Try before you buy at NC’s iCenter

Try before you buy at NC’s iCenter

The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries is getting a new computer system that lets it sell commercial fishing licenses and issue permits. That’s not so newsworthy on its surface, but the use of North Carolina’s Innovation Center (iCenter) to get it is.

The division took advantage of the three-year-old center’s “try before you buy” approach to information technology, which uses the iCenter as a proving ground for IT solutions before investing in them. As a result, the division found an option to update its Fisheries Information Network that is $5 million less expensive than estimates for similar systems.

“That project is going extremely well,” iCenter director Eric Ellis said. “It’s one of what I would call our first, true, agile-like projects,” he said. “We’ll be able to begin to see success from an actual production instance in the next month.”  The fact that an agile project is gaining traction is noteworthy in a state where most of the projects in the past had used waterfall development methods.

The iCenter was created in 2013 as a way to focus on in-state innovation. In 2014, however, the center began reaching out to technology officials nationwide through a National Innovation Community,  a coalition to bring innovative ideas and practices to government technology.  The Community is sponsored by the National Association of State CIOs and started with 25 states collaborating. Since then, the center has worked with 48 states and tested about $11 million worth of equipment so far, including mobile endpoint devices, Office 365, hosted virtual desktops and beacon technologies.

“Because of our affiliation with NASCIO, I feel like we have done an even better job of outreach around the nation. I think it’s incredibly valuable to [work with] people who are facing the same challenges you are,”  Ellis said. “We share lessons learned and innovative technologies that are emerging. It’s a win-win situation for all involved.”

The iCenter gives state IT buyers a chance to see new tools. “When they come to the Innovation Center, we make them aware of some of the capable, useful technologies out there,” Ellis said. “This enables state agencies to get a better result and spend less; we’re seeing a lot of cost avoidance.”

To work with iCenter, agencies submit questions and ideas that center officials review, and once approved, the agencies can test their proofs-of-concept through the center. Each week, Ellis and another center official hold phone conferences with representatives from various states. Typically about 15 to 30 states are on the call where lessons learned and innovative tech is shared.

iCenter used the national network to help with North Carolina Digital Commons project, which aims to provide a common look and feel as well as a common platform to state websites. Georgia had already done something similar using Drupal, so North Carolina used that as a model. At the same time, Minnesota started work on the same type of project, so now all three states are collaborating.

“Since its inception, the iCenter has fostered an environment for collaboration, creativity and innovation,” Ellis said. An open platform like Drupal makes it easy to share code, which reduces the amount of labor involved. For the Digital Commons  project, “we were able to get most of our state agencies migrated to one, common open Drupal platform, allowing our citizens to do business with the state easily and more efficiently.”

But CIOs aren’t the only ones participating. “These days, we have a more cohesive process that allows more people to be involved,” Ellis said. “There are people in other agencies that have innovative ideas, and we’ve made it really simple for them to share those by going on our website, clicking on a button and typing in an idea to begin the process.”

The projects ultimately belong to the sponsor agency, which runs the proof-of-concept, not iCenter. “We are careful with our proof-of concept process -- we don’t want to turn into a project management office; that’s not the goal,” Ellis said. “The goal is for us to be a proving ground for technology.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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