The Texas city is aggressively targeting the digital divide with its SimHouston initiative, a partnership with a Houston company to provide city residents access to a suite of online productivity tools. The city's CIO, Denny Piper, who came from the private sector and has been on the job for 16 months, is also busy trying to bring VoIP and thin clients to the city's workforce.
Government Technology: Houston introduced SimHouston six months ago. What has the response been and how many people have signed up?
Piper: We rolled this out in October with no marketing or advertising -- other than just walk-ins at the libraries -- and we have more than 20,000 subscribers. The lion's share of those subscribers are students with documents and individuals creating resumes. Those are the two biggest things being stored out there in the disk space that we give folks.
GT: The company behind SimHouston is based in your city. Did that help you put SimHouston together? Did anything else lead you down this path?
Piper: Actually, it was a happenstance meeting with a person working with Internet Access Technologies that got us lined up with SimHouston. It had nothing to do with them being in Houston, but it has helped us move forward with the application. It just makes it sound even better having a homegrown, start-up company deliver this type of application.
Houston is known for lots of things, but there is a big technology aspect of Houston that people aren't aware of. As we move forward, that's going to be brought to the forefront.
GT: We've seen some counties and cities experiment with giving people PCs, but you went a different way. Why?
Piper: Most cities already give people the ability to use a device, but what this does is give you the applications and the thin-client perspective on the desktop, which nobody else offers. A lot of people can surf the Web. A lot of people have PCs. But they don't have the productivity tools in a thin-client mode that are hosted and managed remotely. It cuts down on the maintenance and the amount of downtime that an application has.
We've had less than six minutes of downtime since October on this application, and it runs all the time. You can be anywhere in the world and use the application.
We wanted to make sure that we delivered. You can pass out PCs to people, but if they don't have the applications and the ability to use the applications with the most current versions, it's not as productive for them.
GT: Has there been one theme in the feedback you've gotten from people?
Piper: A lot of the people who are using it are able to now store documents in a shared environment and share those documents with other people. Again, there's no maintenance. They don't have to worry about storage space. They don't have to worry about viruses. They don't have to worry about the most current version of an application.
A person who has a bicycle or who walks or has a bus pas can come to any library in the city and have access to the same technology that a person who works for a Fortune 500 company. We've got people coming with a resume written on yellow sticky notes and asking the librarian to help them write a resume so they can go out and look for a job. They haven't had that ability before, and that's who we're truly trying to reach -- the folks who haven't had the ability to use application software.
The librarians deserve kudos because they're the ones who have to support