Bringing it all together

David Reinke
InfoLink Project Manager
APWA Washington Office

I'm not sure how you feel, but this is really an exciting time to be working in the field of public works. And there are lots of reasons, but for me it is because for the first time, all the elements—the pieces of information, the people, and the projects—are all together in one place...your desktop. Don't get me wrong—this is not one of those Popular Mechanics "A Hovercraft in Every Garage" cover story prognostication about the miracles of modern technology; it is just that we have reached a juncture, both with APWA-InfoLink and the technology sector in general, of being able to link many different systems, locations, and data sources together to solve everyday problems.

It starts with connections—naturally, the Internet is behind all this. Sure, it was supposed to be the "greatest thing" and change our lives, but the change has been more evolutionary than revolutionary, and people have not had the opportunity to realize the impact it has had. Its effect on our daily lives seems to have surpassed the telephone, and is approaching the impact of the automobile on our society. And as much of a scourge as e-mail can be, it is awfully convenient for quickly and easily communicating with many different people, even across time zones or international boundaries. And I won't even start on IM (Instant Messaging)...yet.

In addition to the Internet, the computers and technology being connected by it have evolved to the point of true interconnectivity. There are still plenty of different hardware and software vendors out there, but your Macintosh can talk to a Windows machine, just fine, and share content without difficulty. And that same progress has been made by large manufacturers and institutional software vendors, so regardless of who made your database it can import and export data, and this data transparency continually becomes easier as technology advances. The great majority of software development taking place these days is the integration of data, processes, and information between systems, tying customers, suppliers, and consumers together. A lot of this activity happens behind the scenes, but you might have encountered it in being able to track delivery of overnight packages, for example. Certainly the work of the Open GIS Consortium, to make mapping data from different geographic sources useable by many different applications, is advancing this trend even in a very complicated area. So from the simplest query of basic database information of "LastName," to an ortho-rectified satellite image at one-meter resolution layered on a GIS program over the Internet, data access is greater than ever before.

E-government initiatives have also been driving (or riding) this trend, uniting different departments and agencies, tying in separate units of government and citizens within the same city, as well as other neighboring cities and towns, surrounding counties, and even the state and federal level. From law enforcement to social services, business licenses to environmental compliance and reporting, government is sharing data between agencies to streamline services and protect constituents.

Which brings us to two examples of how this directly affects public works professionals. InfoLink is introducing the new site with applications like Right-of-Way Manager, but some of the other applications currently under development directly draw on the ability to draw data from many different sources, and allow controlled access to many different levels of users from different locations with different needs.

Project Registration is a great example of the connectivity of people, projects, and data, and the benefits obtained. If your local telecommunications provider is planning to put fiber optic cable down the middle of Maple Street, they can get a permit (or use an existing blanket permit) and do it. But what about the fact that the street is scheduled to be repaved this week? Or that your water department is scheduled to reline all the mains in that neighborhood within the next year? What if your traffic and signal department could plan for the activity, and set detours and re-time signals? With Project Registration, each stakeholder can maximize their involvement, saving time, money, and aggravation. Through controlled Internet access each company or agency can view appropriate data, learn about and plan for future activity that affects the project, and act accordingly. Look at your desk right now and see if this wouldn't benefit the first thing you see.

Another tremendous application of this data transfer is Homeland Security. The same benefits described above make true emergency management a reality. In the above example, what if dispatchers had access to maps showing all closed streets in case of emergency? Or an emergency manager was able to determine the existence of hazardous chemicals onsite, model dispersal plumes based on current weather conditions, and then determine real-time hospital status and availability information? All the information exists; the real need is accessing, displaying, and acting on the information quickly and efficiently.

Certainly the scenarios mentioned above require close supervision of user access, and security concerns; with the rise of increased connectivity comes necessary pressure for security of information and access. In this respect technology is definitely a two-edged sword, as the same connectivity that provides many benefits also allows access to malicious users. While each side continues to evolve technologically, there are many tactics currently available to protect information. Rules-based access controls allow setting access levels based on location, status, and other factors, particularly in emergency scenarios. Biometric devices (such as fingerprint readers and retinal scans) are increasingly being employed to secure physical access to assets, and 128-bit encryption, Secure Socket Layer (SSL) browsers and Digital Certificates can protect the transmission of sensitive data.

So the "Big Picture" emerges: there is lots of data out there; almost all of it can be shared; the Internet makes access easy; this data can solve business needs; and user access can be controlled. Many different areas in the world of public works are witnessing these changes, from Internet and e-mail access to colleagues and information, to electronic plan submittal, online bid notice and completion, and GASB-34 Asset Management. APWA-InfoLink will continue to provide a single point of access to electronic information and applications, as APWA recognizes the importance of bringing it all together to more efficiently perform your job and serve your community.

To reach Dave Reinke, call 202-408-9541 or send e-mail to dreinke@apwa.net.