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CIO: 'We’re Talking About a Sub-$100 Solution!'

Computer science students are helping California's largest county government save time and trees through the use of affordable technology.

Public-sector employees know the drill only too well: Before taking an official vehicle on official business, set aside some time for paperwork: filling in forms with one’s name, employee ID number, time, date, current odometer reading, starting address, destination address, reason for trip and several other fields.

The CIO of the Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department, Mohammed Al-Rawi, continues the narrative: “By the time I filled out the form, I was late for my meeting. As much as I was frustrated for being late for my meeting, this was one of those ‘Ah-ha’ moments, where we can definitely leverage technology to streamline this process.”

Parks and Rec has hundreds of vehicles of different makes and models, and currently the department’s vehicle usage is tracked on paper and manually aggregated.

“This process is time-consuming for the employees and service personnel, and relies on the accuracy of manually supplied information,” Al-Rawi noted.

So in partnership with California State University at Los Angeles, he explained, the county and the university assigned a task to senior computer science students: “Implement a microcontroller (namely, Raspberry Pi) with an RFID card reader and a GPS module to interface with the car’s OBDII (on-board diagnostics).”

“Instead of filling out those forms,” Al-Rawi said, “employees will just tap their Parks ID, and the microcontroller will record the trip and send the information to an open source IoT (Internet of Things) platform. This was such a great partnership where students were exposed to real-world business problems and worked with us to build a solution.”

Emily Allen, dean of Cal State LA’s College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology (ECST), told Techwire that about two-thirds of seniors’ projects are sponsored by industry and public sector agencies.

“We have projects sponsored by aerospace, transportation, biotech, software development, utilities, small businesses, the city, the county, national labs, and others,” Allen said in an email. “Many are interdisciplinary projects involving both engineers and computer science students. It’s a great way for students to work on real projects with real customers.”

Students work in teams of four or five along with a faculty adviser and a technical liaison from the sponsor.

“This year-long effort culminates in our Project Expo every May,” she said, “where the team projects are on display with posters and project talks. It is typical for sponsors to make job offers to one or more members of their project teams — for the sponsor, the project is like a year-long candidate interview. It’s the best way to find the best candidates.”

The Parks fleet isn’t using the new system yet, but the CSU students are getting close.

“They have a prototype that is working beautifully,” Al-Rawi said. “We’re talking about a sub-$100 solution!”

Once in place, the system will eliminate paper waste, improve use of county resources, improve control over maintenance costs, and simplify the process for authorizing and reporting usage of county vehicles. An authentication component is also part of the interface for every vehicle; only employees of Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation should be able to drive the vehicles, so a lockout system will be applied based on the employee's county ID card.

The first year of the project will focus on the “edge” portion, along with initial work on the networking and server-side Web system.

Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C. He lives in Northern California.