Sep 17 2020

How One University’s Tech Kept a City Running During the Pandemic

When COVID-19 forced Buffalo to shut down, the University at Buffalo helped the city’s essential 311 call center transition to remote work within 48 hours.

It was a Friday in spring 2020, and COVID-19 had just hit Buffalo, N.Y. A hectic week of planning for the pivot to remote learning was coming to an end as Steve Heist, director of network and communication services at the University at Buffalo, turned off the lights in his office. As he was powering down his computer, he received an unexpected call from Cisco. He learned that his work was far from over: The city of Buffalo needed his help.

Buffalo, the second-largest city in New York state, was shutting down. The city’s critical 311 call center needed to transition to remote operations within 48 hours.

Although the city runs an online portal and an app to log important requests, the 311 Call and Resolution Center’s primary communications are via telephone. The center takes up to 600 calls a day from Buffalo residents. Without a remote phone system, the city would not be able to meet citizens’requests. Broken streetlights would likely remain dark. Fallen trees would continue blocking roads. Garbage mounds could rise.

As Oswaldo Mestre, director of Buffalo’s Division of Citizen Services, describes in a Cisco blog post, “311 is the lifeblood of the city.”

Back at his office, Heist dropped any plans to rest over the weekend. “This is too critical of a service for the city,” he says he remembers thinking.

Heist had to make a few calls to confirm, but he was fairly certain that UB’s collaboration infrastructure would be able to help the 311 call center scale up. “Because we’ve made those investments, we were in a position to share that infrastructure with the city of Buffalo in order to maintain their critical services to the Buffalo community,” he says.

MORE ON EDTECH: Discover how you can better prepare for safety, accessibility, engagement and security on campus.

The University at Buffalo helped the city’s essential 311 call center transition to remote work within 48 hours. 

The Technology That Kept a City Open Despite a Pandemic

By 7:38 p.m., the UB team had confirmed with Heist that it had the infrastructure it needed to help the 311 call center transition to remote work. This included seven Cisco communication servers that are a part of the Cisco Unified Contact Center Express platform. With the endorsement of UB’s vice president and CIO, they began making preparations to move forward.

Heist had figured the plan wasn’t going to be a problem. After all, the university had recently scaled up from two Expressway-E collaboration gateways and two Expressway-C gateways to a five-by-six configuration. “During COVID, we scaled up our services when our users were going remote,” Heist says.

MORE ON EDTECH: See how IT innovation is helping campuses open safely.

Before the pivot to remote learning, UB had 4,300 phones connected. But Cisco Jabber allowed the university to quickly scale up to handle 10,000 users with 10,000 devices.

According to Heist, this is because UB’s Cisco voice infrastructure resides on VMware infrastructure connected to Cisco switches within two data centers. When a UB computer connects to the wired network on campus, it is connecting to a Cisco switch port as well.

“We knew we had the infrastructure to handle it. We built this architecture specifically for the purpose of scaling,” Heist says — and it paid off.

Working Through the Weekend to Keep Critical Services Open

Throughout the weekend, the city of Buffalo identified phones that were compatible with UB’s system. UB then programmed those phones in by adding the devices’ MAC addresses. The city then brought the phones to the homes of remote workers.

By 8:30 a.m. on Monday, city employees received the first calls to the 311 call center remotely. “We pride ourselves on how we can give back to the community,” Heist says.

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