Best is yet to come for Houston e-gov

Although Houston had some memorable moments in the last century—does July 20, 1969, ring a bell?—its best times lie ahead, Houston CIO Richard Lewis said.

But the challenges that lie ahead for Houston also are many—among them, a depressed business cycle and winds of war blowing around the globe, Lewis said. Every city and county is under tremendous fiscal stress.

“That makes it incumbent on me as a CIO to make a clear case for what we should be using our technology for,” he said. “Sometimes the return on investment is saving money. Sometimes it’s preventing a breakdown in services. Sometimes it means deferring assets until potholes become sinkholes.”

Houston has some IT problems left over from the 20th century. One of Lewis’ chief objectives as CIO is to develop a collaborative approach to citywide IT management.

One of the first things he did was to designate officials in nine city departments as chief technology officers of business units.

Telephony’s the answer

The city is also developing a plan for using emerging technologies to improve services to citizens. Last month Lewis and his team finished a preliminary review of nine proposals for a voice over IP telephony system and narrowed them down to three.

The existing data network in Houston has more than 400 routers, which were set up around different information silos, Lewis said. The network is slow, lacks security, and has some main components that are no longer being manufactured, such as a switch at city hall.

Lewis estimated the VOIP system will not only give the city a faster, more secure data network, but will save Houston more than $50 million over 20 years.

According to Lewis, the SimHouston project is achieving its objective of bridging the digital divide [GCN, Jan. 13, Page 8]. More than 71,000 Houstonians are using SimHouston, and that number is growing every day, he said.

The suite of free e-mail, Internet browser and desktop applications is available to all of Houston’s 1.9 million residents through a library card.

The three-phase project is nearing the completion of its second phase, Lewis said. The city has begun sending an insert in water bills that describes the services offered by SimHouston.

And paper water bills might soon be a thing of the past. Houston will debut its online water bill payment later this year on the city’s Web portal, www.cityofhouston.gov.

As part of its e-government outreach, Houston offers five government transactions through the portal: online auctions, permits, plat submittal, ticket payment and a tee-time booking system for the city’s Memorial Park golf course.

The tee-time system has proven especially popular with people who come to Houston for conventions, said Senora Harris, project management office executive for the IT Department and chief of e-government initiatives. More than 1,400 visitors to the site made reservations for golf rounds online between March 4 and March 17, according to city records.

Houston’s Web site is hosted by BearingPoint Inc. of McLean, Va., which also processes the city’s online ticket transactions. The city offers the same services on its Spanish-language portal, www.ciudaddehouston.org, which has received 5,626 visits since its debut on Dec. 10, 2002.

More than 60 languages are spoken in the Houston school system.

The English-language site receives about 110,000 visits on average each month, webmaster Bob Nowak said.

The site offers a link to the Texas Web portal, www.texasonline.com, also hosted by BearingPoint.

The city Web site in addition links to different levels of government that are not under city jurisdiction, Harris said.


The bus hops on

“We put links on our site to services like the city Metro bus, even though it’s not a city responsibility,” Harris said.

“But as far as citizens are concerned, they think that’s Houston. They don’t differentiate between the city and other entities. So we provide a link to the bus service.”

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