Creatio ex nihilo: Something from nothing. A phrase common among biblical scholars, it could apply as easily to Manor, Texas, where CIO Dustin Haisler is building a meaningful IT infrastructure with virtually zero financial resources.
Last year, the city's technology shop operated on an IT budget of $64,893, or roughly half of 1 percent of the municipality's $12.6 million budget. In a year and a half on the job, Haisler pursued a number of creative projects to stretch those dollars to meet a range of needs for the community of 5,220 residents.
"Small communities can get by with what they have," he said. "But to do so, they are going to have to seek innovative solutions. We needed innovative solutions to get done what we needed without spending an arm and a leg."
First on Haisler's list: consolidating a wildly fragmented IT environment. Throughout the city, each department ran its own software, usually single copies installed on individual PCs. The police used PROCOP from CBS Specialty Software for records management. Housing permits were tracked on Excel spreadsheets. The system needed coordination.
Haisler convinced the City Council to spend $9,000 on a pair of Dell PowerEdge servers, making his pitch on potential time and cost savings, and waste reductions. It was Haisler's biggest purchase, but an absolutely vital step, he said.
The servers became home to Tyler Technology's Incode, a software package that addresses virtually all aspects of government management on a consolidated platform.
Making It Work
With the infrastructure in place, Haisler said he set out to tackle one of the costliest IT items on the city budget: police dispatch.
In the past, Manor's emergency dispatch work was handled by nearby Travis County. Last year, however, the county started charging for the service and presented Manor with a bill for more than $100,000. Haisler and Police Chief Robert Snyder started looking for ways to reduce the cost.
They looked at using ruggedized laptops in police vehicles, like many police departments nationwide, but the cost was insurmountable. Haisler estimated an expense of $5,000 per machine, plus many thousands of dollars for software. With 13 cars to outfit, Haisler said, the idea was quickly shelved.
So he hit on the unusual solution of mounting thin clients in the police cars. The CPU goes in the trunk, while the interface lies on the passenger seat. Relevant software runs on the city's servers back home. For wireless connectivity, the system relies on a Cingular EDGE Card for access to the provider's high-speed cellular network.
"After doing some research, we discovered Manor is a haven for Cingular signal," Haisler said. "We are getting just amazing speeds out of these cards."
The system lets officers run real-time checks on vehicle identification, poll state criminal databases, log ticket entries and report incidents.
"In looking at ways to minimize costs, we looked for the ability for the officers to find their own information without having to go through the dispatcher," Snyder said. "With every search officers conduct, the city saves the cost of one more county dispatch ticket."
The thin-client setups cost about $500 each, Haisler said. "The long-term cost savings are astronomical," he said.
Still, the thin-client solution has its drawbacks. In particular, engineering peculiarities posed a challenge. "It's a device that was never intended to mount in a vehicle," Haisler said, "so we had to figure out if they would even work in this environment."
The machines use purely flash-based memory so there are no moving parts, which is a plus. On the downside, a computer plugged into the battery of a heavily rigged police car is likely to encounter power fluctuations. Haisler solved that one by attaching a power capacitor into the power chain to regulate voltage.
The city has no fire department but next year, it may introduce the thin clients to city service vehicles to speed service orders.
"It's just so much more efficient," Haisler said.
Talk Is Cheap
In another effort to enhance citizen service without breaking the bank, Haisler started examining the potential of a city blog. He said he figured blogging could serve the city's need to reach out to citizens while making it easy for citizens to respond with their thoughts and ideas about the city's diverse activities.
Haisler was pressed to find an inexpensive implementation and found it at Blogspot.com, a free and publicly available forum for all things blog-related.
"If individuals are using it, I thought, why can't we?" Haisler said. "We wanted some way to communicate with our citizens, to let them give input into ongoing projects or just anything, but any CRM database would have been incredibly expensive."
Haisler set up the blog using only the tools freely available at Blogspot. He cites this as one of the advantages of his freebie approach.
"Blogspot has very sophisticated tools for posting pictures. It is incredibly user-friendly; you don't need any HTML skills, any programming skills, nothing."
This contrasts with the city's existing Web site, which is Haisler's responsibility and requires IT abilities to manage. If he goes on vacation, the Web site must wait. The blog, on the other hand, can be managed by virtually anyone in his absence.
The official Web site is chock full of formal data, such as forms and ordinances, official documents and applications for services, but the blog is less formal. There's a weekly update, an invitation to send in photos, even a quiz.
The Web site gets about 35,000 hits a month. The blog has drawn half that each month since its May launch. Citizens' biggest concern to date: When is a supermarket going to open here?
Where in the World ...?
Thin clients, free blog hosting -- Haisler clearly knows how to stretch dinero. One more example: Manor's GIS system, or lack thereof.
Haisler wants geographical data, but he doesn't want to pay $50,000 or more for a big commercial system. Fortunately Google Earth offers free, highly detailed maps. Superimpose existing city maps on the Google landscape, and voila! -- GIS on the cheap.
Is this an ideal way to build a civic IT infrastructure? Probably not. However, Manor is making do with what it has. Haisler said he'd like a bigger slice of the local budget, but recognizes that critical upgrades in the local utility infrastructure come first.
In the meantime, he said, it would be great if the leadership of corporate IT firms would step up to brainstorm with smaller communities, like Manor.
"We want their assistance in helping to develop a more efficient city, a more efficient society for our citizens," he said. "Maybe in the process, we could together come up with an idea that would maybe help their businesses too. We want to be a catalyst. We want to work with them to seek innovative solutions that will help them, and help the city too."
Contributing writer Adam Stone writes on business and technology from Annapolis, Md.