In April 2013, the announcement that North Carolina would build an Innovation Center (iCenter) was made, and at the time, was a just a dream to state CIO Chris Estes. Six months later, the iCenter opened. And today, Estes said, the iCenter has helped the state make huge progress not only in technology innovation and deployments, but also in building relationships.

Last May, state CIO Chris Estes told Government Technology of the several technological challenges the state would face. And as it turned out, he said, the center was a big help in tackling those challenges.

“I’m sitting in the Innovation Center right now, on a conference bridge line, looking at painted whiteboard walls, looking at video conferencing technology, looking at hundreds of end-point devices that have been checked in and checked out by our agencies to test and make sure those devices meet business requirements," Estes said. "I’ve seen hundreds of meetings held in our Innovation Center held with agencies that have historically never worked together. … So, I’d say in the last year we’ve made huge progress from where we were.”

Making the Transition Away from Windows XP

One of the challenges Estes cited last year was the approaching end of Microsoft's support for Windows XP, a day that came on April 8, 2014. North Carolina is still transitioning off of Windows XP for its 42,000 computers, and is now scheduled to complete the project by the end of the year. But it was through the iCenter, Estes said, that the state is able to make the transition in a smart and efficient way.

“Before the Innovation Center, we would have probably written an RFP to buy a bunch of technology, and then deployed at it each individual agency -- and [we] probably would have bought 42,000 variations,” he said. “Because of the Innovation Center, we were able to do a much better job strategically planning for our business requirements.”

Estes brought in CIOs from 27 state agencies to find out what their business requirements were and they were able to identify that all workers fit into one of six user “personas.” This allowed them, Estes said, to ensure that they could match the technology they were buying with their needs.

The innovation center also served as a testing ground for the equipment. In the past, he said, there have been projects where the technology didn’t work like it was supposed to or users weren’t ready for the new technology. This time, however, they tested everything they planned to buy so they knew it would work as expected and to their specifications.

“Because we tested and planned the work up front, we’re able to be more efficient with money," he said, "and we know what we’re buying from the vendor and that it will do what they said it will do. The real benefit," he added, "is that we’re paying for stuff once and we’re deploying it right the first time.”

Last year, Estes cited that of 84 state technology projects surveyed, “estimates were twice as high as originally anticipated and completion time took 389 days longer than initially estimated.”

One of the things officials hope to get out of the iCenter, he said, is an improvement on both project timelines and project quality. “We want to make sure when we deploy it, it works,” he said. “We spent a lot of time and effort reworking and retooling, and by spending a little more time on the front end of the process by framing and testing, we’re able to make sure what people get works.”

Technologies in Testing

The Innovation Center has been a great testing ground for new technologies the state will need to meet its technology goals, Estes said, adding that the state is working closely with its partners --which include the vendor community, the public, agency CIOs and the university system -- to develop their projects. There are multiple projects occuring simultaneously, some of which are discussed below.

One of the technologies the state is testing in the iCenter is hosted virtual desktops, which Estes said there are strong opportunities for in the state and it is ultimately more efficient to manage.

The state is also looking at cloud-based tools that will allow workers to collaborate more efficiently, he said, adding that this is something Gov. Pat McCrory wants.. “Our governor wants us to work as a team,” Estes said, adding that that's tough to do when the right tools aren't available to allow people to collaborate.

End-point devices and user interfaces is another a project on the lineup, and on this one, the Innovation Center is working with the university system on. In fact, Estes said, the state will launch a new Web branding and interface this fall that was developed in part by North Carolina State University students and faculty.

The innovation center also is looking at kiosks that can help speed up lines at the department of motor vehicles, he added.

Eventually, officials would also like to host hackathons through the iCenter, Estes said, and they’re now working with Code for America and other organizations to determine which approach will work the best for the state.

“Hackers are really like woodworkers,” he said. “They’re a group of people who like to play and work with technology, so they’ve honed their skill. We’re sitting in the middle of Research Triangle Park, one of the largest technology hubs in the country, and continuing to grow every day. And as a result of that, we have lots of technology people whose hobby is to work with technology -- we’d like to invite those people to help the state of North Carolina as we deal with large technology challenges.”

The innovation center is a key element of the state’s technological progress, Estes said, because it represents one of their four pillars, which are focus, fix, foundation, innovation. So far, he added, they’ve gotten positive fanfare and feedback from all of their partners when it comes to their new approach to work at the innovation center.

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.