acadiana business silicon bayouWhen it comes to cutting-edge technology, Lafayette has been at the forefront of the state and region for some time — and is now making a name for itself on the national scene. Just recently, Lafayette jumped 10 spots to No. 14 out of 200 large cities and 124 small cities on the Milken Institute’s Best-Performing Cities list. The ranking is weighted heavily for job and income growth, especially in the technology sector. The city’s recognition is largely based on showcase projects such as the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise and Lafayette Utilities System’s fiber-to-the-home initiative.

Still, there is quite a gap in local residents’ understanding of just how technologically-advanced Lafayette is, especially when it comes to government’s delivery of services. Many are now available at your fingertips — meaning no more waiting in long lines to pay your taxes, map your property, or report your suspicious neighbor to police. All it takes is a simple home computer with Internet access to enter a whole new world — that of e-government.

Lafayette’s movement toward this technology initiative started back in 1999 with the launch of Zydetech, formed by tech-savvy members of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce in collaboration with UL Lafayette, Lafayette Consolidated Government (primarily through Lafayette Utilities System) and the Lafayette Economic Development Authority. This loosely-organized technology group was dubbed Zydetech by then-chamber chair Jean Kraemer and technology whiz Doug Menefee. It was backed by a large group of technologists and technology enthusiasts who wanted to create an effective platform in the community to discuss technology-related topics and provide a learning environment for those who wanted to know more. Menefee spearheaded a series of monthly meetings around town discussing how technology could benefit Lafayette and make it a premier high-tech center.

Eventually, some of the ideas tossed around by Zydetech’s members came to fruition — one of which was the creation of chief information officers for the Lafayette Consolidated Government and the Lafayette Parish School System. LPSS’ CIO, Logan McDaniel, was assigned the task of networking the public schools together and providing Internet access to classrooms. Since then, his expertise has expanded into other areas, including payroll and attendance. Zydetech also had a role in adding technology to schools, organizing NetDay, where members wired six schools to the Internet for free.

When LCG’s first CIO, Keith Thibodeaux, came on board three years ago, he found the technology in shambles. “Unfortunately, what we discovered was that things here were so far behind, that there was really no option other than what we call a ‘forklift upgrade,’” he says. “And that was, simply, that you bring in a forklift, and take out all of the old stuff, and put in new stuff. And, we had to do that at every level.”

At that time, local government was running off of a code written in the 1970s. So, the CIO instituted enterprise resource planning to revamp the government’s core systems — human resources, payroll and finance. Earlier this year, LCG signed a multi-suite contract with Lawson Software to help reduce administrative costs and allow better employee access to information. Thibodeaux says this project should be complete about mid-2009.

That was just the beginning. Thibodeaux and his team decided that a more user-friendly LCG Web site, www.lafayettela.gov, was in order. The city replaced software for planning, zoning and codes, allowing residents to check permit information online. New technology was also applied to run the animal control center. “A lot of these things were on the old main frame, so they all had to come off,” Thibodeaux says. “We needed to get that old, antique boat anchor out of here.”

This year, LCG totally revamped the Web site, focusing on two areas. The first was to eliminate residents’ need to come to city hall to conduct simple transactions. By placing information online, people are able to access it 24/7. “We put a tremendous amount of information into online maps and the things you can do there — anything from flood plain information to when the mosquito sprays come — you name it, whatever you want as far as map-related, we probably have it,” Thibodeaux says.

Another goal was to make the Web site easier to use. “Our other Web site had a lot of information, but it was a little hard to find stuff, and it just wasn’t friendly,” he explains. “So, we kind of adopted a philosophy of not making people think.” The site is now much more intuitive, allowing users to simply scroll down and find almost any information imaginable about city services. Before implementing the new site, the city analyzed calls to city hall and Web requests to determine what people really wanted to see.

For example, you can access traffic information to find out where accidents are located which might affect traffic on the way to work. Additionally, viewers can pull up a map of the Lafayette Transit System’s stops, and pinpoint the buses’ location live. You can also spot the new traffic cameras at the city’s major intersections. “One thing that we are really proud of there is that other cities and states in some cases have paid companies to do this,” Thibodeaux says. “We did it all ourselves — we wrote the code in-house, we made it really easy for the local newspapers to capture the feeds. And, all at no cost.”

Thibodeaux says his team’s commitment to these technological advances has kept the city’s expenses to a minimum. “We have a system that we own internally, and we have a Webmaster,” he notes. “If I had to guess, I would say that over the last two years, we have spent less than $40,000 on our content management system. We build these things on the back of LCG IT workers who don’t get near enough credit for their hard work.”

In recent times, the technology has come in very handy. For hurricanes Gustav and Ike, people clamored for up-to-the-minute information. LCG’s Web site posts hurricane preparedness maps with plenty of detailed information, and in early September, the city enabled an online subscription service, where residents can receive automatic news releases from government officials related to hurricanes and other disasters. Additionally, new updates will allow residents to track the status of requests much more quickly. Within the next six months, LCG plans to have Cityworks software up and running. This new software program will allow people to receive regular updates on services such as bridge maintenance, drainage, pothole repair, litter pickup, street sweeping, traffic signal outages, tree trimming, missed garbage pickup and large animal burial. “All you have to do as a citizen is log on to the Web site, choose a dropdown that says what you are requesting, and then enter a street number, street name, and a description of the problem, hit enter, and there it goes in our system,” Thibodeaux says. “With Cityworks, you could literally put in the request tonight, get to work the next morning, pop up on the Web, and see exactly where that is in the process of getting fixed.”

