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Some pride themselves on thinking outside of the box. James Hettrick doesn't even know where the box is.

Hettrick, the IT director for the city of Loma Linda in California, has already spearheaded an initiative that brought a law mandating fibre-optic cabling be installed in any new construction or substantial renovations in his city, the better to connect to the 1Gbit/s fibre that links residential and commercial buildings alike to a 10G fibre core. Loma Linda's Connected Community Program is intended to spur the local economy, help out its medical research institutions, and improve quality of life for residents.

Now, Hettrick is involved with more projects, including the enterprise service bus (ESB). The ESB builds on the Connected Community Program, taking advantage of its fibre rings, an extensive wireless network and VPN capabilities to enable the sharing of resources and information among various community constituencies. As he envisions it, the ESB could result in savings of $1 billion for the medical community alone by enabling a more effective use of its resources. At the same time, Hettrick is organising the United States Connected Community Association, a forum in which communities of various sorts can share information and experiences in hopes of making more informed technology decisions.

Everybody on the bus

Hettrick explained the thinking behind both efforts, noting both are in the formative stages. But that won't likely be the case for long, as Hettrick seems to know how to get things done fast.

For the ESB project, he has pulled together Loma Linda University, along with the three branches of the Loma Linda University Medical Centre, a Veterans Administration hospital, a K-12 academy, the local chamber of commerce and a new speciality heart and surgery hospital, along with representatives of the city and a local broadcasting company. "These aren't small groups," he says. "And it has to be the CIO who represents each group, so we can get to final decisions as we sit there."

The idea is for participating organisations to offer certain resources for use by other participants and to connect to each other via open source, standards-based connections. For example, perhaps one member has a printer capable of printing large banners. It could create a module that other community members who want to use the printer can employ to access the printer remotely. "You could actually print directly to the printer in a queue; it doesn't have to be touched by a human," Hettrick says. "Through a virtual LAN, you just use it as your print shop."

Financial concerns will have to be worked out in such instances, given that toner and maintenance isn't free, but the ESB concept also has the potential to save enormous sums of money. Healthcare is a prime example for Loma Linda, given the area is home to a number of major health care facilities, including the only level one trauma centre serving four counties. If one organisation offers a service for remote monitoring of vital signs and remote sensing technology, nursing home, assisted living facilities and the like could use the ESB to tap into that service.

A similar capability could enable emergency room doctors to offer triage decisions on patients before they come to the hospital. "We have a Tier-1 trauma centre that serves about a third of the state. They do life flights in here all day long. So if you've got a serious problem, this is where you want to be," Hettrick says. "But if you need three stitches, this is not where you want to be." If doctors could triage patients and have paramedics take them to a clinic or another appropriate facility when they don't really need ER care, or if the ER is simply too busy, the hospital would avoid the cost of processing such patients, while the patient gets a more appropriate level of care.

"When I presented this to the medical centre, I said, ‘I'll save you a billion dollars,' and they're like, ‘Yeah, right,'" Hettrick says. "Then I explained it and they said, ‘Yeah, you're right. It probably would. It'll just take a little time.'"

The Loma Linda Fire Department has already said it will help facilitate the plan, which requires an expansion of the existing wireless coverage such that it blankets the entire city. Using federal money, the department has already built what Hettrick describes as an "all terrain, mobile ER." In addition to carrying its own medical equipment, this six-wheel military style vehicle is outfitted with everything required to communicate medical data to an ER. It even carries around a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle that can be dispatched to areas where the larger ATV can't go.

Asked how fully baked the whole ESB concept is, Hettrick says, "It's still in the bowl. It's not even in the oven yet." But he says the groups involved all agree it's something they need.

Connecting communities

The idea that he can meet with various Loma Linda constituencies to discuss such ideas is what Hettrick is trying to build on with the US Connected Community Association.

The idea is simply to provide a vehicle for the sharing of information and ideas about technology among communities that operate high-speed networks similar to that in Loma Linda. "It could be university led, community led, citizen activities; I don't care how you define community," Hettrick says.

The problem is that technology executives in his position rarely get to talk and share experiences with their counterparts from other communities and non-profits in a setting that is free of vendor involvement. When Hettrick was busy building the fibre network in Loma Linda, he attended an event and wound up at a table with two other executives who were building similar large high-speed networks.

"In the three years we'd been working on the project there was one opportunity for the three of us to sit and talk for 30 to 45 minutes," he says. "Along came a vendor who sat down and the discussion ended, immediately. And we never got a chance to go back to it."

While a number of existing groups purport to address similar issues, such as Fibre Optic Communities of the United States (FOCUS) and the Fibre to the Home Council (FTTH Council), Hettrick says they each ran into issues. The consulting firm that started FOCUS got swamped and couldn't keep it going, while the FTTH Council is essentially a vendor-run organisation.

"What we really need is a safe place to dialogue. What's working? What isn't? What folks have been told is true and false, so we don't waste a lot of money," Hettrick says. He subscribes to the principle that says, if the public has paid for something once, they shouldn't have to pay for it again. If one community does an ROI study, creates a business plan or creates anything else that's paid for by taxpayers, that document is available to all others under the Freedom of Information Act. "It doesn't have any context, but if you make the resource available, you can talk to people about the context," he says.

A city should not be limited in its options for technology projects because it can only get certain information. "Let's give decision-makers all the information, let them see different models, give them accessibility to other people who can validate what they've been told so they don't get confused and stay confused," Hettrick says.

To date, groups including Fibre First Minnesota and the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, better known as UTOPIA, are involved, as are Arlington County, Boston and BICSI, a professional association supporting the information transport systems industry. Now Hettrick is in the process of building a Web platform to facilitate the secure sharing of information among members.

Breaking boundaries

Both the ESB and the US Connected Community Association are examples of breaking through the "false boundaries" that Hettrick says too often exist in relationships that people and groups have with one another. The people who he's working with on these efforts are redefining those boundaries, and are willing to explore most any option.

"You don't want to shoebox industries or even opportunities, which a lot of people do out of insecurity," he says. Better to approach problems with this attitude: "I don't know it all, I never said I did. I said I'd find out."

Paul Desmond is events editor for Network World and president of PDEdit, an IT publishing company.