NPS IT team brings home the gold

Friday - 7/2/2010, 9:40am EDT

Dan Healey, Alaska region CIO, National Park Service

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By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

When you don't have materials readily available at your fingertips, you have to get creative. And it's that innovative thinking that has helped a National Park Service team win the Alaska Federal Executive Association Civilian Team of the Year award.

Dan Healey is the Chief Information Officer in the agency's Alaska region. His team managed to save the government millions of dollars while improving communications at the same time.

He knew his team had their work cut out for them when they looked at the bills. $44,000 a month for data transmission. ""It's very expensive up here because of where we are," Healey told Federal News Radio. "A lot of our connections are satellite connections. We don't have the same cost structure as you folks in the lower 48 have. You tend to get better deals than we do up here."

So his team redesigned the network.

"When we finished, we were able to increase the bandwidth of the networks to all of the parks and park areas that we deal with by 10 to 15 times." And the new cost was about $21,000 a month, "so we immediately dropped our billing by $23,000 a month on the new system."

And that was no one-time gain. "This is forever," said Healey, "so these are the cost savings that keep on giving."

Healey said the lower costs and increased bandwidth were good, but there was another reason his team needed to make changes.

The National Park Service makes training available to employees through a satellite system. The problem, said Healey, was "being up here at the top of the earth here... most of our dishes are pointed almost horizontally (laughs,) and we dealt with the mountain range up here. We don't get very good reception." Only about 30% of employees could participate in the training. So they had to find another way to provide access.

His team developed a video conference connection over the network they had just finished redesigning which allowed 100% of park employees to be covered for education.

(NPS photo)

And Then There Are the Bears

Healey said there are remote parts of National Parks in Alaska, and then there are parts that are even more remote.

As an example, Healey pointed to Brooks Camp. The headquarters of Katmai National Park is in King Salmon, Alaska. Then another "35 to 40 miles into the wilderness from there is Brooks Camp." And there are the bears, pulling salmon out of the river.

Or...

You can watch on the newly installed Bear Cam when the salmon are running.

To make the Bear Cam possible, Healey's team "put mountaintop repeaters in" using wind, solar and battery power to run the transmitters at the top of the mountains. "Now we're feeding a live feed of those bears out there, which has never been done before, by using green power all the way out."

Beast Best Practices, Lessons Learned

When asked about what he's learned going through this process, Healey noted three things:

  • Be Holisitic "We tend to evolve systems based on 'somebody needed something'," said Healey, "and we added and we added and we added, and before you know it, that causes a lot of costs, and a lot of it's hidden. Taking those, looking at it holistically, and then trying to package the whole thing as an entity and working with the federal contracts that we have available, that's probably the best way to cut costs."

  • Check the Bills for Recurring Costs Healey said those really add up. Take a look at those and ask if there are other ways to do this, said Healey, "and there usually is. It takes a lot of research. We have to play around with different technologies to see if they're valid, but when we find them and they are, the cost savings are huge."

  • The Real Secret to Success is People "That's the other magic formula here. I've probably got one of the best teams that i've ever worked with in my career and I've got 26 years in. The folks that work for me, that do this sort of work and they're very committed to that end result. That makes all the difference in the world as well."