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Lightning strike electrifies tribal community’s mission to improve technology, empower its citizens

In the spring of 2012, an electrical storm blew in from Lake Michigan, making landfall along its southwest shores and sweeping across the traditional homeland of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. High winds and the lightning-filled clouds they carried encountered little resistance across the band’s sparsely populated 4,700 acres, until they reached Matt Clay’s first big project as the new information technology director for the group: three towers with microwave radios.

“We were still testing the equipment when the lightning struck, blowing out one tower and our entire disaster recovery server room,” says Clay, now director of health services for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. “In one second, the entire tribal government was shut down and we realized our disaster recovery site was not operable. We worked all night and got things up and running the next day. It was a terrible experience; however, we learned a great deal about our infrastructure.”

Hear more about the storm that shut down the disaster recovery center.

The lightning strike galvanized Clay’s resolve to make the tribe’s technology department one of the best in the United States — a goal motivated by his commitment to the Pokagon community and its journey to self-governance. For Clay and his team, this meant introducing technology that tribal government employees could trust. To win that trust, the technology had to be reliable, efficient and easy to use.

“Because our infrastructure was so outdated and our systems didn’t perform well, people avoided using computers as an integral part of their work. The Education Department only used paper forms. Our Finance Department was reluctant to accept digital workflows,” Clay explains. “People called rather than emailed — no wonder, with only six megabytes of bandwidth, our email service and VOIP were not fast or reliable. I reasoned that if we get tribal government employees to work better with technology, the community could increase control over how we deliver services and govern our people.”

Matt Clay, director of health services for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi
Matt Clay, director of health services for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi

In the last three years, the tribal government has taken this concept to heart. Today, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi is running on modern software and hardware that supports efficient government programs that touch almost every area of a citizen’s life, including health, education and Elders services.

Clay began by asking the Pokagon’s Microsoft account manager to recommend a partner to help the band rebuild its IT foundation. That request resulted in a five-year plan that Clay presented to the Tribal Council and a partnership with Planet Technologies.

“Matt and his team clearly understood that you have to get the core infrastructure in place before you can start building services for citizens,” says Andrew Kagan, chief technology officer at Planet Technologies. “They introduced virtualization and automated management in the data center before focusing on applications and cloud-based productivity tools. They’ve done great work.”

It is work that affects everyone. From economic development to improving healthcare, housing, education and Elders services, all facets of Pokagon community life have been influenced by the new technology. That’s one reason that Beth Edelberg loves her job: As enrollment coordinator for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, she uses Microsoft customer relationship management software to enroll approximately 12 new members a month and to ensure all 4,934 tribal citizens receive the services to which they are entitled.

Pokagon Enrollment Coordinator Beth Edelberg enters information from a tribal citizen’s ID badge into the new system.
Pokagon Enrollment Coordinator Beth Edelberg enters information from a tribal citizen’s ID badge into the new system.

“I think of myself as the main gatekeeper to the tribal records, and as a Pokagon, I love the genealogical aspect of my work,” she says.

This morning, she’s replaced an ID badge for a tribal citizen who recently moved. Instead of searching through paper files, she clicks on the person’s name, makes the edit and prints out a badge in less than three minutes. Next, she accesses data from the records and completes a report for the director of social services who asked for the names of all citizens who turned 55 in the last four months so they can sign up for Elders services. “Being able to share data quickly with other departments is really beneficial,” she says. “I used to copy documents and walk around the building. This saves time and paper.”

Closer collaboration between departments is also helping the Tribal Council make progress with pressing social challenges. Down the hall from Edelberg, Sam Morseau, director of the department of education, accesses the same database that his colleague uses. He’s examining data using dashboards and key performance indicators that are available on the community’s new collaboration platform. This makes his quarterly reports to the Tribal Council easier, while helping Morseau develop new services.

A microwave tower like the one that was struck on tribal land during the electrical storm.
A microwave tower like the one that was struck on tribal land during the electrical storm.

