November 30, 1995 - From the November, 1995 issue

SCAG’s InfoNet Online: Internet Accessible Information for Region

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) is poised to put its member cities and counties in Southern California on the information superhighway. Called the ACCESS Project, SCAG intends to provide the necessary technology and training to create a regional network on the Internet. As the project prepares to make its public debut after the first of the year, TPR presents an interview with Project Manager Terry Bills and Principal Planner of Government Affairs, Eric Roth

Mr. Bills, give our readers a briefing on SCAG's new endeavor called the ACCESS Project. 

Terry Bills (TB): The ACCESS project is designed to improve the levels of communication and coordination throughout the region, not only between SCAG and the jurisdictions, but particularly among the jurisdictions themselves. For some time we have been trying to encourage a subregional planning process. We have been trying to encourage and facilitate mutual coordination and planning. The ACCESS project is intended to solidify those goals and build on them. 

What does SCAG's ACCESS Project bring to its member governments in the way of resources to achieve the above goals? 

TB: ACCESS provides each of our 190 jurisdictions with hardware, GIS software, and a large amount of data and databases. We are building applications based on the software and data designed around our jurisdictions' needs. 

The next major component has to do with Internet connectivity—connecting all the jurisdictions on a wide area network, over the Internet. This gives the jurisdictions connections among themselves, to SCAG, and to the larger world. The final component is a rather extensive, year-long training program intended to bring all the jurisdictions up to at least a minimal level of technical competency on GIS and facilitate the exchange of information. 

What are the benefits that you and SCAG's board of directors envision from this project? 

TB: I think that it has a whole series of benefits. First, I think simply providing jurisdictions the ability to understand not only what they are doing, but what their neighbors are doing in a real, tangible and graphical way is critical. 

For example, one of the files that we are providing is land use. Once every three years we fly over and photograph the entire the region, and convert that to a digital file. Jurisdictions can actually tell what their existing land use is—and distinguish it among 105 land use categories. That is very detailed information. 

We also have each of their general plans digitized so that they're getting not just the information for their city, but for the entire subregion. This will help the jurisdictions understand what is happening in the surrounding cities as well. 

We are providing over 200 census variables, including all types of employment data, including employment by place. Jurisdictions can take a look at sectoral distribution of employment within each city and by subregion.

In a sense, they are all starting from the same level of information; they are all reading the same book. We hope that this will facilitate coordination; we don't think that it will put an end to conflicts between cities. But at least the information allows the jurisdictions to more effectively coordinate. 

Eric Roth, I know that you have been working on the intergovernmental applications in this project. Would you elaborate for us what you expect?

Eric Roth (ER): The notion of having an integrated network that connects 190 cities allows for extraordinary advances in the ability to perform what we do more efficiently. 

SCAG has been trying to develop a permit streamlining process that allows for the guy at home, at night, who is thinking about how to get a permit to start a business to be able to hop on his computer, get on the Internet, and be able to go to the homepage of any one of our member cities and get all the application materials he will need online. 

Our goal is to start off with downloading the materials, and later, to begin interacting online, in real time, so that the business owner can fill out the forms and send them back from the comfort of his or her home. The goal is to save time, money, and effort. The business entrepreneur will also be able to deal with multiple cities at once. 

An offshoot of this, under preliminary discussion, is that we hope to work with the Entertainment Industry Development Council (EIDC), also known as the merged LA City and County Film Office. They are interested in figuring out how to offer film permits for the entire region, and are thinking about how to do that technologically, through the Internet. 

The ability to make that happen might very well rest with the network that SCAG is setting up. The beauty of this whole process is that as we set up an Internet-based network, we recognize that we cannot possibly pre-plan all the good things that we recognize this system will generate. Once the system is out there, the entrepreneurial spirit will be endless. 

For example, a private business person thinking about starting their own business may recognize that they has access to all this great demographic data. They could call up a map through the GIS process and take a look at the neighborhood in which they are thinking about starting a business. They could then map out an entire marketing strategy to kick off their business. We have only started to think of the potential applications down the line.

If we do it right, this system will allow us to reinvent how we do what we do. We are sharing information in a radical new way, and giving everyone the tools they need to come up with informed decisions. It's up to the entrepreneurial spirit of Southern California to use the system in a way that is advantageous. 

Terry, this is not the first time that cities have been online. Cities like Santa Monica have been online for a while. What have you learned from these other experiments to date that you bring to the table here, on a regional basis? 

TB: Above all, we've learned that the information has to be useful. It must be the type of information that the cities are going to use on a day-to­day basis. 

We have worked with a body of planners from throughout the region. We have asked them to tell us the types of work they do so that the applications and types of information we are supplying respond precisely to what they do. 

We all can sit in a little room and think about what would be a nice idea, but really the test of fire is whether the information and applications will be used. What we have tried to do is involve numerous local planners so that we can ensure that those applications and information are useful. 

