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State And Local Governments Embrace These Low-Cost Tech Innovations

Local integrators forge ongoing relationships with government customers by offering them low-cost technology solutions.

Dubbed "Improving Crime Data," or ICD, the user-friendly system works much like Google, the popular search engine, according to Mike Ostrowski, principal consultant for Optimus Solutions. The first phase of this ongoing project cost Marietta only $38,500, according to Optimus Solutions.

"Marietta's prime focus was to develop an officer-friendly, scalable software search tool for use by our detectives, but with an eye toward deploying this technology out to our patrol cars," says Gene Estensen, Marietta's MIS director. "This gives our officers the ability to quickly analyze crime data that was hidden away in our mainframe."

A little further south, Florida's Miami-Dade County (also profiled in our cover story on page 8) turned to Dublin, Calif.-based Accela for a solution to its overwhelming fire-safety inspection workload. The county had 43 inspectors conducting annual inspections of more than 60,000 commercial properties, and nine administrators issuing permits for 20,000 to 25,000 construction projects each year. Additionally, state law requires the county to keep records of all citations, inspections, fire investigations and other administrative necessities for every building as long as it stands.

"It was just impossible to handle this volume with a paper-driven process," says Chief Alfredo Suarez, Miami-Dade County Fire Marshal. "We knew we had to automate," he adds.

But of course, budget constraints held the department back"that is, until Accela came along. Accela provided a pay-as-you-go hosted service, called Accela Automation. Now, when a permit comes up for renewal, the system automatically generates a renewal notice. Billing notices are then sent at 30-, 60- and 90-day intervals. If the occupant has not renewed after 120 days, the case is automatically referred to the code enforcement division.

"The only thing administration has to do is post the check when it's received from the building occupant," Suarez says.

The Accela system also has reduced the time required to conduct initial plan reviews of new construction projects. Now, 80 percent of all reviews are done within 24 hours, according to Suarez. Inspectors carry wireless laptops and transmit information directly from the field to the department's database. The payoff has been enormous.

"Miami-Dade's inspection revenue has grown from $200,000 to more than $5 million per year since this system was implemented three years ago," says Maury Blackman, marketing vice president for Accela.

The fire department has been able to steadily reduce its ad valorem tax rate while funding new fire stations. Lower taxes, better service and more fire protection are also part of the package"thanks to Accela's innovative hosted solution, which also saved Miami-Dade more than $3 million in up-front costs.

While Accela charges governments on a pay-as-you-go basis, BuilderRadius, of Asheville, N.C., goes it one better with free software, installation, training and support for building departments. The company's BluePrince software enables permit applications, processing, issuance and tracking, requests for inspections, field reporting of inspection results, payment for permit and inspection services, and access to all functions via any Internet connection, including browser-enabled mobile phones. The contractors who use the time-saving online-permit services pay $9.95 to $19.95 per month, depending on the features they choose. The towns of North Charleston and Lexington, N.C.; Columbia, S.C.; Decatur, Ala.; and McAllen, Texas are among the early adopters of BluePrince.

"Our customers are delighted that taxpayers don't foot the bill for this new software, which increases both the thoroughness and number of daily building inspections performed," says Bill Ward, CEO of BuilderRadius.

A Double-Edged Sword

E-government is a double-edged sword, however. The more open government becomes to doing business online, the more open it becomes to attacks. Fremont, Calif., has found a way to secure itself against external threats without devoting additional labor to monitoring its network and without risking too much financially.

"We were looking to add a layer of security that had a low initial cost and low administrative overhead, and that gave us an instant high return," says Mike Towan, network administrator for Fremont.

A 30-day trial of ActiveScout by ForeScout Technologies gave him what he wanted. ActiveScout is a patented solution that blocks intruders before they can attack.

"Virtually all attacks are preceded by some sort of reconnaissance"like casing a bank before robbing it," explains Tim Riley, ForeScout's general manager. "ForeScout's ActiveResponse technology detects such probes and blocks their originating IP addresses before an attack is launched."