“We are addressing areas where we see gaps, such as early childhood education programs that introduce cultural traditions and services for Elders,” he says. “And technology is an integral part of these programs. Currently the Department of Language and Culture is creating an app that can be used on tablets for students to learn the Bodwéwadmimwen native Potawatomi language without being in the classroom. We created an online library and delivered Kindles to our Elders who live remotely. Now they request books and we download them to their e-readers.”

But it’s out in the field where educational associates make the most out of the new technology, such as cloud-based communication and collaboration services like Microsoft SharePoint and Lync, as well as the latest mobile devices. The Pokagon Band has a 10-county service area. Now, it doesn’t matter if an educational associate is six hours away from the office, they carry Surface Pro tablets into schools for independent education plan meetings and can take notes to share with colleagues on online team sites or access their educational resources from online storage wherever they are.

“Yesterday, a citizen came in asking for help in completing his GED certificate,” says Morseau. “Our continuing education associate was at a correctional facility helping a student prepare for the test, so I sent her a quick text using our cloud-based IM service and she responded with the answers immediately, so I was able to help her right there in the office. This level of collaboration on behalf of our citizens creates a sense of community and efficiency that shows the tribal government really cares.”

At about the same time Morseau was talking about raising graduation rates, Melody Pillow, a medical social worker for Pokagon Health Services, got into her car with her tablet and a mobile hotspot solution. Equipped with all the tools she needs to be productive anywhere, she’s anticipating spending most of her day on the road.  First stop is the home of a citizen with disabilities who wants to apply for Medicaid.

“I’ve reduced the time it takes for an applicant to begin receiving Medicaid by half,” she says. “I use my tablet to access the application forms online and to take pictures of documents and upload them so the application is complete and ready for an eligibility check right then and there. It sure beats mailing in forms and waiting for weeks.”

Melody Pillow, a medical social worker for Pokagon Health Services, uses her tablet to access information while in the field.
Melody Pillow, a medical social worker for Pokagon Health Services, uses her tablet to access information while in the field.

On the way to visit a family with a son newly diagnosed with autism, she fields a call from a citizen asking for help in applying for an exemption for American Indians who purchase coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace. When she reaches her destination, she takes a moment in the car to email the citizen a link with more information and copies of the correct form.

After greeting the parents and visiting with their son, Pillow uses her tablet as an educational tool to help the family understand their child’s diagnosis. “We access YouTube videos and educational links and then I help the parents apply for social services disability,” she says. “I can immediately process the application online because I have instant access to the boy’s medical records. Everything is HIPAA compliant and patient data is encrypted. I upload the documents and instead of waiting months with the paper-based process, the family will receive their son’s disability eligibility next month. It will be a great relief to the parents to know that their son can attend a specialized school for children with autism. ”

Back at home that evening, Pillow and her colleagues put the final touches on an informational brochure about the Affordable HealthCare Act. “We edited the document in real time using the web version of Microsoft Word so we didn’t have to be together in the same room,” she says. “I came back to work with the tribe because I grew up here in Dowagiac and I wanted to give back to the community. With the technology tools I have, it’s easy to help make a difference in people’s lives.”

Pokagon Band of Potawatomi headquarters in rural Michigan.
Pokagon Band of Potawatomi headquarters in rural Michigan.

It seems a long time since that lightning strike, but as Clay looks back on the last three years, his sentiments echo the enthusiasm of the more than 220 tribal government staffers who have come to see technology as an integral part of their workday.

“Our biggest achievement is that people are starting to trust technology,” he says. “People in the department are embracing online workflows. Finance department staffers access data daily from our CRM system. And as our citizens see how we use technology, they are getting more interested themselves. I love it that our Elders are asking for e-readers! That’s an amazing testament to the band’s achievement: bridging tradition with technology and getting the best of both worlds.”


Photo credits: Kelly Guenther