Massive Storms Don't Halt D.C. IT Ops

City tech workers use virtual operations and social media to maintain IT services.

The headline "Whiteout paralyzes region" summed up life in the nation's capital earlier this month as back-to-back storms blanketed the region with more than two feet of snow.

The storms shut down most of the federal and local government apparatus for several days.

But Bryan Sivak, the District of Columbia's chief technology officer, stayed as busy as ever by working from home -- as did most of the city's 600 IT employees.

About a dozen IT staffers stayed on-site, working 12-hour shifts and sleeping on cots to keep the district's two data centers running. They were on duty throughout the Feb. 5-6 weekend storm, and they were back on the job three days later for the second blizzard.

"We [were] just as open for business as we ever are," said Sivak, who used videoconferencing and other technologies to hold meetings that normally would have taken place in his office. "Pretty much everyone [in IT was] working."

The city has 36,000 employees and enough remote-work IT capacity to support 20,000 of them during emergency situations.

Among the things that Sivak was able to monitor from home were Yammer microblogging feeds.

"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.

The city's IT unit launched Yammer at the beginning of this year, but Sivak didn't push its adoption, opting to see whether it would grow on its own.

It has. As many as 300 people in 15 agencies now use the tool, developed by San Francisco-based Yammer Inc.

The district's government is also becoming a big user of Twitter. The Department of Transportation, for example, provided steady Twitter updates, using Twitpic to post photos of plows in action and fallen trees. The school department and other agencies also used Twitter to share information with residents.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a primary focus of federal and local government agencies has been to ensure continuity of operations during emergencies. That effort helped create a process that kept residents up to date on the city's response to the storm.

For example, the district's Snow Response Reporting System allows residents to type in an address to see animated graphics depicting the progress of snow-plowing efforts. The system, which collects data from GPS-equipped plows, shows streets that have been plowed and salted -- and those that haven't. The map includes links to live traffic cameras.

The district IT unit's efforts to keep residents informed of agency activities received significant national attention last year when the city's former CTO, Vivek Kundra, was named federal CIO by President Barack Obama. During Kundra's term as CTO, the district developed a system that gives residents access to data feeds showing the activities of police and other departments.

Sivak has continued to push this model of open government, most recently with a beta of a system called Track DC, which shows daily updates of a variety of metrics about departments' operations, including spending.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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