Connected at Last in CoolTown
By Richard H. Carson
In Vancouver, Washington, a unique partnership of business and government is working toward the ultimate technological future of complete electronic integration.
Think about everything electronic you touch. What if technology allowed computer databases, television, wired and wireless phones, handheld devices, and geographic information systems to be completely "connected"? What if that technological solution included government?
Up to now the buzz words e-government and i-government have referred to electronic processes, but those processes haven't been integrated. Governments are using a patchwork of electronic equipment and software that aren't linked or compatible. That means staff members can't reach everything they need from their desktop computers, and citizens can't access everything they want over the Internet.
This situation is changing. A unique high-tech industry coalition — with such members as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Cisco Systems, and AT&T — has joined forces with two local governments to reach the next technological level. This beta-test project, called CoolTown, is located in southwest Washington State, in the heart of the Pacific Northwest. Clark County and its largest city, Vancouver, Washington — part of the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area — were picked for the development team because each was deemed an "intelligent community" and a "leading technology adapter" by the industry team.
According to Tim Medlin, Western Region business solutions manager for Hewlett-Packard, "The unique characteristics of the city-county relationship, as well as the technology leadership already in place, make an ideal environment from HP's perspective for such a partnership." Medlin points out, though, that CoolTown is a concept, not a place.
Besides being technologically advanced, the city and county share the same computer system and permitting system (Advantage by Accella). Hewlett-Packard is located in the Vancouver area, and Microsoft is in Redmond, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. And because the Portland-Vancouver metro area is home to some of the largest American and Japanese high-tech companies, its residents are used to a high level of computer services and are technologically literate.
In a recent Intel report, called the "Most Unwired City," the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area was singled out for having more WiFi hotspots than any other place in the nation. WiFi (or wireless fidelity) allows a laptop or handheld device (PDA) equipped with an ethernet compatible card to get access to the Internet. (See "Wanna Be Wireless?" September 2002.) The WiFi technology is a key component to the success of the CoolTown initiative. It means that citizens and government officials can carry around portable notebook computers and access information 24 hours a day from most urban locations.
Even before CoolTown began in 1999, the county began using technology in new ways to communicate with its citizens. The county found that residents expected to use new technology, but budget constraints forced the county to look for more cost-efficient options.
Clark County has been the fastest growing county in both the state of Washington and the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area since 1990. From 1990 to 2002, the county grew by nearly five per cent a year, from 238,053 to 363,400 people. Both Washington State and neighboring Oregon have adopted state-mandated land-use planning. Because of Washington's 1990 Growth Management Act, Clark County and the city of Vancouver, Washington, have successfully used comprehensive plans, environmental impact statements, transportation concurrency, and urban growth boundaries to manage growth.
Listening to the community
In planning for CoolTown, Hewlett-Packard's first step was to hold a series of workshops with community leaders. HP understands the development and marketing of high-technology products, but it knew it didn't understand the needs of government or the interaction between government and its citizens. So in late 2002, the company conducted three workshops, identified 120 possible application areas, and asked participants to rank these areas by their degree of importance.
The highest ranked categories included:
- Access to government services
- Community interaction
- Current community projects
- Economic development
- Integration of government
- Involvement in government processes
Some of these focus areas are easier than others to implement or manage.
Access to government services may provide the biggest return on investment. The Clark County Community Development Department's "virtual permit center" is a good example. The rationale behind it is that if a customer can go online, instead of stand in line, then the department can reduce staffing or spend more time working with those customers who come into the permit center.
The primary electronic links are between the county's computer system, the Internet website, Advantage's permitting system, and GIS. At the moment, the Advantage link is available solely to staff through an Intranet. However, the link is expected to be made available to the public so that individuals can track the status of an application. The GIS setup is especially useful because it allows people to click on a property and learn everything they want to know about that property's zoning, environmental issues, legal surveys or plat maps, and tax assessments.
The county has other peripheral electronic tools as well. It uses a speech-recognition software that allows fire marshals to dictate their inspection reports right into the computer system. In a matter of hours, the software learns each individual's speech patterns and then spells the information accurately 95 percent of the time. This system saves real dollars because it eliminates the need for administrative staff to enter report information into the computer system.
The building inspectors use a slightly different interactive voice recognition system, allowing them to call in and leave voice recordings. This two-way system lets the applicants know the status of their building permits and when building inspections are scheduled.
Public access to technology works well because the county has a high degree of "connectivity." The county is currently revamping its website with a new architecture that will allow greater navigation and format consistency. The Internet access is a great communication tool, but unfortunately, not everyone has a personal computer at home or at work. Some electronic alternatives are library computers, kiosks, and even ATMs. The bottom line is that government can't rely solely on electronic communication and must maintain the more traditional communication tools, such as print publications.
Community interaction is about how technology brings people together — including those working on development review and long-range planning. Electronic integration and unexpected events like 9-11 and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) are radically changing how we work together.
Why fly some place to have a meeting? Virtual meetings can be held over the Internet, and they're cheaper and safer. For example, the new white board technology allows a private sector engineer in one city to see the redlines on plans being done by a public sector engineer in another city.
Internet conferencing also allows the participants to see PowerPoint, spreadsheets, and visual simulations, and to hear all the participants. The great improvement in the quality of virtual meetings is key to replacing the real meeting.
Current community projects refers to a variety of planning efforts. The major one has been the county's comprehensive plan update. Electronic technology has played a much more prominent role in creating today's plan than it did in 1994, when the comprehensive plan was last adopted.
We have used technology like e-News, updated websites, website surveys, electronic voting in workshops, computerized vacant land, and transportation models to help inform citizens about the plan's alternatives. The county also put the comprehensive plan's environmental impact statement on a CD-ROM and will produce a cable television show about the preferred alternative.
