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Our Wired Town

Our Wired Town

It's 6 a.m. on the outskirts of Buffalo Grove, Illinois, where the houses are a bit older and the lots a bit bigger. The sun rises slowly over the tree line, casting a warm glow on freshly tilled fields and a faded red farmhouse. A well-worn pickup idles by a porch, awaiting the dusty tread of heavy boots and the leisurely 10-minute drive into town.

At the local coffee shop on the corner of Lake Cook Road and Old McHenry, opinions on how Buffalo Grove's Little League champions will do against Deerfield this year are traded as heatedly as views on the upcoming presidential race. All the important news of the day is hashed out over crinkled newspapers, steaming coffee and that hearty mid-American breakfast staple...biscotti.

You see, Buffalo Grove is no longer the sleepy Midwestern farm community that used to provide Chicago with its cheese, milk and butter. The village has a Starbucks, a 14-screen IMAX theater and upwards of 43,000 residents, many of whom work in the Windy City 35 miles away. The farms and the flat, open fields still exist, but increasingly they're being swallowed by upscale housing developments, where three- or four-car garages and satellite dishes are the rule rather than the exception.

Keeping pace with a burgeoning professional populace with ever expanding high-tech needs presented a challenge for the village government. Over the years the fire, police, public works and finance departments each invested in computers and software to meet specific needs, like handling payroll and billing and keeping track of fire inspections. However, by 1994, the village board of trustees realised that as the individual islands of information within each department grew, the village as a whole was falling behind in its ability to serve the residents.

For example, because the fire and public works departments maintained separate systems, there was no way for firefighters to know if the alarm they were responding to was in a building that had been cited for more than a dozen building code violations in the past year. The technology environment had become so disjointed that the only way Fire Chief Thomas Allenspach or Police Commander Steve Balinski could get access to Building Commissioner Edward Schar or Finance Director William Brimm's information was by sneakernet-walking over to their offices and asking Mary, Joanne or Bobby to print out a hard copy.

Determined to reverse this trend but unsure how to proceed, in 1994 the village board set aside $750,000 for a new technology infrastructure and the following year hired Robert Giddens away from BSSi Innovations, a data integration services company, to spend it for them. In the past five years as Buffalo Grove's CIO, he has brought the village from laggard to leader with the use of cutting-edge technology and a private-sector approach to public-sector business.

It's 8 a.m., and a commuter, momentarily distracted by a cell phone conversation and the glare of the bright early morning sun, runs through a stop sign at St. Mary and Raupp Boulevard. To avoid the truck lumbering through the intersection, she swerves into a hapless oak at the edge of the road, severely mangling both the hood of her Ford Contour and the unfortunate tree.

Officer Michael Sheen arrives. After checking the plates and the driver's record and searching for outstanding warrants on the cruiser's notebook computer, Officer Sheen cites the driver for failing to stop at the posted sign and fills out the incident report electronically. By traveling into one of the village's six receiver-equipped replication zones, the officer can transmit the report to the precinct and continue on patrol.

The wireless technology, a result of a $75,000 grant by the State of Illinois, is the newest addition to Buffalo Grove's cadre of technology solutions. The Motorola laptops in the police vehicles contain two radio modems, one of which provides access to computer-aided dispatch (CAD) data, Illinois Criminal Justice Authority and FBI information, while the other contains village data stored in Buffalo Grove's Lotus Notes system. The Notes system contains over 450 distinct databases that can provide officers with contact information for building occupants, previous incidents at certain addresses, unpaid tickets and even the number of times a home's garage door has been left open in the past month. The wireless system allows officers to perform routine tasks like filing reports from their vehicles so that they can maximise their street time (which is where the crime is) and minimise their station house time (where the only crime is the coffee).

Commander Balinski, a police veteran of 23 years, refers to Buffalo Grove's initial investment in technology as the "creation of the big cash cow," but acknowledges its effect on the quality of the community's police work. "It helped us get to a more professional level," he says. The additional benefit of the wireless project has been that it is projected to save Buffalo Grove $40,000 to $50,000 per year for the life of the project because the village will no longer have to pay the telephone company for a T1 line to transfer data to and from each building.

Officers can also use the information gleaned from Notes to solve crimes as well as write tickets. A mug shot application allows officers to assemble a virtual suspect lineup by searching for physical characteristics, age and sex. That information can now be retrieved 24/7, rather than only within the 9 to 5 schedule of the records office. The police department also uses Notes to track gang activity (such as it is, and it ain't much), route bulletins and paperwork through the department and assign investigators to cases.

