Virginia city's plan focuses on bridging data silos
Norfolk, Va., city officials are laying the groundwork for a homeland security model that will employ cutting-edge technologies, bridge disparate databases and improve collaboration among government agencies, service organizations and the community.
Hap Cluff, the city's information technology director, began drafting the city's model last spring. He said that if Norfolk can get the necessary state and/or federal funding, other municipalities could replicate the model — which also includes deploying interactive television in the community and mobile wireless systems for first responders — faster, and at less expense.
"We'll figure out what doesn't work, what does work, what technologies are going to give us the benefits that we want, and that will save all of these cities a lot of time, energy and effort," said Cluff, a former councilman and mayor in Southern California in the early 1980s.
Although the sluggish economy is straining their budgets, municipalities are investing more in homeland security. But several officials familiar with Norfolk's blueprint said the city is far ahead of most jurisdictions.
"What he is doing is light-years beyond what is taking place in most areas," said Ron Holifield of the Innovation Groups, a nonprofit national association of municipalities that aims to spur innovation among local governments.
"It's not so much any of the individual components, it's the fact that they are taking a holistic approach," he said. "They are really figuring out how [to] communicate with the whole community in a very coordinated fashion, how [to] get all of the pieces working together."
The model, Cluff said, can benefit both homeland security and e-government. Many municipal officials have sought such an approach to further technology initiatives and save money.
In the next few weeks, Cluff, whose plan was informally endorsed by Norfolk's City Council last year, plans to meet with several state and federal representatives to show how his plan can improve security for the city, a major shipping port and headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Atlantic fleet. Norfolk, located in southeastern Virginia, is the state's second largest city with 235,000 people.
Cluff wants the entire city to be a proof-of-concept model so that results can be seen on a municipal level — and if successful, he'd like to see it duplicated internationally.
The crux of the Norfolk model focuses on bridging data silos among health organizations, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the different criminal justice agencies, including first responders and federal and military authorities.
"We're not in any way trying to merge all this information together, because that would diffuse it and not be effective," Cluff said. The model will help the different entities maintain their "brand name" and the security of their own information, "but yet [we will] have an agreement that when an emergency hits, they all know that their data will be shared but it'll also be secure."
Officials are still working on standard data formats and information-sharing arrangements among governmental, nonprofit and community groups, which Cluff likened to mutual-aid agreements among fire and police agencies in neighboring jurisdictions.
In developing the plan, Cluff talked with several technology companies about working together. Although the city would still have to employ competitive bidding, Norfolk could get services or technology at no cost by working with several companies.
For example, Denver-based Ricochet Networks Inc. provides high-speed, mobile wireless Internet access, already deployed in Denver and San Diego. It would enable first responders and other municipal employees — inspectors, meter readers, social service personnel — unlimited access at a minimum of 128 kilobits/sec while traveling at up to 30 miles per hour through the city.
According to the plan, Norfolk officials would allow Ricochet to install radios on light poles citywide in exchange for free wireless service for police and fire personnel, saving the city $120,000 a year.
Another piece of the plan is creating an interactive TV network, eventually enabling residents to communicate with the government via their televisions. Through Utah-based Wow Digital TV, which is producing mass-market converter boxes at less than half the current price, residents could get high-quality digital feeds for any analog or digital TV set.
Dan McCarty, Wow's senior vice president of operations, said his company, which is now offering the boxes in Salt Lake City, is collaborating with Norfolk and added that the city is "leading the way." Although reluctant to talk about the plan's details, he said that the "interactive nature of this thing will come along in future versions of the box."
"And where the government is excited about it is our ability to communicate quickly certain information as it relates to security," he said.
With such a network, Cluff said the city could transmit its own broadcasts, link to government Web sites, or show missing-child alerts with phone numbers that users could click on with their remote control. In that case, he said residents wouldn't have to search for phone numbers and could instantly connect to investigators.
Some other technologies could include:
n Accela Inc.'s permitting system, which enables building inspectors to assess damage to a property with a handheld device and then wirelessly transmit that information to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
n Metastorm Inc.'s software to map and automate government processes to create e-forms. The product is already used in Norfolk.
n Geographic information systems and electronic document management.
n Homeland security modeling scenarios on the Web.
Norfolk officials also hope to team with Norfolk State University, which is developing the multimillion-dollar Research and Innovation to Support Empowerment (RISE) Center with public/ private funding. Construction will begin this year, with a 2006 deadline.
Robert Askew Sr., executive director of NSU's Enterprise and Empowerment Foundation, which oversees the project, said RISE will provide a robust telecommunications infrastructure — about 7 terabytes of bandwidth — to support research and facilitate the region's economic development.
Part of the facility will have a carrier-neutral data center, "so toward that end, we will have within that data center environment the ability to store, manipulate [and] transmit large amounts of data," Askew said, adding that he believes RISE will be a primary site for the city.
Although Askew said Cluff's plan is "at the frontier of everyone's thinking," he said it's built around the notion of aggregating those shared interests. "The cost of accomplishing some of the things he's talking about are within reach if people are willing to collaborate."
Cluff said the Norfolk model could cost up to $30 million, but he wasn't entirely sure about the price tag. However, he said such investment would save municipalities money in the long run.
"What I want to do is build a model that shows them how they can enhance their day-to-day operations to become more cost-effective in their permitting processes and the policing of whatever they're doing," he said.
"I think in the federal government there's a mind-set that the cities and counties can't do this without them, and there's a mind-set within the cities that they need to have federal money to do all this stuff," he continued. "What I'm saying is yes, there are certain things you're going to have to step up to the table and pay for [such as additional police and overtime], but by and large for utilizing your resources better, getting Red Cross there sooner, getting more citizens involved, all that kind of stuff, I think that can be done within your existing budget."
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