Blizzard sends D.C.'s IT staffers to cots, virtual operations

Despite government shutdown, CTO says IT operations continued without problem

WASHINGTON - The washingtonpost.com headline, "Whiteout paralyzes region," summed-up life in the nation's capital on Wednesday: Nothing was moving in the sideways-blowing snow. But Bryan Sivak, the CTO of the District of Columbia, was just as busy as ever, working at home virtually -- as were many of his 600 IT employees.

Not all of the District's IT workers were so lucky. Twelve of them were running the District's two data centers, each taking 12-hour shifts and living on cots and food that's being brought in to them. They were on duty all weekend for the first storm, which dumped nearly two feet of snow, and they were back today for the latest blizzard.

"We are just as open for business today as we ever are," said Sivak, who has held virtual meetings today -- some with video -- that would have otherwise taken place in his office. "Pretty much everyone is working" in his department, he said.

Among the things Sivak is watching are Yammer feeds. Yammer is a microblogging tool that he put into use at the start of the year. He didn't push its adoption, opting instead to see whether it would grow on its own. It has.

As many as 300 people in 15 agencies now use the tool, which is made by San Francisco-based Yammer Inc. "It's provided another communications channel for people to quickly post updates, post messages about things they are looking for, and push it out to a group of people that they normally wouldn't communicate with," Sivak said.

Washington-area government agencies have been very focused, ever since 9/11, on continuity of operations. That extends to any services provided to the public.

For instance, the Snow Response Reporting System allows someone to type in a local address and it will show, in animation, the progress of snow plowing efforts. The mapping system, which collects data from GPS-equipped plows, shows streets that have been plowed and salted (and those that haven't). The map includes the location of, and links to, live traffic cams.

The D.C. government is also becoming a big user of Twitter. The District's Department of Transportation has been providing steady updates @DDOTC, with occasional photos posted on Twitpic of plows in action and fallen trees. Other departments, including local schools, are using Twitter, too. The public sometimes tweets back requests for service, but District officials would rather they call 311 by phone or go online.

The District has 36,000 employees and enough remote-work IT capacity to support 20,000 of those workers simultaneously, said Sivak.

The District's IT efforts got national attention last year because of the work by Vivek Kundra, its former CTO who was appointed as the federal CIO by President Barack Obama. One of the things that Kundra did was to make data feeds available of government actions, police activities and requests for services.

Sivak has continued to push this model of open government, most recently with a Track DC beta, which shows a variety of metrics about various department operations, including spending. It's updated daily. The idea is "to provide a single dashboard to present operational agency information in a near real-time or real-times basis," said Sivak. The goal is to gradually increase the granularity of data and provide more information on spending, as well as other metrics.

Other operations were working virtually today. One was VIPdesk Inc., an Alexandria Va. firm that supplies contact centers for corporate clients. It has more than 400 employees, most of whom work remotely.

There can be as many as 60 to 80 people working in the corporate offices at any time, but even with those offices empty today the company's services continued without a hitch, said Dan Fontaine, the firm's senior vice president of technology.

Pandemic planning, which involved ensuring that all workers have can work remotely, helped prepare the company, said Fontaine. Its main IT systems are in a commercial data center and the provider was well stocked up on fuel supplies and working generation capacity. The corporate office has some e-mail servers on site, but that capacity could be switched over to the commercial provider if needed.

Fontaine said VIPdesk also uses its own instant messaging platform, which allows people to work in groups and is housed in the data center. He anticipated no problems -- other than the prospect of shoveling more snow.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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