Economic development is a high priority for the county and it is stressing the need to electronically streamline its permitting system. The Express Permitting program goal is to process permits within 60 to 90 days and to achieve the highest level of electronic integration between staff and customers. As an added incentive, applicants may now submit and pay for land-use and building permits electronically, anytime of the day or night from any location.
Education affords a lot of opportunities because it is almost limitless. The county website currently offers its GIS maps, development code, comprehensive plan, news articles, development trends, reports and studies, and meeting and event dates. The Community Development Department also uses a monthly e-News to reach out to its citizens. A traditional printed quarterly report has been replaced by a web-based data library allowing users to select and print the data they want.
Clark County recently built a six-story Public Service Center that is essentially a "smart building" constructed with education and information in mind. The building has LCD projectors, remote controlled cameras, and electronic whiteboards. It is also wired for long-distance learning, live cable broadcasts, and video conferencing.
Integration of government means linking databases and systems through cost-effective technology. It will decrease costs, automate permit and financial transactions, allow for one-stop shopping, improve information exchange, provide 24-hour access for citizens, streamline processes, and promote more community involvement. Internally, it could mean using project time data in Advantage to generate employee time sheets. It could also mean transferring data from the permit cashiering system to the county general ledger. The county is also working on moving the manual street addressing function into the GIS database.
An article in Planning ("E-Government: The Top 10 Technologies," September 2002), quoting IBM's Institute for Electronic Government, noted that processing a piece of paper costs a government $5 but that generating the same form electronically costs $1.65 because there are no labor, postage, paper, or equipment costs. The storage of planning documents is also changing. There is a better, cheaper alternative to filing lots of paper permits and plan sets.
Clark County now requires applicants to provide selected layers of site plans digitally. The plans are scanned and entered into the GIS. This reduces storage requirements and allows staff to access these documents electronically from their desks.
There are also savings if customers pay for permits online and not at a counter. The major drawback to electronic transactions is credit card companies that charge a transaction fee. Because the county is a government, we can't charge two sets of fees. Nor do credit card companies allow a surcharge. However, government can legally use an invisible third party vendor to collect the surcharge.
Involvement in government processes means using technology to raise public awareness. It is both promising and problematic. Using the Internet or e-News to let folks know how to contact their local neighborhood association and provide public notices of meetings or actions is something all citizens want. The use of e-News and websites is a cheap, but effective way to reach people about planning issues. Connecting the Advantage permitting system to the telephone-based voice recognition system allows the department to call permit applicants or contractors and inform them of impending code changes or permit expirations.
Some electronic communication is risky, including bulletin boards, listservs, and e-groups. In allowing for two-way communication, you have to worry about a few individuals who may abuse the privilege. The problem is not that people may disagree with a public policy, but that some individuals may express themselves in ways that are profane, racist, or sexist.
CoolTown began four years ago, the brainchild of HP's new chairman and CEO, Carly Fiorina. "CoolTown helps us envision the possibilities for an environment where e-services are accessible everywhere," she said.
Start-up costs for CoolTown are under $1 million because the industry team uses existing equipment and staff. However, the intellectual capital involved is unmeasurable. "When you think about connectivity, anything becomes possible; the only limitation is your imagination," says Dick Lampman, director of HP Labs.
According to HP, Vancouver is the poster child for i-government. The CoolTown system will be replicated nationwide.
A cultural change
Rich Carson, the director of the county's Community Development Department, is part of the HP development team. He and program manager Marlia Jenkins are directing the technological change in the county's planning functions. Jenkins notes that "professional planners have traditionally been pretty low tech. We have relied on the print media for brochures, newsletters, and magazines. However, with i-government our innovations are limited only by our imagination and money."
The introduction of the personal computer in 1981 and the commercialization of the Internet in 1995 have had profound implications for the planning profession. The Internet has allowed planners and planning organizations to provide information through a whole new medium.
This means planners are getting much more efficient with their time and their communications. Instead of moving a request for a decision from office to office on a paper memo, it's possible to make simultaneous decisions.
But is all this new electronic efficiency a good thing? There are three areas of concern:
First, by increasing electronic communication, we may be reducing the daily social interaction planners have with each other and with community residents. Planners manage programs, people, or budgets, but can be lulled into avoiding face-to-face contact with people. Let's face it, one of the hardest parts of being a planner can be dealing with unhappy people. In contrast, the computer screen expresses no emotion.
Planners can overcome social isolation in two ways. They can have an open-door policy, and they can use any pretense to walk around and talk to people. A healthy and successful organization or community has a human culture and a soul. Planners need to embrace these both attitudes emotionally and sometimes physically.
A second problem with electronic communication is that things get overly complicated. Computer models and GIS can let us do very sophisticated analyses. However, they can also become "black boxes" full of erroneous assumptions no one understands.
Finally, not everyone is comfortable with technology. This isn't a generational issue. Some people just don't relate to computers and the Internet. So we still need to find ways for such people to access the planning process.
One fact is quite clear. No matter what the future of the CoolTown partnership, Clark County has made a commitment to embrace new technologies and integrate them for the public's benefit. That means better public access to government and a more cost-efficient government.
Richard Carson is the director of Clark County's Community Development Department in Vancouver, Washington. He is also a volunteer editor of LookSmart's Urban Issues categories. LookSmart is the largest Internet directory in the world, with 2.3 million listed websites.
Images: The next generation microfiche reader where images can be accessed, scanned, and sent elsewhere. Photo courtesy of Clark County Development Department.
On the web. Learn more about Hewlett-Parkard's "CoolTown" project and see streaming videos about it at cooltown.hp.com.
Contacts. Marlia Jenkins, Clark County Community Development Department, 360-397-2375, ext. 4405, firstname.lastname@example.org.