Inside the project: Web conferencing

Challenge: The Hawaii State Civil Defense Department needed a more efficient way of coordinating responses from multiple government agencies during emergencies, so it could offer more timely, accurate information to the public and the media.
Solution: The agency set up a virtual joint information center, based on WiredRed e/pop, a Web-based application that lets the department's public information officers hold videoconferences and collaborate on documents without leaving their desks. The e/pop software allows for multiparty video and audio conferencing across the Web, plus real-time document sharing, while running on a dedicated server inside the department's firewall.

Mission benefit: The system proved indispensable during a recent series of storms, when rapid responses were essential and travel was impractical. The department was able to offer up-to-the-minute information to the public and news media, minimizing the amount of misinformation in a time of crisis, said Ray Lovell, PIO for Hawaii State Civil Defense. County and state PIOs were able to meet jointly and collaborate on documents without the delay and cost of air travel. Now the state wants to use the system for daily operations.

Lessons learned: Lovell said any Web conferencing system should be as simple as possible for both users and administrators. 'If it's too complicated, no one will use it,' he said. 'You also don't want to have to jump through hoops to add new people to the system.' Lovell's other advice to agencies contemplating a Web-based conferencing system:
  • Hire an expert to examine your hardware and Internet hookups. This kind of system won't work if some users try to use it with older computers or through dial-up lines.

  • Look for a flexible solution. Users should be able to use just the audio conferencing features if a Web cam isn't available or their bandwidth is limited.

  • Put a conference-enabled computer in an area where multiple people can access it, in case the system's primary user isn't available.

  • Make sure the system is accessible remotely, so traveling officials can log into conferences from anywhere with a laptop and a broadband connection.

  • Don't wait until disaster strikes to use the system. Use it for ordinary operations so everyone will get comfortable with it. Otherwise, it will fail.

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