintain more robust Web sites for South Dakota residents -- in addition to other IT duties. According to those involved with overseeing the online overhaul, the result has so far been a success.

Pat Groce, a communications-network analyst and head Webmaster for the state, maintains the hardware and software, handles issues with the firewall and Internet security, and works on the more-advanced Web applications for the state Web site.

Working on It

To quiet critics, Groce uses Allaire's Cold Fusion 3.1 to make a number of databases available online. Those databases, including Structured Query Language (SQL) databases and ODBC-compliant databases, are the key to making South Dakota's Web site useful to curious, enterprising residents and tourists.

Groce makes it all happen with a 200MHz PC desktop computer with 64MB of RAM. A G6 PC packed with a 200MHz processor, 128MB of RAM and O'Reilly Web site Professional HTTP server software serves up the Web pages. Each week, the site tallies about 200,000 page views, with the traffic statistics peaking in February, when the state's part-time Legislature convenes for a six-week stint in the Capitol in Pierre.

The Legislative Research Council developed a bill-tracking and monitoring system. Using VisualBasic programs and the Web server's built-in search software, the council gave Web surfers access to the state's powerful Microsoft SQL Server database, where the council updates and stores information, such as votes on a bill, amendments to legislation and what policy committee is hearing the bill next. The SQL database creates committee assignment reports and has a complete member directory for the statehouse. All of that information is automatically updated online every 30 minutes while the Legislature is in session.

In addition to the six-week period in February and March, members of the South Dakota House and Senate return briefly in the summer to handle gubernatorial vetoes and other unfinished legislative business. The legislative site is updated less frequently when members are away from the Capitol.

In addition to bill tracking, the state's Web site is useful for residents who do not need or care to follow up-to-the-minute legislative details.

The Web site allows residents to apply for state jobs online. Internet users may download a number of standard state documents, applications and forms in Adobe Acrobat portable document file (PDF) format. Among the forms available are most standard income-tax documents and several applications. Residents may download a form to renew their hunting license, for example.

Two key products have made South Dakota's improved Internet presence possible. First, South Dakota adopted new switching devices within state office buildings that allowed their newer desktop PCs to better communicate with the state's legacy systems.

South Dakota employs the SmartSwitch 9000 Token Ring device by Cabletron Systems. The new switches allow the state to extract existing tax information, motor-vehicle registration files and health and human services data, and better use it on desktop computers throughout the state. Some of that information is, in turn, used to generate data that is later made available on the state's various agency Web sites. "The state had made a significant investment in their mainframe system a few years back," said Cabletron spokesman Michael Emerton. "Why throw that away? SmartSwitch allowed them to use their legacy data and build on it."

Groce said the mainframe system does not directly affect the Internet product but is integral to other sources of information for the Web site. "The mainframe is invaluable at this point," he said. "It stores all the information and the processes upon which all the other major applications are built."

South Dakota is also using Cabletron's Spectrum 5.0 -- a network-management platform, Emerton added.

The other key element to South Dakota's revamped Web presence is a "middleware" product that allows the Web surfer to interact with any ODBC-compliant, back-end database to search for information and generate custom-built, on-the-fly Web pages. The state's use of Cold Fusion 3.1 adds to an increasing trend among state and local governments that are using off-the-shelf products and software solutions more frequently.

The most dynamic Web application Groce and his team have developed using Cold Fusion is the Department of Tourism's Visitors' Service Directory -- a vast, searchable warehouse of information on almost every hotel, bed and breakfast, campground, casino and amusement park in the state. "Mount Rushmore is by far the most popular, and anything in the Black Hills," said Groce, "but this allows people to search new places by city, find out what they are, and get the address and other information about the destination."

The use of Cold Fusion allows Groce and his Web developers to employ a relatively simple Microsoft Access database that the Department of Tourism can easily update and maintain on its own. "The middleware introduces a new series of tags that have the ability to execute the queries used to fill the HTML templates," Groce said.

Every South Dakota state agency and public elective office now has a Web site, but clearly some are more sophisticated than others. "Part of my job is to reach out to those agencies that need some help and encourage them to develop new ways of making information available," Groce said. "It's an ongoing process."

Going Internal

The most interesting Internet project the state has on the horizon, and perhaps the most revolutionary in terms of how the state deals with local governments and agencies, is a database-driven "extranet" not meant for the general public.

Groce said his team is in the early stages of planning a Web-based network that would allow state education officials to communicate directly with local school districts and push information to administrators throughout the state.

Due to the sensitive nature of shuttling personnel information, assessment test results and teacher-performance data back and forth between the districts and the state, the extranet would be password protected. Groce said state education officials are excited about the data-collection possibilities to reduce paper forms and the time-consuming transfers of information.

"Right now we're in the baby stages, but that could really take off," Groce said. "It could really help us find out how much money we spend on special education. It seems like a simple question; but, the way it works right now, it can take a long time to get accurate information. And sometimes the Legislature needs to know in a hurry."

Corey Grice is a San Francisco-based writer.

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