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Naked City

Deep Thoughts in San Angelo

By Lucius Lomax, October 24, 2003, News

Austin may be the heart of Texas, but as time passes, the city -- cell by cell -- is losing its status as the brain. That organ is being transplanted west.

Four hours up the road toward Midland, in the secure, hermetically sealed third floor of a math building on the campus of Angelo State University in San Angelo, you will find the Texas State Data Center -- 12,000 square feet of space containing seven IBM mainframes and a few dozen computer techs and scientists, now responsible for processing the state's welfare receipts, MHMR patient records, and local school district performance data.

The project began in 1993 as the West Texas Disaster Recovery and Operations Center -- intended as computer backup for state records in the event of a disaster in Austin. It has since evolved into a processing center that may eventually do most of the daily calculations and record-keeping for all of state government. Just this summer a watershed was reached when the Texas Department of Criminal Justice switched its tracking of almost 150,000 offenders to the San Angelo "brain." The guards may not know where the prisoners are at any moment, but theoretically a computer in San Angelo does.

"If you look at the World Trade Center disaster," says Pat Hogan, the Texas Department of Information Resources official in Austin who supervises the project, "the companies that survived had their data centers separated from their offices. If we lose Austin, we won't lose San Angelo, too. Certainly," he smiles, "there won't be a flood out there." Hogan might be forgetting that, despite San Angelo's well-publicized water shortage, the Concho River runs through the center of town.

Over the last couple of decades, Hogan notes, there has been a trend in state governments (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, Washington) and among the feds to centralize computing resources but to maintain a good backup. In Austin, discussions are now under way to move the Texas Department of Transportation records and the Department of Public Safety's criminal database to San Angelo as well. The big prize -- the comptroller's tax and accounting records -- is also a possibility.

Why San Angelo? Hogan describes the city (with about 100,000 human inhabitants and many times more livestock on surrounding ranches) as a high tech oasis in the information desert of West Texas. Besides the university, the city was once a main hub for GTE (now Verizon), and the Air Force is there, too. But there's also another reason, of course -- a political reason, and perhaps the real reason. The House Appropriations Committee chairman at the time the West Texas disaster center was inaugurated was Rob Junell, who coincidentally happened to represent San Angelo. Junell, a Democrat, is now a federal judge, a reward for giving George W. Bush a smooth six-year ride in Austin and supporting his presidential run. As a federal judge, Junell is now, theoretically, above politics. He just wasn't when this project began.

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