Unseen IT Infrastructure

The unseen Information Technology Infrastructure:

Just as the major physical parts of our Nation’s infrastructure need to be repaired or replaced, this is also true for our technological infrastructure.

For many, our Nation’s Municipal Information Technology (IT) Infrastructure has been an afterthought, if considered at all. County, city, and town municipalities tend to be carefully run and are notoriously slow adopters of technology. Nonetheless, as IT solutions have proved successful and stable, they have grown to become an integral part in the operation of every state and municipality.

IT solutions help municipalities be more efficient. These solutions have allowed for more services and capabilities to be provided to citizens, and have helped municipalities scale and keep up with the ever-growing demands we place upon them. Regardless of whether or not we recognize it, we all depend on these solutions and systems today.

Municipalities, primarily counties, are responsible for a whole host of things. We may not always be aware of these responsibilities or appreciate their importance and consider the consequential nature of some of these tasks. Counties handle various major things that affect us all in one way or another; one example is property taxes. They often assess the value of residential and commercial property as well as assess and collect the property taxes

Municipalities handle everything from mundane things like your local traffic tickets, animal control, and trash collection to more serious areas such as Municipal Courts and their associated rulings and case details. These same organizations are often responsible for managing voter registration, voter ballots, voter polling locations and the vote tallies/ counts. This is an especially sensitive topic, in light of the upcoming election.

Beyond all of the above, some municipalities also provide one or all of the local utilities, such as Electrical services, Water services, and Gas services. IT solutions are used throughout these services to provide for and track supply levels, customer demand, and distribution. IT is used in monitoring for problems, documenting the underground and wire-line networks, and ensuring services are not accidentally disrupted due to construction, as well as supporting the general operation of each service. And lastly, the time-consuming back-office work such as customer management and billing is made simpler and more efficient thanks to the implementation of IT solutions.

For so many parts of our countries infrastructure we have enjoyed what I call security through obscurity. Things have remained secure because most people are unaware of those things and the value they may hold, represent or protect.

US Infrastructure in Disrepair

What comes to mind when we think of Infrastructure?

The word infrastructure encompasses the world around us. Much of it is simply taken for granted as it goes on functioning in plain sight or quietly unseen. As a country, we made enormous investments in the initial development of our infrastructure. We are all familiar with the aboveground infrastructures that we encounter during our daily lives, such as roads, bridges, telecommunication lines, and electrical distribution lines, but less obvious are the underground systems such as water, gas and oil pipelines, and drainage systems that run beneath our feet. Not to mention things that are just far from sight like dams or power generation plants.

Most Americans are aware that we need to repair our roads and bridges. This has been in the news a lot the last few years and debated by various politicians. These parts of our infrastructure continue to age as we watch, and some have completely failed due to time and neglect. There are many examples of this, such as the 109 year old Park Avenue Bridge failure in Rhode Island last year, or when the Interstate 35W Bridge in Minnesota collapsed into the Mississippi River in 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145. And then there are the dams, as documented by the Association of State Dam Safety, more than 70 US dams have failed since 2010. Our aging roads and bridges are often mentioned in the news, likely because we see them every day, but what about the infrastructure that we cannot see?

In addition to bridge and dam failures, there have been major gas and oil pipeline failures that have been highly visible and incalculably damaging. There have also been many water pipeline failures that, for the most part, have not gained as much notoriety. In the vein of pipeline infrastructure problems, there are many that do not just fail; these pipelines are still performing, but are deteriorated and leaking. Some have been moderate leaks of water, gas or oil, while others are more severe. While these pipelines still function, the consequences of not replacing them can be tragically fatal, as illustrated by the Flint Water Crisis.

Some of the more severe pipeline leaks have recently been in the news, such as the Natural gas leaks that have been found in the North Texas’ Barnett Shale region, where thousands of tons of methane are emitted every hour. A similar leak in Southern California gained national attention when it was first reported on Oct. 23 2015 and over 1,700 homes had to be evacuated. Millions of pounds of methane leaked into the atmosphere until the leak was finally sealed 112 days later on February 18th 2016. And the risks for more incidents continue. According to NOAA and as mapped by ArcGIS, there are over 25,000 miles of active underwater oil and gas pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of these pipelines are decades old.

I find it doubtful that anyone would argue that we are on top of these all of these problems and that they are all under control and being addressed. This is simply not the case. These are big, physical, and easily understood problems that are widespread, overwhelming, and expensive to fix.