CIO is never bored in city by the Bay

CIO is never bored in city by the Bay<@VM>City health LAN is secure in bioterrorism scare

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Who's in charge

Liza Lowery

CIO, Telecommunications and Information Services Department

Denise Brady

Deputy Director, TIS Department

Rod Loucks

Chief Technology Officer, Technology Services Division

Dana Hom

Chief Operations Officer, TIS Department

Chris Vein

Chief Administrative Officer, TIS Department

Major projects

  • Enterprise IT plan. The Telecommunications and Information Services Department is taking the lead on a citywide program to improve government services to San Franciscans by using best IT practices.

  • E-government strategy. The department is redesigning the Web site, at, and making the municipal television channel available worldwide through the Web site. Plans for 2002 include launching a dedicated 311 telephone number for customer service.

  • Enterprise resource planning. The department will integrate its separate systems for payroll, retirement and human resources using middleware. The upgrade may take three to five years and cost several million dollars.

  • 'The staff has been faced with constant change, and they've handled it really well.'

    San Francisco CIO Liza Lowery has survived earthquakes, economic downturns and organizational change. But there's one thing she can't stand: boredom.

    Fortunately, Lowery describes her career in government IT as anything but dull.

    After college in the late 1980s, Lowery got a job working in accounting, where she was 'totally bored.' More interested in computers than accounting, she got a job with Hillsborough County, Fla., and found she liked working in public service so much that she went on to get a master's degree in public administration. As Hillsborough County's assistant director of information and technology services, Lowery developed the county's first help desk and Web site.

    Lowery came to the city by the Bay two years ago, after a two-year stint as CIO of Silicon Valley's Milpitas, Calif., during the technology gold rush years of the late 1990s.

    Lowery reports to San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown Jr., who wants the city to take a more enterprisewide approach to IT. And San Francisco is quite an enterprise. Lowery oversees the Telecommunications and Information Services Department, with a staff of 425. The city has a total of 1,100 IT workers.

    Enterprise plan

    Lowery is working with Public Technology Inc. of Washington to develop an enterprise IT plan for the city. 'We want to make sure we're improving service for our customers without harming any parts of our organization. We didn't want someone coming in and telling us what to do. All of our department heads are involved in this plan.'

    San Francisco is redesigning its Web site, at, even though the city has won awards for its online services. 'We're basing the redesign on live experience of how people look for information, not on our government organization structure,' she said.

    If Lowery boasts about anything, it's her staff. 'They've stood up to a tremendous amount of change,' she said. 'Our department is only five years old. Compare that with the San Francisco Police Department, which is more than 100 years old. In the past two years, the whole Telecommunications and Information Services Department has been reorganized. The staff has been faced with constant change, and they've handled it really well. They kept their chin up despite the challenges.'

    San Francisco has a public policy approach that focuses on service, Lowery said; if San Franciscans demand a service, the city will provide it. For example, San Francisco has the highest health care costs of any city, but people are willing to pay for it.

    San Francisco also usually ranks No. 1 or No. 2 in surveys of most wired cities.

    'We have the highest percentage of adults who use the Internet and the most broadband providers of any area,' she said. 'Put that all together and you see why technology is such a powerful service enabler for us.'

    Prepared for disaster

    The downturn in the economy hasn't put a damper on the city's enthusiasm for IT. 'Even in the last budget cycle, the initiatives that use technology to improve service got public funding,' Lowery said. 'That's really our next big push'to deliver these plans and road maps to San Francisco so the city can get the highest return for its technology dollars.'

    Unlike some areas, San Francisco had a disaster recovery plan ready long before Sept. 11, Lowery said. Its history of earthquakes has put emergency preparedness front and center in the city's collective consciousness. 'We're always conducting drills and emergency preparedness tests,' Lowery said. 'My department has a hot site backup in another state. We have the ability to run the city's mission-critical applications from somewhere else.'

    Lowery describes her city as 'ethnically diverse, cutting edge, culturally rich,' and, perhaps most important for her, 'never boring.'During the recent anthrax mail attacks, officials in some cities complained about communication bottlenecks among local health officials.

    But not in San Francisco. The city's Public Health Department hosts several hospitals, mental health centers and AIDS care centers, all linked by an enterprise LAN connecting 5,000 PCs, said David Counter, the department's CIO.

    Because patient information is confidential, the LAN is a closed virtual private network, Counter said.

    Doctors and authorized medical workers can pull up patient records and lab results securely over the ATM network using a Web browser.

    Most department users run Microsoft Windows 98 on their PCs, Counter said. The department uses patient registration software developed by Siemens Medical Solutions Health Services Corp. of Malvern, Pa.

    While other public health systems are struggling to keep up with bioterrorist threats, San Francisco's existing infrastructure helped the city deal with the threat in as routine a way as possible, Counter said.

    Hospital emergency rooms, and police, fire and environmental health departments are all linked by e-mail, Counter said.

    Despite the city's apparent calm, Counter said the fear the terrorist threat has engendered is palpable. 'Now when I drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, there are armed soldiers,' he said. 'It's a little unnerving.'

    About the Author

    Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.


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