New Orleans had big

By David F. Carr Print this article Print

City officials saw disaster preparedness as a job for another day. Then Katrina struck. In the six months since the hurricane blew apart the city, New Orleans officials have been improvising a plan to put its information infrastructure back together. Here

IT plans—before Katrina">

Boating through flooded streets and personally pulling people from the water was not exactly what Meffert thought he'd signed up for when he joined the administration of Mayor Nagin following a 2002 city election.

A former software executive, Meffert became the city's first technology chief, and in 2003 he was given an expanded role overseeing the city's engineering and land management departments.

Today, his titles include chief technology officer, chief information officer and deputy mayor.

Nagin had campaigned partly on the idea of improving city government through the strategic use of technology, and he enlisted Meffert to serve on his transition team after his election.

"People tend to assume, because of the role I have right now, that I was close to the mayor," Meffert says. "Actually, I did not know the mayor before I took this job." But Nagin knew Meffert by reputation.

In the city's tiny technology community, Meffert was famed for having raised some $35 million in outside investments in his startup, a document management firm that evolved into a specialist in encrypted document transmission over the Internet. By 2000, however, he had stepped aside in favor of another CEO.

Known at various times as ITS, NetEx and Certia, the company moved its headquarters to Virginia and got acquired.

Meffert initially stayed in New Orleans as its CTO, but by the time of Nagin's election, he was looking to get out. He signed on for $150,000 a year, well below what he'd earned in the private sector.

In his new job, Meffert aggressively pushed for the adoption of new technology. Initially, his mission was to save the city from another kind of disaster—its own inefficiency and reputation for corruption.

When the police raided a city permits office suspected of peddling favors, he and his team were there to help the cops recover clues from the office computer systems.

That was part of a crackdown that eventually resulted in 84 arrests of city workers.

He and Nagin approached the city as "a classic BPR problem," he says, referring to the business process reengineering strategy of redesigning work processes for greater efficiency and using technology as a way to force change.

At the time, the city's existing management information systems department was "all about running mainframes—that's all they did. That, and very old phone systems," Meffert says.

He began migrating city systems toward client-server or Web architectures, primarily built around Microsoft technologies.

The city expanded an existing $25 million outsourcing agreement with ACS, a Dallas-based computer services firm that works with state and local agencies.

The city's mainframes, which Meffert wanted to phase out, were moved out of the data center on the third floor of City Hall and into an ACS data center in California.

To better manage city finances, Meffert bought and customized Microsoft's Great Plains software package (recently re-branded Dynamics GP).

Great Plains is primarily known for serving small to midsize businesses, but Meffert put developers to work tailoring it to city functions.

Knowing that the kind of people he wanted to employ were unlikely to be attracted to civil service pay grades, Meffert contracted out for technical talent through Ciber, the Colorado-based systems integrator, and a local subcontractor, Imagine Software.

Imagine effectively became his project management office, supervising any other contractors or service providers.

By making this an ongoing relationship, he wanted to provide the continuity for a systematic approach to the city's technical infrastructure.

The city's pattern in the past had been to hand out one-off contracts with little oversight and let them drag on for years, he says.

His goal was to provide the city with much more modern and flexible systems, and to generate positive cash flow in the process.

After only a few months on the job, he showed how more rigorous data analysis could boost the city's revenue by millions of dollars.

By matching occupational licenses against sales tax data, he revealed how many businesses were routinely skipping sales tax payments. No super science involved, just a database match, but it was something that hadn't been done before.

When he got around to replacing the city phone system with Cisco VOIP gear in 2004, Meffert pointed out that the city had been paying more than $1 million per year to rent phone equipment, plus about $800,000 per year for service calls for routine tasks like moving extensions.

In contrast, the Cisco equipment would be purchased through a five-year, $1.2 million per year rent-to-own contract, and the easily reprogrammable phones would eliminate most service calls.

According to estimates prepared before Katrina, the city was on track to improve its finances by up to $50 million by 2006 as a result of technological improvements.

The city was expecting to bring in an additional $7.5 million in sales taxes, plus $1.7 million in interest on unpaid taxes, while saving money in areas like telecommunications contracts ($9.5 million) and computer operations ($2 million per year).

When Meffert's developers overhauled the city's Web site, they also built their own custom Web portal and content management system.

More important, they began to turn the Web site from an online brochure for the city to an active communications tool and a way for residents and businesses to get services from city government.

Before this effort, New Orleans was at the bottom of the rankings in the Best of the Web contest run by the Center for Digital Government.

But in judging that was completed just before Katrina, the center gave New Orleans first prize (a tie with Washington, D.C.) based on the number and quality of government services offered online.

By that point, residents could pay taxes, report potholes and other issues, register a business, apply for a business permit or look up property assessments online.

"Going into this storm, I thought that was my capper," Meffert says. "I was, frankly, ready to get up on the horse and go back into the private sector."

Story Guide:

IT In Katrina's Wake

  • What was Left In Katrina's Wake
  • New Orleans had big IT plans—before Katrina
  • Preparing for the storm
  • Recovery: Some decisions that paid off
  • New Orleans CIO deals with political storms
  • VOIP, Web portals, geographic information systems all play a role in New Orleans' recovery

    Other Stories:

  • Mayor Ray Nagin promised to run the city like a business
  • How mobile computing and wireless networks sped post-Katrina housing inspections.
  • Video surveillance let authorities keep a close eye on this year's Mardi Gras
  • Calculating the cost of a solid disaster recovery plan
  • 4 tips for technology executives looking to expand their roles
  • Vendor Profile: Why New Orleans and others turn for Tropos Networks for their wireless networking needs.

    Next page: Preparing for the storm

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    This article was originally published on 2006-03-06
    David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.
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