The data that the police department has collected through its Notes database is also helping to produce a citizenry that is better informed about how to ensure its own safety. Many residents bookmark the police Web page, where daily bulletins on DUI arrests and neighborhood criminal activity, such as marijuana possession and petty theft, are posted.

Most Buffalo Grove residents are at their desks by 10 a.m., checking their e-mail and the Internet for news and information. Civic-minded Buffalo Grovians subscribe to the Village News List (in its first two months the subscriber list went from zero to 300) to receive e-mail updates on local events and the agendas of village board meetings. If you've been noticing an odd taste in your water, you'll know to attend this week's meeting where the third item on the agenda is water quality.

The village of Buffalo Grove is basically a $40-million service corporation, says William Balling, Buffalo Grove's village manager, who is appointed by the village president and board. As such, one of the board's primary concerns has to be keeping in touch with the needs of its stakeholders-the village residents. Technology has enabled the village to roll out a variety of new ways to communicate with its citizens, like the Village News List and a Web site that provides the opportunity to download documents such as building permits, zoning ordinances and dog license applications, which would previously have required a trip to the Village Hall to obtain. Channel 6 on the local cable network is a scrolling information tree that Giddens and his staff can update with information that has to get out to residents quickly, such as a report on a lost child or a water main break.

"Personally and professionally our citizens are working in a fairly sophisticated environment, and that places demands and expectations on us," says Balling. So far, Buffalo Grove has tried to strike an even balance between automation and the personal touch by electronically providing residents with information-such as forms and suggestions for how to complete a task-but then requiring them to come into the red brick Village Hall to complete the process. Someone who wants to apply for a building permit can download the application and fill it out at home, but then he still has to go to the Village Hall to pay the fee and sit down with a plan reviewer.

One of the issues worrying Balling and Giddens is that as Buffalo Grove continues to embrace technology as a way to communicate with its citizens, others may be left behind. (Giddens estimates that more than 50 per cent of the village's citizens have home computers, and many more have access at work.) For example, Balling eventually wants to have a polling or feedback mechanism that would let residents voice their opinions on proposals via e-mail or through the Web site. "However, you have to be careful that you're not ignoring pockets of the population when you do this," he cautions.

A first step in the solution to this problem has been the Channel 6 cable station. With 75 per cent cable penetration, the majority of residents are able to access the information on this network.

It's now noon, and an MIS analyst runs a report for public works on this morning's car accident. In Officer Sheen's report, the driver blamed the fender bender on a stop sign that was hard to see (and not the engrossing cell phone conversation). The same report also details the damage to the tree, and a public works crew is dispatched to the scene to administer first aid to the ailing oak.

The lack of knowledge sharing across the different village departments was the root of Buffalo Grove's initial problems, and the resolution has provided its greatest asset. When Giddens decided to go with Lotus Notes as a collaborative and messaging platform and use a Unix-based program to run the core financial software, he was able to tie the disparate departments together. His first challenge was developing a standard central name and address book (CENA) that would be the foundation for all the community's information. While this may sound easy, years of working as separate entities had taken a toll on the quality of data within each department. In one set of records a resident might be called John Smith, in another Jonathan Smith and J. Smith in yet another.

After connecting all of the village's 250 full-time employees through the new Notes infrastructure, Giddens set about standardizing the information and creating a database that was searchable by name and address. The CENA enabled police officers, building inspectors, firefighters and finance officials to coordinate and share data on the same person and address. The result is that village employees now spend about 80 per cent of their computing time in Notes according to Giddens. In cases like this morning's accident, the public works department can run a report that shows the number of incidents at a specific intersection to determine if that stop sign really is so darn hard to see. Then they can move it. The Lotus databases also allow the village to easily track information for which few communities have the manpower. For example, Buffalo Grove's public works department keeps a database on every tree planted on public property. If there's an infestation of Asian longhorned beetles damaging Buffalo Grove's maple trees, the public works department can locate all the maples in the village and take precautionary measures.

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) have also become an important component of Buffalo Grove's information systems. CENA links to GIS, and by putting a square around each address the IT staff members can light up a map with any information they wish to see. The police department can create a map that identifies bicycle thefts by neighborhood for the past six months to discern geographical patterns and trends.

