When hurricanes Charley, Ivan, Frances and Jeanne hurtled through Florida this fall, citizens in Miami-Dade County turned to more than just their TV sets and the country's “” phone center for useful tips on braving the storms. County residents also logged onto Miami-Dade's new Emergency Management Web site hundreds of thousands of times.
By the end of the year, the new Web site is expected to be integrated with Miami-Dade's “311” phone call center. Then, Web visitors will be able not only to read text posted on the site but also to send in reports and ask questions online about any sort of emergency — whether it's related to Mother Nature, a car hijacker, rowdy neighbors next door or a rumored terrorist threat.
Hurricanes have always posed huge hazards toand security in Miami-Dade, which contains more than two million residents within its roughly 2,000 square miles. Hurricane management constitutes one reason why, in 2001, the county was already working with IBM consultants on a second-generation Web site.
Later that year, federal, state and local governments throughout the U.S. faced another sort of public emergency when the Sept. 11 attacks shocked the nation. Miami-Dade County forged ahead with renewed urgency on a Web site that would meet the needs of the public and emergency response teams (ERTs).
In time for the unexpectedly brutal 2004 hurricane season, Miami-Dade had the key elements of its newsystem in place.
“Visits to the public emergency management Web site jumped 1,100 to 1,200 percent during the weather events in the first week of September, 2004,” says Assia Alexandrova, the county's senior Web developer, online services.
In a four-day period before and during Hurricane Frances, more than 60,000 people logged onto the site for news about the course of the storm, evacuation orders, shelters and emergency policies onpick-up and airport and seaport operations.
Yet Miami-Dade's public emergency management site is only one piece of a bigger Web architecture that has replaced Miami-Dade's old “first generation” Web site. Like most early Web sites, Miami-Dade's initial effort was “static,” allowing no interaction with Web visitors.
Over the past few years, however, Miami-Dade has rolled together information from 40 different county departments — once stored on separate computer systems — into a single content management system (CMS) from Interwoven. With the use of IBM's WebSphere software, data from the CMS makes its way onto the Web.
“Before that, every county department was doing its own thing,” says Emily Loos, IBM's client representative for Miami-Dade County.
“We wanted to get away from having separate ‘silos’ of information,” Alexandrova says.
Interwoven's TeamSite CMS contains simple templates, or forms, that let nontechnical employees easily enter data into the computer system.
Miami-Dade is also implementing IBM's WebSphere Portal Server, a server-based software system, to divide the CMS content into separate Web “portals.” Emergency workers, contractors, and members of the general public, as examples, can each receive different online views of the recently consolidated Web content.
Miami-Dade has also worked with IBM to build a series of revenue-generating software tools. County residents may now pay their property taxes over the Web, for instance, and building contractors may apply for permits online.
In fact, during a single fiscal year alone, 11,215 building permits and re-inspections were booked online, yielding $1,175,000 in revenue.
Internet visitors can also carry out tasks ranging from searching for property titles and orderingbins to subscribing to an e-mail emergency alert service.
In addition, information security (IS) software from IBM's Tivoli division is used to assign different “authentication privileges,” or access rights, to various groups of Web site visitors. The IS products are Tivoli Access Manager and Tivoli Identity Manager.
“Building contractors, for example, are given user IDs and passwords, and they can access information pertinent to them. But the county won't let building contractors go in and look at the criminal database,” IBM's Loos says.
Another important element of the Web portal architecture is IBM's WebSphere Wireless Gateway. Via the gateway, building inspectors can already view inspection routes and the status of individual inspections from wireless devices.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes in Miami-Dade, workers in the county's Emergency Operations Center (EOC) are using software from E Team Inc. to collaborate and to engage in text-based “chat” about incident management.
Also in place at the EOC are a number of other disaster-oriented software applications, including: SALT (Storm Action Lead Time); Hurrevac — for hurricane tracking; Snapshot Assessment — for damage assessment after a storm or flood; and Scala — for creating and projecting “status boards” about a developing emergency.
Miami-Dade's “311” call center was previously part of the EOC, but recently became independent.
On its public emergency management Web site, the county has also been trying out an IBM Translation Server for machine translation of Web-based documents from English into Spanish. This particular product has challenges, Alexandrova says.
“It does have potential, but we weren't happy with the machine translation,” she maintains.
Miami-Dade now plans to evaluate other approaches to language translation, using either machines, human beings, or a combination of the two. Documents might be translated into Creole — another popular language in Miami-Dade — in addition to Spanish. “We'll be carrying out a formal pilot test,” she says.
How did Miami-Dade hook up with IBM to build the new Web architecture? The two entities have been working together for the past four decades — essentially, ever since the county first started using computers back during the mainframe era.
IBM is certainly no stranger to emergencies, anyway. Over the years, the computer giant has built up a massive disaster recovery service, geared to protecting computers, data,and personnel from damage by hurricanes, floods, terrorism and other misfortunes.
IBM also runs a gargantuan government practice. Beyond Miami-Dade County, customers run the gamut from Nashville, Tenn., and the U.S. Navy to the states of Arizona and Michigan and the federal governments of Brazil and Australia, to name a few.
Where will Miami-Dade County go from here? One item on the wish list is to create a series of small portals for various towns within the county, Alexandrova says.
More immediately, the county intends to integrate its “311” call center with the emergency management Web site by the end of 2004. Miami-Dade's new online “311” answer center will use Customer Service Request 3.9.1 software from Motorola. Initially, citizens will simply post questions and comments online, waiting for responses back from “311” answer center staff.
At some point in the future, however, visitors might be able to chat back-and-forth with the Answer Center in real-time over the Internet, Alexandrova says.
What kinds of questions will people raise online? It's impossible to predict for sure. Yet some questions will probably revolve around the same issues voiced over the phone lines during this year's hurricanes.
Looking toward the future, Miami-Dade is considering the possibility of expanded cell phone access. Alexandrova views access by cellular devices as particularly important in the event of a power outage which happened in many Florida communities during the fall's devastating storms.
“Usage of the Web site fell whenever we lost electricity during the hurricanes. That is just the nature of the (Internet) medium,” she adds.
On the other hand, battery-operated cell phones can operate even in the absence of either electrical power or working phone lines, Alexandrova points out. Further, when the need to evacuate arises, it is easier to carry a cell phone to a shelter than to lug a laptop, especially if hurricane winds are howling.
“Consequently, we're considering wireless enablement of some of our emergency alerts, so people can get the alerts on their cell phones,” she says.