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27 June 2013

Ten Years Ago: USCIS Employees Launch Online Appointments

For those who remember, the immigration office had always been easy to find because of one thing: The Line.

Line outside of Miami District Office along NW 79th Street – c. 1988

But on the morning of June 18, 2003, that would change forever. USCIS employees in Miami, Florida started the Web server that began issuing appointments for information and customer services at the district office. Within moments, customers were booking the first online appointments.

The End of the Line

Before they could make online appointments, customers would line up at the district office at five in the evening, hoping to secure a place in the information room for the following day. Since the information room could only accommodate a limited number of people, those who arrived after three or four in the morning would face being turned away. Some desperate people would even camp out on a Friday afternoon to secure a place in the room for Monday morning.

Upon hearing this story, the USCIS district director for Miami contacted his information technology team and said, "Fix this. There's got to be a better way."

IT specialists and immigration services officers then began developing a scheduler that could be accessed by the public. The system had to be easy to use, easy to understand, hard to break and inexpensive to develop. Over several months, the team developed the program and website that would become the online system we know today as "InfoPass." 

Early on the morning of June 16, 2003, the team performed last-minute checks of the communications, dedicated Internet connections and server equipment. Any failure could doom future efforts and damage the new agency's reputation. There was no turning back considering that The Miami Herald had already released a front page article about the new system:

Miami Herald, June 16, 2003: front page article on InfoPass (Left Column)

Fortunately, the system worked without a hitch, and within two weeks the lines at the district office that had stretched for city blocks disappeared.

One immediate concern was that all customers didn't have Internet access. While many public libraries and community groups provided access, some other means was necessary to assist customers. The Miami office wanted to set up kiosks, and with just a shoestring budget, staff visited the local hardware store for material to build four of them.

InfoPass team members Michael Kirkham, Julio Dominguez, Jeffrey Sapko and Gretchen Kirkham build prototype InfoPass kiosks.

By the end of 2003, nearly 40% of the appointments scheduled were being made at the basic yet functional staff-built boxes. The team continued to monitor and improve the system. During its first six months in operation, the system never crashed.

A second generation kiosk was introduced in September 2003:

Sandra Echeverri programs second generation InfoPass kiosk (2004)

The system’s success led to new kiosks opening in Los Angeles and then nationwide. InfoPass represented something special: a system built by and for the people. Online scheduling revolutionized the way USCIS does business and ended the misery of long appointment lines.

As one member of the team said, "I waited in that line myself - it was personal to me to try to fix it."



At September 9, 2013 at 7:26:00 PM EDT , Anonymous Paul said...

Love this!


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