Cisco program uses telepresence to connect cities to the world

[From BusinessWest, “The Western Massachusetts Business Journal”; the web site for the Smart+Connected Communities Institute is here]


Cisco Program Is Bringing the Future to Holyoke — Now

Posted on 04 January 2011.

Along several different social and economic fronts, Holyoke is transforming itself from an industrial center — it’s still called the Paper City — to a technology-driven hub with a major emphasis on all matters ‘green.’ One of the key drivers in this transformation is a series of pilot programs that are part of Cisco’s Smart+Connected Communities initiative, which is building a framework for modern, network-driven city services. Cisco and Holyoke are still early in this process, but all those involved say the sky, or perhaps the imagination, is the limit when it comes to its potential to connect the city and create economic-development opportunities.

Imagine an emergency first-response team able to stream high-definition video for triage in the emergency room. Or a classroom with students in one or more locations while the instructor is on another continent. Picture a business office in a single room with a client base around the globe. The common thread among all of these scenarios? The ability to be connected via technology.

This isn’t science fiction, just science. And it might not be many years before it’s a common reality in Holyoke. California-based Cisco Systems calls them Smart+Connected Communities, and local officials in Holyoke, the newest location for this technological advance, are calling it one of the most important chapters in the city’s history.

“We’re breaking new ground,” Kathy Anderson told BusinessWest. And by that, the city’s director of both planning and development means not only paving the way for how this technology can be implemented in the city, but also what it will mean for Holyoke, and also future S+CC projects, because this is one of the first of its kind in an existing community.

The Paper City might soon need to be rebranded as the hub of green and high-tech initiatives, as the high-performance computing center, underway along one of the city’s canals, joins forces with the Holyoke Innovation District Task Force and the S+CC initiative to make for potentially one of the most technologically important resources not only for the region, but around the industrialized world.

This is a lofty aspiration, and in many ways, the project is still in its infancy. That means that the shape of what this will be has yet to be determined. But talking to some of the local officials spearheading the project in Holyoke, the basic shape has been given a structure, a framework, and, in the words of David Gadaire, executive director of CareerPoint, the one-stop career center on High Street, “the dream to see the possibilities.”

In the most basic sense, the S+CC provides connections — between separate public-safety offices, the various city health care facilities, and the boards and officials of the municipal government. But it is also envisioned for residents, who need access to those sectors, and for social and economic progress.

Again, these are lofty goals. But, while some facets to the project have yet to be made clear, in many ways this has more to do with the city’s need to identify the roles such technology needs to address. However, in many ways, the process has begun.

Gadaire said that, while he had been an early participant in Cisco meetings with the city, there hadn’t been a plan for S+CC use in his operations. But with a few pieces of equipment, videoconferencing hardware that Cisco calls TelePresence, the soft beginnings of the city’s technological system went into play almost immediately.

Holyoke Community College is another city institution that has seen the beginnings of the S+CC technology in action, and President William Messner put the Cisco project into a larger focus.
“The goals of the project as a whole from the Cisco standpoint are to develop ways to use technology to address issues that affect cities,” he told BusinessWest. “They provide us with access to an array of expertise and technology that we had only a vague notion was out there.”

From that macro look at the project that could redefine Holyoke — and many other cities in this region and beyond — BusinessWest focuses the lens on what it means, at this early stage of the process, to be smart and connected, and how this could make an impact on the city’s future development.

Taking Shape

This past October, Cisco presented many specifics of S+CC to the community for the first time, in the Picknelly Adult and Family Education Center at the city’s Multimodal Transportation Center. Joining Mayor Elaine Pluta and a host of local representatives from public safety, health care, education, and workforce development was Elisabeth Zornes, senior director of S+CC for North America.

They were present in the flesh. Joining them via TelePresence, however, was a cast of Cisco representatives in Texas and various cities around the world.

In essence, this was the first glimpse that was made public of what the technology makes possible, and with presentations from all involved sectors, the full extent of the connectivity was expressed.

For the police and fire departments, one device will unite all modes of communication. Called the Cisco IP Interoperability and Collaboration System, it may look like a fancy network telephone, but it links regular telephones with cell phones, pagers, computers, and existing public-safety radio systems in a single hub. When a mere second can mean the difference between life and death in emergency services, the chiefs of both departments stressed the importance of a single point of communication for their crews.

In City Hall, streamlined communications result in voice, video, and conferencing expedited not only for the local populace, but for people and businesses interested in the city from outside the area. Not only does this ‘virtual’ city hall become streamlined for those interests, but it also fosters a technology-friendly environment key to the city’s emergence as a high-tech host.

“So when a business looks at its options for locations,” Anderson told BusinessWest, “they are going to look at schools and health care, among many other things. And if we have these technologies that make us stand out so clearly, that is an important deciding factor.”

The benefits to health care are obvious: better and easier communication and data access mean better patient care.

Carl Cameron, Holyoke Medical Center’s director of Information Systems, told BusinessWest, “if you look at the health care sector, we’re behind most industries in the use of technology. The paper-based method is so ingrained into the way physicians work. That’s the pushback, usually.”

But he elaborated on the possible S+CC applications that he says are entirely possible. “A lot of the technology is there,” he explained. “It’s just about plugging it into the processes that we have.”

‘Telemedicine’ is a term he used to describe the technique whereby a patient and physician are in contact in separate locations. Linking primary care doctors and specialists to the simple, yet secure, exchange of medical information makes all separate facets of the city medical offices into a meta-health care system. In fact, the extent of health care applications is limited only by bandwidth.

The health care industry has been rapidly changing, Cameron said. “We’re in an area where there is a shortage of physicians, shortage of emergency departments, shortage of specialty people,” he explained. “We may be able to connect to specialists from other regions for consultations, to help us to determine where the patient needs to go.”