LCG is also in the process of enabling city-parish residents to obtain online reports from local police. This will allow people to get printouts of accident and theft reports for insurance agencies or their own personal use. Through the Web site, residents are already able to report miscellaneous crimes and suspicious activities to the police department.

Residents can also pay their electric bills online through Lafayette Utilities System’s Web site, www.lus.org, a service that is undergoing improvements to make it more user-friendly.

LCG’s goal is to allow taxpayers to choose how much they want to interact with government. “You can come in and interact over the counter, or over the phone, or over the Web,” Thibodeaux says. “But the key is, it’s your choice. And, the other thing is that it has to be simple.”

The Lafayette Parish Assessor’s office has also jumped on the technology bandwagon. Its Website, www.lafayetteassessor.com, allows Internet users to view their tax assessments, as well as those of their neighbors and anyone else across the parish — a system that will help ensure that assessments are equitable. Residents can view the amount of their parish property taxes from previous years, and also estimate upcoming fees. Additionally, they can map properties in the area.

Next year, the assessor plans to add a subscription service, where professionals such as Realtors, appraisers and attorneys will be able to access even more data. The new software will also be updated daily, so that viewers can get the latest information on a property. Assessor Conrad Comeaux hopes to have the new system online by the first half of 2009.

The assessor’s Web site is already extremely popular, receiving about 4,000 hits per week. “We see a decreased number of people coming to the office, because they can get the information online,” Comeaux reports.

At the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office, many initiatives are already in place, including a sex offender registry. Sheriff Mike Neustrom’s office was one of the first in the area to implement this type of system, which allows anyone to type in an address and obtain photos, maps and information regarding sex offenders living or working within a mile. A unique feature is that subscribers can obtain automatic e-mails from the sheriff notifying them of any sex offenders moving into the area.

Lt. Craig Stansbury, public information officer for the sheriff’s office, reports that residents are actively using this Web site to report suspicious activity. “We get tremendous responses,” he says. “We have received tips from citizens throughout the parish about activity of someone who might be a registered sex offender, maybe about something they are doing wrong, or they have moved. That way, we are able to check up on them.” 

Metro narcotics has a link where residents can report suspected drug activity anonymously via e-mail or find out if someone has an outstanding warrant. The site even reports statistics, allowing people to discover the number of calls dispatched to a particular neighborhood. People can even access a daily booking sheet regarding arrests, and determine exactly where an inmate is located within the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center by floor, pod and cell. The site also contains information about visitation and contributing commissary money for a particular inmate. “And, if you register, we will e-mail you that information every day,” Stansbury says. “So, you don’t even have to come into our facility. It puts a lot of information from the calls that we were getting at people’s fingertips.”

On the civil side, viewers can find information about sheriff’s sales on properties throughout the parish. Subscribers can also receive e-mails notifying them about the dates of future sales.

The department also lists classes online for personal protection and handgun use.

Making government more accessible to residents was one of the main initial goals of Zydetech. “It’s kind of what the benefits of technology are in general,” says Zydetech organizer David Goodwyn. “It should open things up, and it should create greater access and view of information, even if it’s not to the public, but at least to the leaders in the city. Once you implement a solid technology platform, you have visibility of data, and that visibility should help you make more and better decisions and/or create better government. But, there is also some data that you will open up to the citizens, and thus, it creates greater transparency in government, and greater access to the information.”

After being dormant for a couple of years, Zydetech is back with a vengeance. In August, the group brought back its popular e-government forum — this time at LITE — again revitalizing the community’s interest in Lafayette’s future as a premier digital city. Another one is set for 2009, this time around on the heels of LUS’ rollout of its fiber project. Goodwyn has taken the lead in breathing new life into Zydetech, with support coming from tech leaders like Thibodeaux, Chad Theriot of CBM Technology, and attorney Gary McGoffin, who was highly involved back in 2001 when he was vice chair of the chamber’s tech committee and through his chairmanship in 2004.

“This city has shown a consistency, from an economic development standpoint at LEDA, in going after technology-related businesses and encouraging technology-related businesses. Within city government, there have been a lot of strides taken and goals achieved through making our government more technology-friendly and efficient,” Goodwyn says. “There’s also the fact that the assets of the future global economy, in my mind, are culturally-based. Anybody can have technology, but not everybody can have technology in a great, unique culture. We are already positioned as a cultural stronghold, being the epicenter of the Cajun culture in the world. When you start looking at what’s important in the next economy, it’s the content of digital media, it is the hard work ethic. So, we’re going to have this kind of proving ground here that will be unique. And shame on us if we don’t take advantage of it.”

LCG’s ultimate goal is to make Lafayette one of the top technology centers in the country. And there will be concrete measures of its success, namely assessment instruments like the Center for Digital Government’s Digital Cities Survey and Best of the Web Survey. The center is a national research and advisory institute on information technology policies and best practices in state and local government; its extensive surveys provide a valuable baseline tool for cities to not only gauge themselves against other cities, but also to evaluate their own year-by year-progress. “More importantly,” says Thibodeaux, “they prevent you from having your viewpoint trapped within your own microcosm. It forces you to honestly view yourself within the context of the outside world.”

By next year, LCG hopes to make the center’s Top 10 list in both of these competitions. “If we can accomplish that, then we know we’ve done our job,” Thibodeaux says.

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