A blue Honda has been parked on Weiland Road near Nancy's Pizza since 11 a.m. Now it's 2 p.m., and when Sergeant Steve Haisley logs the ticket on his laptop, Lotus Notes boots the tally of unpaid tickets for this license plate. Lynn Bethge, the supervisor in charge of police department records, notes that the driver has accumulated more than 10 unpaid tickets and places a hold on that driver's license. Next week, the car's owner will receive a notice in the mail advising him to pay up immediately, and the next time this vehicular miscreant is stopped by the police, he'll be asked to accompany the officer down to the police station where he can either pay up or call mom for a ride home. Crime doesn't pay. Not in Buffalo Grove.

Collections is a serious issue for a local government. In its new system, Buffalo Grove has created the ultimate collection device. Among other types of billing, the system tracks building permit and licensing fees online so that within moments a village clerk can pull up all the various unpaid bills a resident has accumulated. All the billing used to be done by hand, and the only way to track who had paid their bills and fines was to search through the paperwork.

Utility billing was the first system Giddens converted into the new Unix environment, and the result has been that much of the bill printing and envelope opening has been outsourced to Third Millennium Associates, a Chicago-based business transaction company. Through the use of a lockbox, Buffalo Grove receives a disk that shows who has paid their bills, and that information is uploaded onto the system. The village is now able to enforce a rule that stipulates a resident can't sell his or her property until all outstanding bills have been settled. Like many communities, Buffalo Grove imposes a real estate transfer tax that must be paid before the property can change hands."If you want to sell off your real estate, you'll pay your bills," says Andrew Lauter, president of Precision Systems Concepts, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based systems integrator that helps Buffalo Grove with the development and support of Lotus Notes.

It's 4 p.m., the shadows are lengthening, and down at Village Hall the village IT committee is commencing its bimonthly meeting. Sitting around the table are a smorgasbord of Buffalo Grove characters, among them Joe Bridges, the pro at the Buffalo Grove Golf Club, Tim Sashko, a deputy chief and 21-year veteran of the fire department, and Bobby Freed, an administrative assistant to the finance director and a grandmother of three. There's a lot to discuss.

Back in 1995, Giddens knew that the technology transformation he was about to begin would be a tough sell for many long-time employees because it would irrevocably change the way they thought about their jobs and the tenor of their long-standing relationships. The police and fire departments, for example, had historically resisted attempts to pool information because of their concern with making sensitive information more widely available. So representatives from the fire, police and public works departments were asked to join the IT committee in order to find out firsthand what Giddens was planning and then act as evangelists and educators for their departments. In fact, in order to involve as many people as possible, Bill Brimm doesn't attend the committee meetings personally and instead sends Freed.

"People get really pumped up when you get them involved," explains Brimm. "You can bring in a police officer, a clerk or a firefighter who thinks that nobody cares about their opinion and make them part of the process rather than part of the problem." Of course, Giddens is responsible for keeping the village board happy as well, and making smart use of the money it budgets for him has been an ongoing goal. One achievement has been the money that Giddens has saved Buffalo Grove on its Internet connection. The school system pays $24,000 a year for its T1 Internet connection. AT&T Cable Services wired the village and park district to the school's connection, saving the village $48,000 a year (more than $190,000 to date). Buffalo Grove also takes advantage of a clause in its cable contract that allows the use of copper cable in the ground to connect public buildings and create a free institutional network. The village has expanded this to include the park district and schools. As a result, it no longer has to pay recurring monthly ISP charges for a T1 (1.2 megs), and instead it has access to a 4-meg system that is much faster, more reliable and maintained and supported by AT&T Cable Services.

One stipulation the board placed on the IT department early on is that if it was going to invest in technology, it would need to have the means to support that technology long term. As soon as IT buys a new piece of hardware or software, it is required to set up a reserve account and start putting money aside to fund the eventual replacement of the new technology. "It was a smart position to be put in," says Giddens, and "it makes sense that if you buy, you have to be able to replace."

While $750,000-the village's initial investment in 1995-may sound like a big chunk of change, Giddens and Brimm insist that for a community the size of Buffalo Grove it's quite reasonable, and they feel the benefits the village is realizing from the continuing investment far outweigh the cost. For fiscal year 2000 the IT budget (including the reserve account) is $423,000, a per capita expenditure of $9.82. With a grin, Brimm notes, "I've got to believe that we're generating more than $10 in efficiency per person with everything we're doing."