But something as basic as the ability to exchange paperless information would ensure continuity of treatment, and that, he said, is of paramount importance for patient care. “When you look at us, HHC, the clinics, the schools, the VNA, Head Start … we all have some type of health care program where we can’t now share information. The infrastructure is here; it’s just connecting the dots to pull it together.”

Many of these projects involve some fine-tuning before they can be implemented. And that has as much to do with Cisco assessing the situations as it does Holyoke assessing what in fact the city wants to make of them. “There isn’t one person able to sit down and figure out all the ways in which this technology can be utilized,” Anderson said.

There are, however, some S+CC projects that have not only started, but are gathering momentum for the project as a whole.

CareerPoint, like many other career centers across the state, has seen deep cuts in its budget, coming at an especially difficult time when unemployment numbers have reached historic levels.
“Part of our philosophy,” Gadaire explained, “is that we’ll go anywhere, anytime, to get to a population with career-management needs.”

The technology aspect of the S+CC was “easy,” he continued. “They had what we needed.”
Picking a partner, among many other social organizations to pilot his program, however, wasn’t as easy. “There are many in the city, in terms of need,” he added.

The Care Center of Holyoke, a city program for pregnant teens, was selected to inaugurate the TelePresence classrooms with CareerPoint, said Gadaire, who explained how that organization is now digitally connected to all career workshops, and has met with such success that it is now entering its third round of classes.

“In many ways, we didn’t just have an existing need, we had an existing dream,” he said of offering classes that are historically oversubscribed and heretofore available only at the High Street office. “Having one visibly operating program on the ground opens the door to people understanding that S+CC is not only possible, but it’s happening.”

Class Action

Jeff Hayden is vice president for Business and Community Services at HCC, and he explained how the college has been using TelePresence classrooms in both its traditional campus and the downtown adjunct classrooms at the Multimodal Center. But his thoughts of the S+CC steered toward what can be.

“Using technology in the classroom is not a new phenomenon,” he explained, “but that has always been in more static forms, using PowerPoint, Internet databases — archived materials. “We’re now seeing technology able to bring in an expert that can talk to a classroom from a distance, with interactive roles between students and educators.”

‘Brick-and-click’ styles of education have been around for some time, where students need to be on-campus, but can perform many of their education functions via the Internet. “How we’re practically using it right now,” said Hayden, “is that we are just scratching the surface.”
Elaborating, Messner said that HCC’s role in the S+CC is to “do what we do best — educate people. And educate them relative to the use of this technology.

“So we’re talking with Cisco right now about being a training mechanism for the technology,” he said. “You can put all the hardware in the world on someone’s desk, but you need to know how to see its fullest potential.”

Hayden said that the college, on the front line of this emerging technology, will be a key asset in maximizing the S+CC functions not only for the school, but for the city’s operations, and beyond.

“What we’re hoping is to build a skilled cadre of people in Holyoke who can understand this technology,” he said. “We are looking at a training program that is specific to the S+CC project. And we’re working with the city and a number of partners with it, to say that we will be able to help individual managers on how to use this technology to be more effective and more efficient.”
Citing the HPCC as the tip of the iceberg making its way into the Innovation District, he said that technicians are going to be needed not just for that facility, but for any further IT development.
“We know that we’ll need technicians for the companies that will come to this community,” he said. “We don’t know what the jobs will be, but we’re looking at a liberal arts-like technology curriculum, so that an individual will get programming, networking, security, and identity-protection types of classes.

“We’re hoping to raise the bar for technology training for the local students so they will have what it takes for companies coming to this area,” he added.

Back to the Future

But of course, the biggest potential impact from the Cisco project is one that is the inevitable outcome from so much investment in the city’s core IT infrastructure.

“From a commodity point of view,” said Hayden, “technology hasn’t been in Holyoke’s ‘basket’ up until now. Obviously, companies like the medical center or the college hire people with backgrounds in IT. But the city hasn’t been a leader in IT as a primary sector; it has always been tangential to other industries.”

That, however, is now changing altogether. Anderson said that S+CC allows the city to market itself more aggressively as a beacon of technology, and, coupled with the educational and workforce components of the existing pilot, Holyoke will position itself with a ready fleet of specialized IT professionals.

“My job is economic development,” she said, “but to me it is also fostering. In order to have businesses have employees right from Holyoke, we need to educate our workforce for those situations. I look at it from the basic level of the schools on up.”

Much of the S+CC is still under consideration, all agree. But Hayden addressed a key concern for those who think this is a project that is too good to be true.

With the technology imports from the Innovation District, the HPCC, and S+CC, he said, “in the case of these projects, I will ask for their patience. In June 2009, the HPCC was announced, and a little over a year and a half later, we not only have a site, but a consortium that is ready to build. In the public sector, that speed is unheard of. It took 10 years for the Kittredge Center here at HCC to go from a plan on a piece of paper to a reality.”

The timeframe for the S+CC has been even shorter, he said, noting that it was rolled out not even a year ago.

“In a short period of time, Cisco has done a massive planning effort, with four or five different sectors — municipal government, health care, education, public safety,” said Hayden. “So there’s been a very large planning effort that has engaged local people in the discussion of where we need to go and what we need to do.”

Messner summed it up in very plain terms. “The S+CC in and of itself can’t be a silver bullet, but there’s a lot of ammunition out there,” he said of all the tech-sector influx in Holyoke. “When you talk about attracting other businesses to Holyoke, you put on the table that we’re working with Cisco and using their technology for better connectivity … well, how many other cities can say that? Not even Boston can say that.”

As it stands now, no other city in the region can, either. And in making a smart and connected city, that seems very much the key to connecting Holyoke to the reality of becoming a serious economic contender once again

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