Municipalities Move to Mobile Government
By Maury Blackman
In the months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast communities, contractors and homeowners flooded city hall with requests for permits to rebuild and to schedule building inspections. It was a situation that could have easily created another disaster; yet, New Orleans has become an example of mobile government at its best.
Wireless and mobile technologies have enabled city officials to expedite the rebuilding process by issuing over 625 permits and conducting more than 2,000 inspections a day. Considering that before the storm, only an average of 45 permits were issued after a typical two hour wait in line, New Orleans’ road to recovery through technology has been quite extraordinary.
Without a doubt, wireless is becoming a powerful tool today for communities to expand their local economies, increase public safety, and improve communication with citizens and businesses. Wireless is also transforming how government works–helping agencies boost productivity and efficiency for their workers.
A good number of progressive cities and counties throughout the United States have successfully rolled out citywide and regional wireless projects, including Santa Clara, CA, and Lexington, KY. Places like Washington D.C., Cleveland, OH, and Spokane, WA, have deployed hotzones that provide free, wireless access to citizens as well as municipal and public-safety personnel. Others, such as New Orleans have set up networks for public safety and municipal use only.
More and more cities and counties are following suit. According to MuniWireless.com, over $3 billion will be spent by cities and counties on municipal wireless during the next four years.
As exciting as the movement of cities and counties across the nation to deploy wireless networks is, it comes with various challenges. Challenges can include the contract and negotiation process between cities and service providers, costs, and coverage.
Before issuing that Request for Proposal (RFP), government agencies should keep in mind five considerations as they take their cities “wireless” through Wi-Fi, Wi-Max, and other technologies.
Identify Users and Their Needs
As of September 2006, there were 68 cities and counties with citywide and regional Wi-Fi, 43 city hotzones, and 35 municipal and public safety-only networks nationwide, according to a MuniWireless.com report. Entities must decide how best to serve local businesses, government workers, citizens, and visitors.
Take New Orleans, which has a network that is utilized for municipal and public safety use. One of the most significant benefits of their wireless network was the increase in responsiveness by its Department of Safety and Permits after Hurricane Katrina.
The city’s building inspectors, armed with laptops loaded with mobile government software, were dispatched to perform inspections in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes. Inspection results were recorded on the mobile device and wherever wireless hot spots were available, the data was automatically transmitted to the agency’s database in real time.
Automating the damage assessment process expedited the department’s work tremendously. Once the department’s inspection team was up and running with a mobile solution, they were able to inspect 110,000 buildings in six weeks.
Define What Applications are Needed
The goals that cities aim to achieve through a wireless network are the same for most: to attract new business, improve government services, and to increase interaction with citizens.
For businesses, wireless can mean increased worker productivity and efficiency. Wherever they are–in the office, out in the field, or at the airport–workers can have consistent access to information and the Web.
For governments, a network to deliver faster emergency response and assessment can be used by public safety professionals. Another benefit is mobile government, where workers can shift daily tasks from their office to the field. As in New Orleans, damage assessment was improved with wireless capability, and inspectors were able to access permit data in the field and complete inspections electronically.
Today, e-government encompasses more than services but also e-commerce. By combining citizen access with wireless functionality, citizens and businesses can make appointments, apply for permits, and communicate with their local governments though interactive kiosks or via the Web.
Cleveland is an example of a city using hot spots and wireless technology to help transform the way its community lives, works, and plays. Cleveland planned two major applications to complement its wireless network:
To improve employee productivity, the city introduced a mobile software application for inspectors. The software provides real-time access to information in the field. Cleveland proved the value of a Wi-Fi enabled workforce, shifting daily tasks from the office to the field and improving efficiencies for the city’s 140 inspectors.
To accelerate government response to citizen requests, the city also developed a citizen access portal tied to its land management system. Citizens can perform simple tasks online, 24/7, such as application submission, inspection scheduling, fee payment, and license renewal.
Develop an Interoperability Plan
Interoperability is key when integrating new solutions–hardware or software–with existing systems and devices. As a result of growing public and private partnerships, many technologies and solutions that governments have available today are made to integrate with each other and existing technologies.
There is a growing collaboration with companies from telecommunications, wireless, and government vendors to develop the best solutions for deploying and maintaining municipal wireless networks. Companies such as Nortel are partnering with industry leaders in communications, wireless, broadband solutions, and government technology to help municipalities easily bring affordable broadband services to their citizens. Accela, Inc., a provider of government enterprise software and wireless solutions, is one of Nortel’s partners.
Accela is also working with Intel Corp. on the Digital Communities Initiative, a program that brings together a consortium of high tech companies to deliver comprehensive mobile government solutions that transform communities.
Although the steps to deployment can be tedious and complex, it is good to know that there are many technology options out there.
Testing current networks and applications is a big part of the deployment process. Before deciding on what new technologies to implement, many cities conduct a series of tests of the community’s existing networks, coverage areas, and infrastructure.
When testing a current network, entities should keep in mind any existing regulations, current telecommunications partnerships, services, and infrastructure. For instance, will the entity need additional towers and locations for wireless deployment? What coverage is currently available for businesses, citizens, and government? What type of security do current wireless systems provide?
Other questions to ask are: Does the entity have the ability to take back broadband or limit use during an emergency–how flexible is the solution? How scalable is it–does the entity have the ability to add more towers, and new applications?
Once testing is completed and the entity has decided what wireless technologies and services work best in the community, organize a team or committee of partners, vendors, community members, and organizations to begin the task of developing the next steps of implementation.
Set Timeframes and Budgets
When Philadelphia, PA, decided to go wireless, the city took a number of steps for its “Wireless Philadelphia” project. A committee was formed to develop a public-private partnership for deployment of the wireless network. The city also formed a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation and issued a RFP to outsource the design, deployment, and management of a citywide wireless network.
Creating a “wireless city” requires many measures, such as an assessment of objectives, technologies, and solutions; timeline development; funding methods; and evaluation.
When developing a plan, examine communities that have successfully implemented wireless networks. Successful deployments have revealed that it is important to be knowledgeable about previous and current technology plans and to establish both leadership support and a committee to oversee the project. The committee can include a consortium of community members, organizations, and companies. Set budgets for each task and evaluate funding methods and models that will work best for the city.
Advancements in technologies–especially software and wireless–have opened up government agencies to a myriad of new possibilities. Savvy government agencies that know how to leverage technology have the ability to foster better communication with businesses and citizens, improve work processes, and naturally and inevitably spur economic growth.
About the Author
Maury Blackman is Senior Vice President of Business Development and Marketing of Accela, Inc., a developer of enterprise systems for asset management, emergency response, licensing, permitting, planning, public health, and many other processes for government agencies of all sizes. For information, visit www.govinfo.bz/5973-150.