Clang! Clang! The alarm goes off shortly after sunset. It's 6 p.m., and there's a fire reported at the Arbor Creek Business Center on Asbury Drive. With calm dispatch, the firefighters hustle from the training room, where they were receiving a refresher course on CPR, through the locker room, where they gather gear, and into the trucks. On the way to the blaze, the firefighters use laptops in the vehicles to access detailed floor plans of the building as well as the location of any hazardous materials or previous fire code violations.

When an emergency call comes in over the loudspeaker, the firefighters' first duty is still to get themselves in the truck and on their way as quickly as possible. Technology hasn't affected that part of the process. However, en route to the scene, Buffalo Grove firefighters can now access a great deal more information about the situation they are about to encounter than ever before. By using laptops equipped with the same wireless technology as the police cruisers, firefighters can pull up a map of the building and its contents for any of the village's industrial and multifamily buildings (these are available for single residences but are not kept up-to-date) and view the location of hydrants, electrical and alarm panels, gas and water shutoffs and any important documents that will need to be saved. Within the next year the department will also have the technology to access information about surrounding buildings so that the firefighters will know when they arrive on the scene whether extra precautions will be needed because of that chemical plant next door. They can also look at the address's history to see police reports on suspected arson or if there are people in the building with special needs. All this used to be stored in three-ring binders that were kept in the fire trucks. Now they can be updated more often and accessed more easily.

Much of the technology innovation for the fire department has been administrative as well. Kathryn Abangan is the department's secretary and a long-term resident of Buffalo Grove. After 20 years of acting as den-mother to more than 60 firefighters, she has developed a strategic view of how technology has affected the day-to-day workings of her department. "If you're doing a lot of mutual aid calls in another area," says Abangan by way of explanation, "it may prove to the powers-that-be that another ambulance or fire truck is needed."

The lights in the rambling Village Hall have gone out for the night. It's only 8 p.m., but Buffalo Grove goes to bed early.

Officer Sheen's shift has ended, and his reports have been filed and approved, bearing testament to another successful day of thwarting the village scofflaws. Fire Chief Allenspach and his men kick back in their Laz-E-Boys at the firehouse, and over the quiet murmur of the TV they discuss the day's events and keep an ear out for the next alarm. Giddens' day is winding down at his home in Buffalo Grove. He doesn't have to live in town to do his job, but he does because he wants his children to grow up in a safe, well-run, friendly town where he has an impact on the community. The strength of Buffalo Grove's IT-enabled village is that "its people solve problems for themselves," says Giddens. And that's a classic American virtue.

Smart Business 1

Big Brother Is Watching

In most companies, employees are left to speculate over whether their Internet usage is being monitored. In Buffalo Grove, employees know that if they need to do Internet research on a personal health- or finance-related issue, that activity is best left to their home PC.

CIO Robert Giddens has created a Lotus Notes database called "recommended sites to visit" that lists each village employee's name and every Web site that he or she has visited in the past five days. The list serves two purposes. First, it enables an easy form of knowledge sharing by allowing employees to see the sites their coworkers find valuable. Second, it provides a not-too-subtle form of Internet self-policing. Giddens has found that having a public list of employees' web travels keeps people scrupulously honest, while still allowing them access to all the information they need. The ease of administration and clarity of employee expectations have made the system a success. Big Brother is indeed watching, and he sits in the cubicle next door.

-D. Duffy

Smart Business 2

Joining the Software Biz

Forming strong vendor relationships has been fundamental to Buffalo Grove's success, according to CIO Robert Giddens. However, he certainly never expected the community's accomplishments to create a whole new line of business. The power and flexibility of some of the applications the village has developed, such as the vehicle sticker application (which tracks the purchase and renewal of the required community identification stickers), impressed Chicago business transaction company Third Millennium Associates. It offered to form a partnership with the village to develop and sell the software to other communities, and Giddens agreed. After all, he notes, "If it works for us, it would certainly work for others."

Buffalo Grove has developed the software, and the vendor takes responsibility for the marketing, sales and support. In fact, three other Illinois communities-Blue Island, Hillside and Elmhurst-are already using the application and two more are expected to sign on. So far, the new venture has only netted the village $2,250, but Giddens believes that the demand will grow and that the project serves a worthy end. "If there are ways we can decrease the tax load on our residents while still providing high quality service," he says, "we'll take advantage of that."

-D. Duffy

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