Rafael Mena: Using Infotech to Improve Lives
Story By: Chriss Swaney
Rafael Mena cuts through the confusion and draws out the lessons from the halting, often painful journey through the jungles of the information age.
Mena, chief technology officer for Orange County, Florida, warns that the unanticipated and unintended consequences of new technology can be as significant as its potential rewards, especially if we proceed without comprehending the scope of technology’s impact on humanity and the planet.
That’s why Mena and his team of infotech experts work tirelessly to develop IT tools that will ensure better management of public technology and computer systems so critical to the safety and success of running Orange County. Their work has been valuable to first responders like those involved in the recent terrorist attack at an Orlando nightclub, as well as officials who track hurricane activity.
“I’m in charge of maintaining Orange County government needs from the region’s 911 fire and rescue call system to the security systems at Corrections and the 311 non-emergency community service,’’ said Mena, who earned a computer science degree at the University of Kansas and has spent more than 25 years in various roles for Orange County. Located in Central Florida, Orange County is home to 13 municipalities, several theme parks, the world’s second-largest convention center and a life science research park.
In 2011, Mena and his team introduced an app called OCFL Alert. Developed in-house by the county, the Web and phone app gives people all the vital realtime data they need before and after a hurricane: where better sandbags are developed, a map of shelters, and where to locate drinking water.
“What makes our applications so unique is that they are tied to a backend. When you submit something to us, in real time, the information creates a work order or a ticket incident. Then, it’s delivered to the proper department so they can start working on the issue,’’ said Mena, who spent some of his youth in Venezuela.
“The real test in my profession is when things happen.”
That’s why Mena has always tried to be on the leading edge of developing IT savvy
tools. Some 70 million tourists visit Orange County every year and they have a wealth of e-government and other computer interactive apps available to them. Mena is a stickler for ensuring that technology is scalable, and he argues that it all comes down to people and customer service. “It’s all about explaining in nonbusiness terms how a system works. You have to develop trusted relationships to make it all work,’’ Mena said. His office handles more than 2 billion emails and
33,000 public records requests a year.
One of those teachable moments came at the White House in 2014, when Mena was invited to show President Obama and a Homeland Security official some of Orange County’s novel interactive smartphone applications that provide critical information during emergencies. His influence has also been felt in some foreign countries. Mena reports that he is helping implement a new 911 system in the Dominican Republic. Mena, whose father was born there, was in the country on vacation visiting family when he was contacted by the Ministry of the Presidency. He provided guidance on the new 911 systems during his initial trip and has done additional pro bono work in his personal time over the past three years to help complete the multi-phase system.
“We need more qualified people in IT,’’ he said.
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