August 15, 2013 By Chad Vander Veen
Many people may not know that Jacksonville, Fla., is the 12th largest city in the U.S. in terms of population and the single largest city in the U.S. by area. One thing the city of Jacksonville’s Information Technologies Division (ITD) didn’t know was just how much money they could save with a 1 gigabyte Internet connection. But in just over a year’s time they learned the answer - $200,000.
Back in 1968, the city of Jacksonville and Duval County consolidated, resulting in the now far-flung city limits. Like most other cities, over time the IT functions fractured, resulting in numerous independent, small IT shops within various city agencies.
When Mayor Alvin Brown took office in 2011, he brought with him a vision for modernizing city-county technology. A large portion of the responsibility in seeing that vision through to reality fell to Chief Information Officer Usha Mohan and her staff.
“The mayor is highly focused on collaboration, innovation and technology,” Mohan said. “He has a very strong vision for the city in terms of how we function together and how we can be as consolidated as possible.”
Mohan has been leading Jacksonville’s IT using a three-pronged approach. First, she said, IT must be dollar-focused to help reduce costs and improve revenue streams. Second, IT must have a strategy around building efficiency, automation, consolidation and delivering better overall service. Third, IT must be citizen-focused in a way that delivers services like mobile apps and promotes the image of the city in general.
To accomplish these goals, ITD created what they call Metro IT Monthly Meetings. These meetings included various stakeholder agencies within the city such as the mayor’s office, public safety and city libraries. The idea was that since most everyone was in the same boat from a technology point of view, they ought to start working together to solve common problems. The meetings proved so popular, government entities from outside Jacksonville soon wanted in.
“We started these meetings as a way to build trust amongst the partners,” Mohan said. “We’ve even had attendance from nearby cities and counties because we all have the same problems we’re trying to solve. There’s no reason we should have to try to solve them individually. So we’ve started a dialogue about what we can do together. So any time we find something new, we talk to the group, share with the group, so we can get a better price for it.”
The Google Fiber cities program has generated interest in high-speed networks in cities all across the country. Like the majority of cities left out of Google’s audacious endeavor, Jacksonville came down with a case of the “me toos” and decided they would try to do something similar themselves.
So in early 2012 ITD and the Metro IT Monthly Meeting members began talking about how they could bring gigabyte service to Jacksonville. Mohan said they had already been looking at ways to improve their Internet service as they carry the public libraries and serve library patrons with 1,800 public-facing PCs. The idea of 1 gigabyte service also meshed with the mayor’s vision for technology enhancements and consolidation.
It turned out that Florida LambdaRail, an independent research and education network, had spent years laying fiber across Florida to help deliver ultra high-speed, interconnected, broadband service to Florida’s higher education institutions and partners. And because ITD was responsible for the city’s libraries, the city of Jacksonville was eligible to take part in the Florida LambdaRail program. ITD was also eligible to bring their partner agencies with them.
“The whole notion of collaboration and consolidation is for taxpayer savings,” Mohan said. “We were just looking for the best way to get a 1 gigabyte network and pull it off at the least cost. At that point we didn’t even imagine the kind of savings we’ve realized. We just wanted to bring 1 gig to the city and maybe long term save money.”
After meeting with their partners, ITD did some basic math and their collective savings penciled out at $200,000.
According to Mohan, it took about 45 days to implement the Florida LambdaRail across the city. ITD had cloud and outsourced applications they needed to make sure survived the process, as well as a large mainframe application hosted in Tallahassee. ITD also had to make sure it would work across more than 200 locations within the city.
Yet on August 5, 2013, the city of Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the Jacksonville Electric Authority, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and the Jacksonville Aviation Authority announced they were consolidating their Internet service.
“This is a great opportunity for all the partner agencies to work together to provide superior service and save money at a time we need to make every dollar count,” said Mayor Brown in a statement. “With a growing number of websites and applications helping to expand the reach of city government, we owe it to taxpayers to invest wisely in the most effective and efficient systems to keep everyone connected.”
In addition to the $200,000 in savings, Jacksonville libraries have much improved Internet connections and the stage is set for ITD to deliver on a five-year plan to consolidate hundreds of applications while improving connectivity throughout the city.
Along with the mayor, Mohan is understandably triumphant. But she said it wouldn’t have happened if not for the willing partners who came to the Metro IT Monthly Meetings – agencies who were willing to take a chance on building relationships and on collaboration.
“Building trust among the agencies was the single biggest thing,” Mohan said. “If there’s no trust, no matter how big the cost savings are, people won’t take the deal.”