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MIT helps Cambridge start online services

With the completion of work by Cambridge city employees and members of the MIT community, citizens can now get the answers to commonly asked questions about city services via the Internet on their home or office computers or on personal computers set up for the public at the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library.

They can download the form required to apply for a business certificate, find out about the city's recreation programs, or read in Chinese about the city's Human Rights Commission and its remedies for discrimination. In addition to information about city government, anyone with access to the Internet can get all kinds of information about Cambridge demographics, restaurants and businesses, and locations of museums, hotels, colleges and universities on "clickable" maps.

"Since this is Cambridge, the high-tech capital of the East Coast and arguably the country, we knew we wanted a sophisticated and comprehensive public access system for our citizens," said Valerie Roman, the city's director of management information systems. "But we knew we couldn't expect to finance an expensive system totally from tax dollars, so we looked for ways to cooperate with the many high-tech professionals who live and work in the Cambridge area. What we have come up with is a real win/win effort, where town-gown and city-business partnerships have been mutually beneficial."

A number of MIT students and staff worked on the project, and the Institute is also lending the city space on its computer server. Among those helping out are Suzana Lisanti, a senior technical writer for Computer Support Services, and Eric Loeb of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Also assisting is Michael Barrow, a consultant for the Distributed Computation and Networking Group.

UROP students Andy Shum, a junior in computer science and engineering, and sophomores Audrey King, Tommy Ng and Nancy Cheung, helped with building the City Hall directory and city map, downloading text and building other pages (Ms. Cheung wrote the Chinese human rights page). High school students from MIT's Educational Studies Program were involved as well.

MIT liaisons to city officials were Ron Suduiko, assistant to the president for government and community relations; Sarah Gallop, assistant for government relations in the president's office; and James D. Bruce, vice president of information systems.

The service, which became available to the public on July 14, provoked immediate interest within the Cambridge community. Within a week, 70 library patrons has signed up for training in Mosaic and the Internet, and MIT again lent a hand by providing space earlier this month for a large-scale training session to handle the demand. Information Systems has made a microcomputer training lab available on Saturday afternoons, and volunteers have been providing free Internet training to people who sign up at the library. A series of evening lectures at the Cambridge Library is also scheduled during the coming months by Mr. Barrow, who is president of the Boston Computer Society's Internet Special Interest Group.

Along with information about city services, the city plans to provide electronic mail contact for citizens to city departments and officials, a bulletin board of upcoming meetings and City Council and board agendas, said Margaret Drury, Cambridge city clerk. Through its Traffic and Parking Department, the city will provide for payment of parking tickets via telephone voice response. Cambridge is also exploring the use of electronic kiosks to extend information and transaction processing to the public at alternative sites such as shopping malls.

Ms. Roman said that the project was starting with the online dialup component because that will give the most flexibility in changing and growing in accord with the public's responses and needs. She stressed that the online information is in the early stages of development, and that much more information will be added. Comments and suggestions from the public are welcome, and can be sent via e-mail to the MIS Department's project manager, Todd Marinoff, whose e-mail address is provided in the online information.

The public Internet connection is available on Macintosh computers at the main branch of the public library through a donation of a high-speed Internet connection for one year by Continental Cablevision, the local cable TV provider. Software development for Internet interfaces has been provided by the Center for Civic Networking, a Washington and Boston-based nonprofit organization which works to extend public electronic access for the civic benefit. To check out Cambridge on line, use the address: (be sure to use a capital C when typing "Cambridge").

A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 3).

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