September 18, 2010 By Wayne Hanson
What does it take to win the Digital Counties Award -- not once, but every year since it started eight years ago? To answer that question, you'd need to talk to Charles County, Md., CIO Richard Aldridge (pictured), as Charles County is the only one to do it.
Aldridge became CIO in 2000. "We were RPG programmers, and we had about 150 users. I promised the staff that they would never get bored and that they would be using state-of-the-art technology," said Aldridge."
The county site has everything from a green program to a transparency application that includes an online county checkbook and many interactive applications. Aldridge says the county was first in the area to allow residents to pay taxes and utilities online. "We have one webmaster, it's never been hosted by anybody but us, we even wrote our own content manager, and maintain it. We don't use an IIS server, we use an Apache server."
The site gets from between 3 and 4 million hits per month, and Aldridge is obviously proud of his team and what they've been able to accomplish. "I've got a crew of 16 people who will do anything it takes to do it right and to keep it going. We stay up on everything. I read over 30 technical publications a month, as well as books, and I have staff members who eat, sleep and drink this stuff. It's not based on spending a lot of money because we don't have the money to spend. I don't send anybody out for training, most of the training we do in house, or we buy books and teach ourselves how to do it. and that's how we got started."
Aldridge says the county a few years back, was the first in the state to put election results online. Aldridge was selected to represent the counties in a touchscreen voting machine deployment. "One of the questions they asked was how the data was going to be exported, and I suggested a formatted report that would go onto the website, so everybody could see what the results were, as you were progressing. So the company wrote a report -- we wanted it to be a CD but they wouldn't do that because of the USB security -- to a diskette in html, and we could take the diskette and drop it to the website. So immediately for all 24 jurisdictions, we made it available so that they could all report the totals in a common format."
Aldridge explained that the machine collects the data and it's tallied, and there's a procedure at the precincts to tally all the machines, including the paper ballots that are scanned by scanners, and then send them to the Board of Elections for certification and verification, and then it goes into another machine, that totals everything by precinct, into one election.
This last Tuesday, he said, "The polls closed at eight and the staff [got the first precinct's data] at 8:15, and posted it to the website, and then by 9:11 we had nine more precincts, and by 10:07 we had another 10 precincts, and by 11:14 we had all 44 precincts, compiled, totaled, and up and there for the citizens to see online." Charles County has shared the in-house application with other neighboring counties.
One of the in-house applications helps senior citizens sign up for activities. "When the senior comes in they have a little fob with an ID in it," said Aldridge, "and when they swipe the fob, up comes their name on the computer, and all the events of the day. Before, they used to sign a sheet for each event, now since it's Web-enabled, all they do is touch it on the touchscreen. We collect it in a senior database, and we print out the signup sheet for the instructor or the organizer." This also helps reporting as to senior participation under the county's grant requirement. "Our seniors were so happy with it," said Aldridge, "that when it came to touchscreen voting, they told the people when they went in the voting booth 'Oh we know how to do this, we do touchscreen all the time.'"
Another Web-enabled application keeps track of when Sheriff's Department officers are scheduled to appear in court to testify. "In the past we wasted a lot of taxpayer's money," said Aldridge, "when the person would pay the fine at the last minute, and here an officer shows up and finds out he didn't have to be there, because the person paid the fine the night before. So the officer gets three hours of pay to appear, even though he didn't need to be there. So we automated this thing, and the minute the guy pays the fine it was updated. So the officer got a flag on his e-mail and a text message right from the system, and he could also check from anywhere as long as he was Web enabled, to check his appointments. So it saved taxpayers at least three hours of officer pay. This alone was a tremendous amount of savings."
Online Check Register
They county has its check register online, and Aldridge says it saved much staff time in answering FOIA requests. "We used to get tons of requests "Now our bid bonds are all online. And with online permitting, that dropped the workload of staff and inspectors."
Commissioners Water Cooler
The Commissioners' water cooler is a way for staff to send anonymous comments or suggestions to county commissioners. IT keeps secret any identity information unless there's a legal issue, but employees can also submit to the water cooler through anonymous kiosks in county buildings. The county experienced furloughs, and cut 150 positions, so the water cooler "got a big workout," as Aldridge phrased it, with some 500 submittals. The commissioners used many of the cost-saving ideas, have quelled rumors and provided answers to questions that everyone could access.
Aldridge was in Blacksburg, Va., during the Virginia Tech shootings and saw the value of the citizen alert system. He started looking at doing something similar for Charles County, but wanted to expand it to include special events, utility problems, football signups, and other items of community interest. "My staff looked at it and saw how we could write it ourselves, and we found a little company in Texas that did what we wanted." A county that borders Charles pays $20,000 per year for Red Alert, he said, just for emergency alerts. "We pay $12,000 per year and we've got libraries signed up to announce new books, community services, senior centers, utilities, recycling, the landfill, everything you can think of."