August 5, 2010 By Russell Nichols
Photo: Birmingham, Ala., City Councilor Johnathan F. Austin
Birmingham leaders believe they will soon have the power to save money and improve communication right in their hands. After visiting an Apple Store this week, Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell and City Councilor Johnathan F. Austin decided to move forward with the plan to bring iPads to City Hall.
The tablet touchscreen computer could help the city cut down on paper usage and save hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Austin, chair of the Council Technology Committee.
"We're burning through 20,000 sheets of paper a week just to use on Tuesdays for two hours," he said. "The iPads give us the ability to communicate more efficiently and more effectively with each other and our constituents."
Since its launch in April, the iPad has popped up in discussions across the country regarding its public-sector potential. In February, the federal government warned that the iPad's release could lead to heavy data traffic that might strain inadequate networks. By April, the White House announced a mobile version of its website optimized for portable devices, including the iPad.
Given the favorable public response, the portable platform could spur the development of new mobile services as more governments embrace technology in the field, Maury Blackman, president and CEO of Accela, told Government Technology.
"I think the iPad is just the leading edge," he said. "Other technology providers are surely going to have to respond to this. We are on a whole new cusp of innovation."
In Birmingham, Council members and department heads receive a binder packed with pages of information every week. All that paper ends up discarded. So local officials, Austin said, wanted to cut down not only on costs, but also the time and effort it takes to put those binders together.
The iPad, he said, would all but eliminate paper usage, allowing Council members to view agendas and notes by touching the screen. And with technology that puts the Web, e-mail, photos and video at the fingertips of civic leaders, Austin believes the device will improve communication and the delivery of documents.
Within the week, the city plans to purchase two iPads to test them out for a month. If the technology performs to expectations, Austin said, the city will purchase devices for the Council members and the mayor, and eventually all the department heads. The city would purchase the iPads at government rates. The devices will pay for themselves in a month, he said.
Austin, who's a technology consultant and the youngest Council member currently serving (he was 29 when he was sworn in in December 2008), created the Council Technology Committee, which has been spearheading the city's technology strategies. For instance, he wrote and sponsored a resolution recently passed by the Council to pursue federal funds to provide free wireless across Birmingham. By adopting available technologies, he said, city officials have an opportunity to "enhance our ability to govern."