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$600K added to IT office budget as Peduto administration promises modernization

| Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, 12:04 a.m.
Debra Lam, chief innovation and performance officer

Dan McSwiggen spent the past eight years in renovation mode, transforming a gutted historic East Carson Street building into apartments with exposed brick, high ceilings and Downtown views.

But a communication breakdown while navigating the city of Pittsburgh's permitting process has him taking a step backward.

Three months ago, McSwiggen, 57, installed six wood-frame windows to comply with a Historic Review Commission requirement for the century-old structure in the South Side. When he sought an occupancy permit, he was surprised to learn the windows above the fire escape must be fire-rated.

McSwiggen said if the permit application process were online, he might not have wasted hundreds of dollars on the wrong windows.

“It would certainly make it a lot more efficient,” he said. “They'd get their money sooner, we'd get the place rehabbed sooner, and they'd get their tax money sooner.”

Pittsburgh doesn't provide the easy, online access to some services that many people have come to expect from banks, schools and retailers, say officials seeking to upgrade city technology.

“It's the 1980s,” said Councilman Dan Gilman of Shadyside. “You can't go online, click ‘Dumpster permit' and charge it to your credit card.”

Permits must be purchased in person, with a check or money order. Zoning applications must be submitted in person from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays. The city's plow trucks don't have GPS systems to help plan and track routes.

Mayor Bill Peduto has tasked Chief Innovation and Performance Officer Debra Lam with modernizing government functions.

“Our internal service is to support these departments in order for them to service the city,” Lam said. “That is a huge underpinning of our goal.”

What formerly was City Information Systems, the IT department, has been rebranded with the goal of increasing communication among city departments and streamlining services. First-year goals include upgrading the city's cable channel, revamping the 311 hotline system and starting open data programs to make information freely available, pending City Council approval. The city recently started a 311 Twitter feed to accept and respond to complaints.

This year, the IT office has a budget of about $13.8 million, a nearly $600,000 increase from last year.

Peduto pledged to make technology projects a priority, said spokeswoman Sonya Toler.

Sylvia Harris, deputy director for operations and a six-year city employee, is in charge of a citywide upgrade from Microsoft Windows XP to Windows 7 spanning at least 1,800 computers. A free upgrade awaited approval last year.

“We have more of a voice now, and this administration, to me, seems to care more about technology,” Harris said.

Lam's team plans to build a data cloud, which would give employees remote access to systems and serve as an emergency backup.

Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, said most governments lag behind the private sector in technology. She's encouraged by open data legislation and the move toward Web-based services.

“This is a good time to close that divide from city government,” she said.

Todd Sander, executive director of the Center for Digital Government, said one of the most popular national trends is providing mobile access to government services through tablets and smartphones.

“The governments we see getting the highest marks from their citizens are the ones who understand and are building that in to the service delivery capability,” Sander said.

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or

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