December 8, 2011 By Emily Montandon
High Point, a city of more than 100,000 residents that’s known as the “Home Furnishings Capital of the World” for its concentration of furniture manufacturers, is located in central North Carolina. It has also become known as a strategic location for shipping because of its position at the crossroads of several interstates and highways and accessibility by air and rail. The city has welcomed international companies from various industries in recent years, including financial, technology, pharmaceutical and freight companies.
But despite High Point's diverse business landscape, it hasn’t been immune to the economic slowdown of the last few years. W. Patrick Pate, assistant city manager for High Point, said that one of the biggest challenges facing the city is the downturn’s impact on city coffers.
“We’re trying to do as much as we can and continue to provide the highest quality service that we can with a kind of static or non-growing revenue base,” Pate said.
High Point provides a full range of services to citizens, including police, fire and utilities. Pate said technology is an important tool for maintaining a high level of service in the current environment. He said the city has deployed a number of citizen-facing and internal systems to improve efficiency.
“We've had a whole lot of projects in that space of trying to fill a need without spending so much money,” said Glenn Hasteadt, High Point's assistant director of IT services.
In an effort to reduce IT costs, the city is implementing virtualized desktops — using a shared desktop solution from Citrix — which High Point anticipates will save $400,000 annually in hard costs. Hasteadt said the new virtualized desktop will save on replacement costs because the city can keep current desktops longer. When they do need replacement, High Point can deploy thin clients, which are cheaper and use less energy. Hasteadt said the new technology also increases productivity by letting city employees access their desktops from anywhere they can reach the Internet
“With the commercialization of IT, you've got a lot more tech in the hands of the average user,” said Hasteadt. “You've got a lot more demand for this BYOT, bring your own technology.”
For some field employees, the virtualized desktop means more tasks can be completed in the field. Previously some functions were too data-intensive to be sent over a typical cellular network, but with the virtual desktop most of the work happens in the data center.
“The only thing that's really going over the wire is a screen shot, and the only thing coming back is keyboard and mouse activity,” said Hasteadt.
The city also deployed a GIS interface that lets High Point employees interact with GIS applications and back-end databases from various end-user devices. According to Tom Tricot, the city’s GIS manager, the city used Adobe Flex and Flash to build a program that lets end-users do geographic analysis in the field and provide input for others to see.
“They can edit, they can add, delete, change things, update items in a live environment,” said Tricot.
The changes aren’t just made in the GIS, said Hasteadt. “It actually goes into the back-end systems that we have here that are not GIS-centric and changes those inventories. For any database in the city, we can hook into it and show that data and make changes if there’s a need to do so.”
Hasteadt said he believes the application is poised to become an analytical tool that can be used for a wide variety of purposes. “We’re using GIS really as a pane of glass into many disparate systems,” he said.
The application was originally developed to help departments that make service requests manage and track the workflows of their field employees. But the app is already being used for other purposes. Fire inspectors use it for inspections and emergency managers can use it to analyze and respond to various scenarios. Hasteadt pointed out that several years ago, a tornado came through High Point, and emergency managers had to mark the affected area on a paper map. Now he said emergency managers can do analysis on the spot and make decisions about how to direct citizens to shelter and where to close roads.
The app has been ported to the Android platform, and the city has incorporated GPS capabilities, said Tricot. Information can be gathered on the location of Android users in the field if the user device has GPS capabilities. He said the GPS function is particularly useful to managers of field employees who need to know where personnel are at a given time. It’s made jobs easier and more efficient for field employees as well.
“Anytime somebody’s out in the field and they’re working from a map, they can actually see themselves on a map and they can actually see the items that they are working with on the map; it just makes it much more intuitive for them,” Tricot said.