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New Orleans CIO: VoIP, portals and Katrina

New Orleans CIO Greg Meffert talks with about his most harrowing moments after Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans CIO Greg Meffert and his IT team are due to receive an award this week for having improved their city's portal in a pre-Katrina world. Now the custom-designed features on that portal, and its flexibility, are allowing New Orleans residents to see aerial views of property lots and get the latest information on rescue and rebuilding efforts.

Meffert has a private-sector background and a reputation for rewriting his public-sector job description so that he directs several public departments. He has an IT staff of about 100 and a $30 million budget. And now his resume includes Hurricane Katrina, which forever changed the way he looks at disaster recovery, and distributed models. Here Meffert talks with about his most harrowing moments in recent weeks and tells us what it's like for a tech guy to be designated to the front lines.

Did you have a backup data center outside the city? How did that work?

Meffert: We were running out of California on the back-office system. On the first day of the hurricane, we were able to migrate all the website functions to Dallas.

Was that a prearranged plan?

Meffert: I'd love to tell you 'Yes' -- that I had that foresight. But honestly between you, me and the grand piano, I was trying to migrate away from California and get back in house. And I was very thankful that was one of my timelines that slipped. I (would have been) flipping on the New Orleans migration that week. So I learned a very valuable lesson there.

And that is?

Meffert: And that is... there is no one hardened environment that is anywhere near as powerful in a disaster as a distributed one. Period.

In other words, I would not say, 'OK, if New Orleans goes away I still got Houston.' It still wouldn't work for me. What happens if Houston's not there when this happens? You're still putting yourself at a single point of failure, is my point. So what you do is think in terms in of pure workflow. What are my critical things? Dispatch. What does that really involve? Well, it might include home data to CAD (Computer Aided Design) data to federal data. And you build a system and a workflow around that. And you can do that via relational databases. You have to have your process flow across those things, various supporting infrastructure, if that makes any sense. It's kind of out there.

Your strategy would have to originate with the CIO, not a vendor?

Meffert: It has to come from the CIO. The CIO has to be much more of an enabler and less of a keep-the-trains-running kind of guy. The reason I got all the other departments I got is because I was fixing things.

You've got to be focused on fixing things, not just keeping things running. And now you are on your way to pick up an award from the Center for Digital Government and Education?

Meffert: We were ranked 70th out of 70 major cities (prior to my arrival). We had an all mainframe shop, completely 100%, and a one-page website with a picture of the mayor on it -- which, by the way, when I got here, had the wrong mayor on it. We were dead last in everything. What's funny is we had a budget higher then than we have now.

What we did was focus not on gee-whiz stuff, but bang-for-buck stuff, to get the cash. It's like those IBM commercials about things that don't really happen in the real world. I didn't have the luxury of only flipping a switch for this department or that department because I knew I would have to do the back-end integration, and there goes all my savings. So if I flip it all at once, and get voice and data at the same time then I really do only buy one switch. And I really do save the cost of it.

People say, 'Man, you did the largest VoIP in one year. You did 2,500 phones. No city has ever done that. Man, you must really love VoIP.' I say I couldn't care less about VoIP.' So why did I do it? The features? Or the Web browser? Nope, I'll tell you one reason I did it. The same reason we did everything: saving money. Because in the end, we had a $3.2 million budget for phones. And $1.1 million of that was getting the Bell South guys to keep moving the same damn lines back and forth.

They charged me $100 per hour to do that. With VoIP, I plug it in -- and the number follows me. I think I can save $1 million per year doing that. Then we said, 'Well how do we do that? What we can do is get the VoIP. We flip it all at the same time; we count the dead lines. So we turned off 25% of the lines, right there.

And is that the basis for the award, those productivity gains?

Meffert: No, actually, that's the kind of weird part. That is the stuff I'm kind of most proud of, but no, it was pure functionality on the website. We went from zero to 30 online services. We built in a lot of access for the handicapped and whatnot. They don't even know that we built it into a product, which is why we could do the hurricane stuff, why it morphed so quickly.

Your surveillance-camera project got a lot of national attention prior to the storm. Did those survive Hurricane Katrina?

