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Jerry Davich: Blackboard connects residents to city, events and alerts

Joe Calhoun director administratiemergency management for city Portage navigates Blackboard Connect website Thursday April 10 2014. | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media

Joe Calhoun, director of administration and emergency management for the city of Portage, navigates the Blackboard Connect website Thursday, April 10, 2014. | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 14, 2014 6:11AM



It’s called Blackboard Connect.

No, it’s not a school kid’s latest video game. It’s a high-tech mass-notification system used by several municipalities across Northwest Indiana, most lately Portage.

“I researched several (systems) and I like the features of Blackboard the best,” said Joseph Calhoun, the city’s director of administration and emergency management. “We can send out a message citywide, draw an area on a map on the computer and call everyone located inside that area, or draw a line down a street and call only those on that street.”

Designed for government use, school campuses and businesses, Blackboard Connect gives city officials the ability to reach residents in minutes, whether it’s a time-sensitive emergency situation, event outreach or attendance notification. It’s also automatically activated for tornado warnings and other activations can be done via desktop or iPad.

“We are still discussing using it for additional options, such as bill pay reminders at our utility department, and a two-way text feature that would allow people to text information about potholes or downed trees,” Calhoun told me.

To date, Portage has 14,400 contacts in the system, most with multiple contact mediums allowing the city to reach them at home, work or on their cell phone. But Blackboard imported 13,000 of those contacts when the city contracted with the company. So there are several thousand more residents to reach.

“Obviously, we need to do somewhat of a marketing campaign to get others to provide unlisted numbers, cell numbers, SMS text and email addresses,” Calhoun noted.

I’m told that the city of Hobart also uses Blackboard, as do other region cities. Some Northwest Indiana communities use similar notification systems with other companies. Regardless, I’m all for it and I’m surprised that other residents are slow to respond or skeptical of signing up.

“It’s just another form of governmental Big Brother keeping tabs on us,” said John Brubaker of Portage, a longtime reader who contacted me about his concerns.

I understand there are some of you who feel like Brubaker, cynical about the ever-growing digital network of personal information at the fingertips of our government. And, worse yet, corporations or criminals (or is that a redundancy?).

But some aspects of the Digital Age can connect us for positive and purposeful reasons, such as this notification system. For example, it was used by Portage officials to send a message regarding a teenage runaway who left her home on foot and who police were searching for.

I first learned about Blackboard Connect through the city’s newsletter magazine and I immediately signed up for it at https://cityof
portagein.bbcportal.com
. (Nonresidents are welcomed to sign up, too.) Your city also may use such a system and I encourage you to sign up and get more connected, whether you use a landline phone, a mobile device or some new gadget I’ve never heard of yet.

Don and Joan are back

Finally, the critically acclaimed, award-winning and best-written show on television returns Sunday night. I’m talking about “Mad Men” of course.

Tonight begins its seventh and final season on AMC and fans of the show are already predicting its ending, set for 2015.

Will Don Draper and Joan Holloway get together in the end and live happily ever after? Will Peggy Olson triumph after all her office hardships? Will Roger Sterling die from alcoholism and chronic lying? Will Don find emotional redemption or eternal damnation? Will young Sally Draper ever forgive her father for being himself?

The show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, hints that “Mad Men” may not end all nice and tidy, wrapped in a pretty bow by Hollywood tradition. He has praised the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album, admiring how it abruptly ends in the middle of a song, much like life does at times.

And also like the halted, controversial finale of HBO’s “The Sopranos,” which will forever be open to interpretation.

“I’m writing an ending, and it will — whether I like it or not — frame the entire 92-hour experience of the show in some way,” Weiner said in interview on Buzzfeed.

He has promised that the show will stay in the 1960s, not fast-forwarding into the ‘70s and beyond. This should help keep dramatic tension without allowing the artificial construct of time travel to answer questions that have been building for several years.

If you’re not already a fan, you still should tune in. The show’s detailed study of its intriguing characters compels viewers to translate it into their own lives, their own relationships, their own workplaces. It’s the hidden beauty of this show and any high-quality show, movie or song.

It’s not about Don, it’s about the aspect of Don in every man, flaws and all. It’s not about Peggy’s challenges but about those same challenges a half century later. It’s not about the Madison Ave. advertising world, but about how we advertise ourselves to others under the guise of self-delusion.

The seventh season — with 14 hours of rich storytelling — begins with an episode aptly titled “The Beginning,” which will be the beginning of the end. I hope you enjoy it with an era-appropriate mixed drink, infectious fascination and a certain darkness from the edge of cool.

For my preview of the show, complete with a two-minute audio recap of last season and expert commentary from a modern-day ad man, listen to the latest Casual Fridays radio show at http://lakeshore
publicmedia.org/local-programs/casual-fridays/.



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