GT Spectrum

Reports from the IT Horizon

by / September 5, 2002
Illinois City Cuts Cables
ROLLING MEADOWS, Ill. - City officials here planned to go live in July with a wireless metropolitan area network connecting approximately 15 municipal buildings at T1 speeds.

The Chicago suburb worked with 3Com to create the Rolling Meadows Metropolitan Area Network (RMMAN), and the company donated upwards of $1 million in equipment and services to the city to implement the project.

As part of the undertaking, the city's Web site was transformed into a portal representing the various segments of local government. City residents can use the portal to sign-up for free e-mail accounts; obtain information on public services and park programs; download city forms such as building permits, vehicle registration and animal licenses; and more.

"We wanted to see if we could do something that would differentiate us from our competitive base, which is other municipalities," said Thomas Menzel, mayor of Rolling Meadows.

The next phase of the portal, which officials expect to launch by the end of this year, includes electronic transactions with the various governmental organizations that are part of the metropolitan area network.

City officials met with elementary and secondary schools, park districts and libraries - separate entities from the city - to educate them on the benefits of becoming part of the RMMAN, Menzel said.

"We wanted to have a unity, a collaboration that we had not had before to get us all on the same superhighway so we could all grow together, not duplicate costs and activities," he said. "It wasn't easy to put this together. It's a constant internal educational process, but it's like the train getting out of the station - once the train gets out of the station, everybody wants to be on it because they see the value there. We had no ability to say, "You're going to be a part of this." It was our selling internally on the validity of the concept."

A not-for-profit, public/private organization - also known as RMMAN - was created to manage the project. Eswoosh, a local technology consulting and development company, served as the city's liaison with 3Com on the project, and is part of the RMMAN governing board. That board also includes technology leaders from local school districts, and officials from the city, libraries, the park district and the local chamber of commerce.

The city covers approximately three miles and all buildings that are part of the wireless network will be outfitted with their own wireless antenna, said Michael Broccolino, president of Eswoosh. Two large towers at the north and south ends of the city will help strengthen the signal, he said, adding that the network will use the 802.11b wireless standard.

"The entities had collectively looked into fiber optics, but, at that time, the cost was prohibitive," he said.

Emergency Text Messaging
BIRMINGHAM, England - The West Midlands Police Department launched England's first mobile phone text messaging service in July to help deaf, hard-of-hearing and speech-impaired citizens contact the police in an emergency.

The new service follows a survey carried out with the Birmingham Institute of the Deaf (BID), which showed 98 percent of hearing impaired people use SMS text messaging, and 85 percent would like to use the service to contact the police.

Max Corney, IT communications manager of the West Midlands Police Department, said the existing communication methods were clearly unsuitable for the deaf, hard-of-hearing and speech impaired, who often encounter obstacles when trying to contact the police or other emergency services.

"We hope that by offering text messaging we can provide a quality service to a large group of people who, in the past, have had real difficulty in making contact with their local police," Corney said.

The service, available only to residents of the West Midlands region, went live in mid-July. People who wish to use the new service must apply in writing and have their details placed on a database, stored at the police department's Communications Center.

A number of police forces throughout the country have already shown interest in the new service and it is likely to be expanded to other areas in the future. The initiative follows an idea submitted by Tim Humpherson, a department worker who is deaf.

"This idea is innovative to West Midlands Police," Humpherson said. "As a deaf person, I recognize the missing link, which is crucial for deaf communities to be able to contact the emergency services. Many deaf people already send and receive text messages extensively on their mobile phones. I hope this idea will be extended to all other police forces across the country as it will be of great benefit to deaf and speech impaired people." - West Midlands Police Department

E-Mail Dilemma
HELENA, Mont. - A recent investigation in Montana highlights a quandary facing many state and local governments: How to classify and retain e-mails flowing into and out of government offices.

Two media organizations, The Associated Press and Lee Newspapers of Montana, had requested approximately 3,500 e-mails from Gov. Judy Martz's office relating to an investigation being conducted by the state's Department of Justice concerning allegedly improper use of state telephones for political fund-raising.

As Montana officials worked to cooperate with the media organizations, they soon ran into complications.

"The news media requested e-mail accounts as they existed in the past," said Barbara Ranf, Gov. Martz's chief of staff. "We had to go to a disaster-recovery system to recreate an e-mail box - with all the sent and deleted items, the inbox and all the sub-folders - as it existed a month previously. That was the first really difficult part."

Though a new information system could help, Ranf said it's not simply a matter of throwing money at the problem.

"It came down to the physical part of having to look at each e-mail and say, 'Is there a privacy or other right here that we have a responsibility to protect,' that's what we're struggling with. I don't know how you do that without a human element in there to make that judgment call."

Part of the problem facing governments is determining when a particular e-mail is an official document and, then, saving that document in the right way and in the right place.

"Everything that comes in your e-mail box, we don't believe is a public document," Ranf said. "The news media's position was that [those e-mails] were. That's something that we'll have to work through."

Montana and other states need to examine their electronic document file-management systems, said Montana CIO Brian Wolf, who manages the state's central e-mail system.

Montana stores e-mail messages for 30 days. Under current state policy, messages considered official state documents are printed out and put into files - which replace any electronic availability of the documents, Wolf said.

"At this point in time, the state doesn't have a system that replaces that hard-file drawer that is a true electronic file-management system," Wolf said. "Look at the number of electronic documents you get today, versus what you got five years ago. What that tells us is that we have to start preparing ourselves to better catalog these documents."

Calculating Savings
TAMPA, Fla. - Why use an electronic service instead of driving to city hall? A savings calculator on the city of Tampa's Web site attempts to answer that question.

The calculator - located at - asks citizens for the type of business transaction they want to perform; the one-way travel distance to the appropriate government office; the number of miles per gallon their car gets; the cost of a gallon of gas; parking meter fees; and the hourly value of their time, said Steve Cantler, MIS project leader.

Using that information, it spits out the savings a citizen can expect by conducting business online rather than in person.

"It's there primarily to help citizens understand some of the benefits they might get by not having to get into their vehicle and come down to a city agency to do business," Cantler said.

Though jurisdictions are doing their best to educate citizens about the benefits of electronic government, some people still need that extra nudge, Cantler said, adding that the calculator has resided on the Tampa site for about a year and a half and gets between 200 and 250 hits per month.

"The calculator specifically uses the typical wait times that customers or citizens would see if they came down to a city agency to do the payment in person - or to go through a construction permit application process," he said. "We just came up with a fairly generic utility to allow citizens to plug in their characteristics."