Following up on one of Eric's points, we are encouraging each one of the subregions to build on this system and move it in the direction that they want to go. For example, the San Gabriel Valley is particularly interested in utilizing the system for economic development activities. Given the wealth of information they have, they are thinking about how to tailor economic development programs for the entire San Gabriel Valley. 

That is a much different type of approach than two cities competing for the next big box retailer. I think that the San Gabriel Valley example is the type of coordinated activity that we are really trying to help facilitate. 

Eric, as liaison with the SCAG Board of Directors, give us a flavor of the debate that led to the endorsement of the ACCESS Project. 

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ER: For the most part, our board is very supportive, and is asking, "When do we get it?" 

Our board is familiar with the fact that not only are we giving the computers, software, and equipment to 190 cities, but we have also set up mock homepages for each city. Additionally, we have been hosting user groups that talk about potential uses for the network. 

TB: Elected officials have been very supportive. We have not yet found a city that has been opposed to the idea.

In terms of the user groups, a popular conception of SCAG is that we are a planning agency; however, we also deal with a variety of other professional communities that we hope to incorporate in this project. These form the basis for our user groups. 

Clearly there is a larger transportation community—we deal with six different transportation commissions—and they are very much interested in being able to use the network. 

Through the Regional Economic Strategies Consortium (RESC), there is a subcommittee looking at how they can utilize the system to help them in their economic development activities. 

We are also participating with USC to understand how we can provide access to community-based organizations, who have not had, and in many cases, do not have, access to computerized equipment. 

The user group concept is a way for us to begin to market the concept, and make sure that the system gets used to capacity. We deal with a variety of user communities—transportation, economic development, financial management, city planners. Part of the charge given to us by our director is to have these communities identify the types of needs and information that they want. 

W c are trying to answer the question: how can SCAG, which has a voluminous amount of information, make the information useful to these other groups? Part of the effort is to go out and organize these various groups to help us find potential uses for our information. 

ER: It's a radical definition of how you use information. We understand that you can't master-coordinate how information can be used. However, we also understand that you can master-coordinate the availability of information that can be used. 

It is inefficient to have 190 cities and six counties, a half dozen transportation commissions, and numerous finance managers all doing their job and not realizing what the other guy is doing or what information is available to make their jobs easier or how they can get an edge. 

The future is now. Southern California has a moment in time to define how online urban information systems can be used. Six months from now when ACCESS is up and running, Southern California, from an information perspective, could be ten years ahead of the rest of the country. 

Your end goal is obviously making the information available online. In doing so, you're making the information available to a much larger community than just the 190 member cities or SCAG—you're making it available to the greater Internet community. What are the implications of such access? 

TB: Putting the information online is one of the major goals of the project. This involves the whole notion of how we make information available to a wider public, and how we involve the wider public in a whole range of regional issues and decision making. Part of the goal is to make the information needed for a decision making framework more widely available. 

While you are making information available to cities, is there any intention of a reciprocal process. Do you plan to retrieve information from the cities as well as dole it out?

TB: Reciprocity is also one of the goals. We do not envision this to be simply a one-way process. We want to be able to work with the cities so that we can have the cities update some of their own information, such as the general plans. Rather than having SCAG digitize each new general plan, it is a much better idea to have the cities do that themselves. 

One of the major goals is defining how we, in Southern California, make information more widely available to everyone. Part of the project is designing a set of tools which helps to facilitate sharing and movement of information. 

How will a subcommunity of a bigger city, the town council of Sherman Oaks, or an unincorporated area of the County, or a neighborhood in Claremont, interact with the databases?

TB: What we're really attempting to do is to provide information to a wide range of users. It is up to those organizations and particular groups to figure out how to access and use that information. To the extent that we are trying to make a large amount of information available that is potentially valuable to a wide range of users, we have no way of knowing how information is going to be used. 

For example, we are using Franchise Tax Board data to update information on average household size and family income. This could be valuable information to any of a wide variety of users. 

Eric, a year from now, when Project ACCESS comes up for review, what would be your best advice of how to evaluate the program? What will constitute success? 

ER: Success should be measured by whether or not the system is being used. The amount of use will vary. Terry bas been talking about the types of use we expect to have because we are generating the data and providing the tools. The world of planning will be using the system, from looking at general plans, to looking at GIS databases. Those are the things that we know about. 

But I think the broader definition of success will be more related to how those whose use we don't anticipate—the user groups, the community-based organizations, the public at large—are using the system. Remember, anyone with Internet access will have access to all this information. This is truly radical. Someone sitting at home could design their own revolution about how to redesign communication, information and ideas. This is real-time Sim City 1996. 

TB: A woman from a Calabasas neighborhood organization caught me at a conference last week. She had heard about the ACCESS Project and was literally grabbing my arm, trying to figure out how the community group could get access to the system. I think that over time, this will be an empowering project for community and neighborhood-based organizations.

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