ActiveScout reacts only to suspicious patterns of behavior, rather than analyzing every packet that comes through the gateway. Thus, it has very low impact on system performance and scales well. It blocks suspects automatically and doesn't require an administrator to review alerts or activity logs.

ActiveScout "saved us 10 to 15 hours per week of scouring through security logs," Towan notes, "And we've reduced the time we spend managing the firewall by about two hours per week." That translates into annual labor savings of more than $26,000.

WormScout is ForeScout's internal watchdog, deployed on any number of network segments behind a VPN concentrator or switch. WormScout detects the preattack behavior of known and unknown worms"such as attempts to harvest e-mail address books"engages the probing worm in a delaying "conversation," blocks the worm's access to vulnerable ports and notifies all other WormScouts on the network of the potential attack. Like ActiveScout, WormScout has a negligible impact on normal e-mail traffic, and that transparency has a significant impact on user behavior. "Of our 170-odd customers, 100 percent of their users leave WormScout turned on all the time," Riley says.

Get Tough

Cost-conscious innovation is continuing in the wireless public-safety sector, too. While many local law-enforcement agencies are now using public cellular networks to link patrol cars to each other and dispatch centers, the limited bandwidth of CDPD and GPRS cellular services cannot handle multimegabyte downloads of software updates and GIS data. That's why the municipality of Aurora, Colo., teamed up with local reseller Anyware Network Solutions, intent to develop a labor-effective and, most important, low-cost Wi-Fi solution.

Each of the city's 300 mobile Panasonic Toughbooks, which are used by police, is equipped with WaveLink's Avalanche client software. An Avalanche server resides at Aurora's network operations center. Cisco Aeronet access points are installed at the city's four fuel depots, a convenient location for Wi-Fi access points. The police officers can fill up with data while filling up with gas, the city of Aurora reasons. The cars and their laptops have to remain in range of an access point long enough to complete their downloads. If a vehicle leaves the depot before a download is finished, a bookmark is placed in the file and the download resumes the next time the vehicle comes within range of an access point.

"Before, if we had a software version release, we would have to pull in all of the laptops, reimage them and then redeploy them back out to the cars again," a process that took four to five people at least two weeks, explains Deanne Robertson, system coordinator for Public Safety Systems in Aurora. "[Now] we can send down a 20-MB software package in 50 seconds [without human intervention]."

Aurora also deployed NetMotion Mobility software to all vehicles, enabling them to seamlessly roam from Wi-Fi to CDPD to GPRS networks without losing their VPN connections or having to sign on to a new network.

"Local government wireless business has kept growing the past couple of years," says Brian Hunt, Anywhere Technologies' general manager. However, he adds that the growth rate has slowed this year to 15 percent, a decrease from 25 percent in 2002, and the deals are getting smaller. "A city's Wi-Fi network might go for $5,000 now," says Hunt, who has developed an effective methodology for closing a high percentage of prospects.

"First, we do a 'needs discovery' meeting with the customer. Then we sell them a site survey. Then we design the network, giving the customer an exact price and complete bill of materials," he says. "The risk to us is that we're giving away the secret recipe, and the customer could decide to go do it alone. But 85 percent of site surveys turn into sales because we tell the customer up front exactly what we're going to do and exactly what it will cost."

Meanwhile, back in Marietta, Optimus Solutions also developed a Web-based infrastructure for the municipality that allows rapid development and integration of interactive applications for property tax, building permits, business licensing, utility billing and payments, plus other high-volume government transactions.

"Its functions span a gamut of government affairs that will expand over time," according to Estensen. Marietta residents can view and pay their utility bills online. They can also look up their property-tax records, relieving the annual August strain on the city's call center after tax bills are mailed. In addition, building-permit applications are accepted online. GIS property parcel maps can be retrieved by owner or location. Citizens' requests and comments are taken via e-mail, and workflow software routes inquiries to the appropriate government employees.

The initial property tax and building permits applications cost Marietta $31,000, according to Optimus Solutions.

The e-government platform was built using IBM's WebSphere and Host Integration Software. The city is continually adding new services for the general public and its employees, according to Estensen.

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