City Hall tech slow
Flickr via Lulu Hoeller

Flip phones and Lotus Notes: City Hall’s late climb into the 21st century

The public sector will always be a few years behind the private sector in terms of technology, but Philly’s local government is improving.

A little more than three years ago, City Hall and nearly every one of its offices didn’t even have WiFi, and that was the least of their technological worries. When deputy chief information officer Ray Hayling was hired in 2012, he and the Office of Innovation and Technology were tasked with fixing a problem much, much larger. They had to replace the entire network.

This was not easy. City Hall was connected by Nortel switches, and Nortel had ceased operations in 2009, meaning none of the old equipment could be repaired. Because of its old age, the network could have failed at any time. The system the city used for police reports, computerized 911 calls, communicating between departments and just about everything would not have worked.   

“If they started failing at a large rate,” Hayling said, “the city could have shut down.”

Hayling and his team had to replace the switches and modems carefully — so as not to disrupt the entire system — but quickly, because the task was so pressing. Now, the network runs on up-to-date equipment.

Ray Hayling

Ray Hayling

City of Philadelphia

It has been one of many necessary changes for City Hall. The public sector will always be a few years behind the private sector in terms of technology, but Philly’s local government is improving. Here’s a breakdown of how Hayling and the technology office attempted to drag City Hall into the future over the last few years, after being mired deep in the past.   

WiFi

Up until late 2012, most everyone in City Hall had to use an ethernet cable to get internet access. That year, City Council agreed to purchase WiFi, and now there’s a public network for everyone who enters City Hall, plus City Net, which is used by employees.

Some areas don’t get City Net, like the Mayor’s Office. City Hall’s thick marble halls present a challenge for the signal. Other offices pay for their own WiFi networks.    

From Blackberry to Android

Some city employees are provided with phones for their work. It is decided on a department-by-department basis. The city’s budget for phone services and hotspots is about $700,000, and about 2,000 employees receive smartphones.

Until about two years ago, those employees got Blackberrys. When they started complaining about the phones’ small screens, the switch was made to Samsung. Employees who receive smartphones now have a Samsung 5S.

Flip phones and pagers

The 90s and early aughts haven’t entirely ceased to exist at City Hall. Certain departments still want flip phones and pagers.

“If your job doesn’t call for you needing immediate access to email all the time but you do need to be called all the time,” Hayling said, “they’ll get you a flip phone.”

During election season, City Commissioners are provided with about 100 flip phones, as well as two-way radios. It’s the way they like to communicate for the month or so leading up to an election.  

Employees in the medical examiner’s office are about the only people who still use pagers.

Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange

Unless you work in a law firm, it’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of the email provider Lotus Notes.

“It’s a dying platform, and probably dying since the early 2000s,” Hayling said.

But City Hall still used Lotus Notes when Hayling took the job in 2012. Now, every department has upgraded to Microsoft Exchange.

Radio and TV

One of Hayling’s first tasks was overhauling the radio system used by police, fire and other departments. The technology they were using dated to the ’90s.  

When it came to TV, the city was stuck in the 1980s, maybe the 1970s. Hayling recalls the studio for the city’s Channel 64 as having several of the big tube TVs that you can’t even find anymore. They overhauled the studio, upgraded to HD technology and added more programming, things like PSAs and messages from the mayor. Channel 64 also televises Mayoral press conferences and council sessions and other meetings.  

“We’ve gone from the ’70s to 2000s in one fell swoop,” Hayling said.

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