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Christchurch City Council assesses its quake response

Information manager Gavin Till outlines IT measures taken during and after the quakes

Natural disasters usually bring out the best in people. For the ICT department at the Christchurch City Council, the September and February earthquakes brought about a new way of working that has "changed our way of thinking", according to information manager Gavin Till.

"They've made us rethink quite a few things," he says. "As an organisation we have rules and processes, but we are now making risk-based decisions on the fly with a focus on outcomes."

Usually a civil emergency lasts two to three days, with a council's main priority being the operation of essential services.

"As IT, we would focus on that," he says. "But [with the earthquakes] our key challenge was over a sustained period of time. This meant we were having to provision IT services for Civil Defence, City infrastructure recovery and normal operations, as well as council facilities.

"The problem was the sheer volume we had to deal with."

Council buildings were among those badly damaged. Till says at times he was wearing a hard hat and a high-visibility jacket to get into buildings and remove PCs, so they could be provisioned elsewhere.

"In some instances the rulebook got thrown out the window. We had to make decisions to get on with it. There was no time to follow process. We had to concentrate on outcomes, which established much better teamwork."

Till manages a team of 80, around 30 of them core operations staff.

There was some luck. The council had just completed the migration of its server infrastructure to Computer Concepts' datacentre, when the September 4 earthquake struck.

"The February quake brought the same trials and tribulations," he says. "For us, it was again a huge volume issue.

"We normally work 9am to 5pm, but our staff then worked shifts. Normally, we didn't focus on mobility, but there was a need to do that."

"We had a lot of vendor help. In a telco capacity, Gen-i was fantastic. Dell came to the party to meet a massive order for laptops. Salesforce provisioned solutions for asset management."

He says staff have worked from a variety of locations, with half of them still operating from home.

"That made us rethink quite a few things. We had a much greater awareness of remote value, which is now seen as a huge advantage.

"It has changed our priorities. Before the quakes field technology was a nice to have. It is now seen as essential.

"Salesforce has given us a pilot connection to the cloud."

The council uses SAP for its core ERP applications, Geomedia for GIS, Trim for document management, Teamsite for its web applications, with Borland as a platform for capturing business requirements and managing testing.

The council has client-server-based hardware. "It is inevitable that we will move to software-as-a-service at the application level, but we have no agenda," he says. "SaaS has advantages and disadvantages, particularly when it comes to data sovereignty."

Till says the IT team is looking to move back to the civic building between October and December. "We had just moved into the new building around the time of the first quake," he says.

He feels the quakes have endorsed the IT business model. "In hindsight, we had the right structure. We knew who the decision makers were and we could scale.

"After the September quake, we realised we were burning some staff out. Following the February quake we realised we were going to be in it for the long haul, so we implemented better rostering.

"There was an absolute, fundamental desire by the team to make things happen.


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