Cook County Seeks Tech Talent

Just like the ’80s blockbuster hit movie, Back to the Future, Cook County is looking back in time to see what it needs to progress forward. Currently, the technology serving the millions of county residents is, literally, trapped in time. And, while the rest of the world marches forward in the information age to cloud computing, and the next generation of technology, Cook County’s information management system is older than some of the people working in its offices.

Money, bureaucracy, and investments in systems that have become obsolete are at the heart of the Cook County’s technology shortfall. Earlier this month, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle unveiled her 2013 budget. With tax revenues down, and county expenses on the rise, Preckwinkle is calling for deep cuts in spending and dozens of layoffs to close a more than $267 million deficit. Amid the cuts, Preckwinkle is also trying to modernize the county’s information systems.

Last week, at the Technology Innovation Summit held at Northern Trust Headquarters in downtown Chicago, Cook County’s new chief information officer, Lydia Murray, revealed the depth of the county’s technology gap. She says that, while iPhones and other smart devices are the norm for professionals and consumers, County workers still carry outdated Blackberrys.

Besides lacking smart phones, the county also lags behind when it comes to computing power, she says. Electronic data at the county flows through slow and aging computer mainframes built in the late ’70s and early ’80s. In some departments, information continues to be stored the old fashioned way — in warehouses packed with mountains of paper files requiring time-consuming searches to access. Murray says that, because of the various departments, there’s also a mishmash of differing technologies and systems. Through the years, department heads have brought in different systems that don’t necessarily communicate with those in other departments.

With a limited budget, Murray is looking for creative ways to close the county’s technology gap.  Some of her solutions include partnering with the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois, and other governmental agencies.  She’s hoping to use those partnerships to reduce the costs of updating and improving the county’s technology. She’s also hoping to leverage some of the county’s existing systems, such as its investment in a fiber optic network, to improve the county’s information infrastructure.

Despite the budget deficit, President Preckwinkle acknowledges the importance of the county investing in technology. She told the audience that she is looking to hire more tech experts to help pull the county from 1980s… and back to the future. ❒

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