Meffert: Those stayed up. They stayed up, man. They stayed up in a Class 5 hurricane and not only that -- even the Feds started using them for evacuation. They ended up becoming a signature through this whole thing, because they stayed up. And we're using them now. There's a lot to it. It's not one thing about the cameras that makes them unique. It's the fact that it takes that super high res type camera, combines it with motion detection, separate motion detection software that walks a virtual beat with PTZ, pantone zoom, in conjunction with the way the images are processed and captured. It preserves the chain of custody and limits bandwidth issues while still giving you clarity on the suspect's face, etc. By the way, that one sentence you have no idea how hard that part is to really do.

How did you find out they were up?

Meffert: Well, we were driving around by Office Depot and looked up and said 'Hey man, look there, they're still up.' It was amazing. That's the good part about the fact that we were forced to make them bulletproof. I guess they were hurricane-proof too.

What is the one image that epitomizes Katrina for you?

Meffert: I think it's when I was handed the phone that I took from a looted Office Depot with the President on the other line. It showed how thin government got.

Air Force One calls and you have to call a number back for security reasons. I said, 'Mr. Mayor I've got Air Force One on the phone that I just stole from Office Depot yesterday.' Stole is probably not the right word -- commandeered -- but that defines it.

The tragedy of it, for me, was that we went through six days of hell and then the guy I was bunking with killed himself. It was both of those things. It sounds cliché but it was really, really a one-of-a- kind triumph and one-of-a-kind tragedy. Actually, there were a lot of moments that I won't forget. There was also, frankly, pulling people from the water. I hate the way this sounds, but I've got two Mercedes and a 60-foot yacht and I've traveled the world, and all that stuff. But there's something about pulling somebody out of the water that is just a wonderful feeling. She had broken ankles. The fact that I could carry a lady with broken ankles and put her in the back of a Humvee... It's that feeling. I won't forget that. I won't forget the bad part. But I won't forget the look when somebody's there and you're pulling them out. You just never get a chance to actually save a life. That's better pay than anything. I've lost a lot of money from lost opportunities -- and just money -- by being a civil servant. But that kind of pay you just can't get anywhere else.

The website has morphed in recent days to include press releases, the interactive map showing flood levels and other services. How did you prioritize these?

Meffert: That is something that came out of my private sector handbook. When we built our website, for example, we built our own content management system, verticalized for government. We instinctually did that, instead of just putting up the website.

What that allowed us to do, and it's so much easier even than FrontPage, because you literally are able to add functions for credit card costs that really work and take into account all the government factors of doing that. We built a product on that. Before we were low tech; New Orleans had no reputation for tech. Then Steve Ballmer was bringing New Orleans up once a month I heard, talking about Great Plains and our help -- and we were just a stupid little city doing that.

But the website doesn't go down and it doesn't crash and we're able to add really complex services back in and out -- because of this content management system we run it on. So we moved that to Dallas (due to Katrina). I've got a handful of Web guys here and they just log in and move objects around. You're going to continue to see that website morph from rescue and recovery to now, restoration and things like that. And we're able to do it in the middle of our trimmed-down, army-fatigue-type setting we have here. And just move the objects around.

For instance, we turned on a donation type website. People said 'You've got to do one for New Orleans.' And literally 36 hours total, from start to finish, from the mayor saying 'I want to do that,' to us making it live and taking credit cards, we have a website up. That takes credit cards. That runs to the government account. That has all these government-oriented ways of doing things. Bureaucracy is kind of built into the product. We're very seamless here. We don't have a rigid customer-vendor thing. It's much more accurate to view the city of New Orleans and our relationship with our contractors as though we were business partners.

Get clarity?

Meffert: Well no, you can get the clarity. But the fact is that with full-motion video on high resolution, I'm going to need build up the Internet the size of Texas to hold all this stuff.

You have to keep the bandwidth down through a series of frame-grabbing things, but also keep your chain of custody clear so the lawyers can't it throw it out. So we had to go through a lot of rigmarole and ACLU guidelines. And then on top of that we … didn't have this huge network to handle that bandwidth. So we had to make them completely mobile and peer to peer, it was really a gumbo of a lot of stuff.

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