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CitySmart Blog

Tuesday, February 25, 2014
John Miller, Senior Consultant

A recent article from Microsoft points out that technology alone cannot improve your IT security. You need informed, participating end users—your city employees. When they are informed about security policies through proper communication and training, the true power of your IT security blossoms.

However, this article overrates the trickle-down effect of communicating security policies to employees. Don’t get us wrong. Establishing security policies are absolutely important and provide a great way to detail all important aspects of a security strategy for your city. But ask an employee about the last time they read or looked at a security policy.

We find that a great way to tie security policy to employees is by illustrating tactical, everyday scenarios that often place a city at risk. Through these everyday scenarios, you can discuss IT security policy in a way that relates to everyone.

  1. Internet Browsing. No matter how many years we’ve surfed the Internet, even the best of us get tricked or misled occasionally into a bad website. Usually, most modern browsers provide warnings that keep us out of the worst sites. But employees can be lured by the ruse of useful software, games, or information that is not what it seems. Employees need to be reminded to use only trusted or well-referenced sites, not to download software or plug-ins without the approval of IT, and to never click on a website link from an unknown source.
  2. Passwords. While IT might implement a password policy that employees are forced to use, it’s still helpful to let employees know about the importance of using strong passwords that change every few months. Recently, news organizations widely reported some research from SplashData, a password management company, that the most common password is “123456.” Hackers become more adept every year at breaking into email accounts, websites, and software applications. Your employees shouldn’t make it easier for these hackers. Strong passwords are long and use a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols.
  3. Social media. With so many social media outlets constantly full of people sharing links and information every day, employees can sometimes be unaware of the dangers inherent in sharing the wrong kind of information. Whether publicly or to a large social group, employees might not know what city information is proprietary, secret, or inappropriate to share. People with ill-intent often use social networks to extract information from employees—and local governments are a prime target.
  4. Email. We’ve put email a bit lower on the list since people have gotten better at understanding spam, while technology helps prevent malicious emails from even getting to the inbox. However, email is still a prime source of security issues. All it takes is one person to give up username and password information, open a malicious file containing a virus, or click on a website link that downloads malware, and your city is compromised. Keep employees informed about the dangers always lurking in their inbox and tell them to only open messages and attachments from people they trust.
  5. Physical security and internal threats. Often overlooked, employees will sometimes think IT security threats all come via the Internet. However, leaving a laptop laying around, a computer logged in, or a door open to a server room are all potential breaches of security. Similarly, especially in larger organizations, it’s easy to be tricked by someone who seems like they are another employee or get pressured by an actual employee without authorization to give you certain kinds of information. No matter how glib or natural someone seems, if an employee feels any doubt about a request for information or security access to a particular area, they should check with their boss or IT staff.

By sharing everyday tangible security examples with employees, you will be able to connect normally abstract security policy to their day-to-day jobs. After all, it’s in these specific scenarios that most security breaches occur. The biggest breach in the last few years (in South Carolina) happened when an employee clicked on an email. Weak passwords have allowed hackers to publicly expose sensitive information. And we hear stories about stolen laptops every so often, with those stolen laptops containing social security numbers and other publically identifiable information. When employees hear these kinds of examples, it’s more visceral—making your security policy more likely to stick in their minds.

To talk about IT security in more detail, please contact us.

Friday, February 21, 2014
Brian Ocfemia, Technical Account Manager

You probably recall times when you’ve had to manage documents through email. Most of the time, you’re trying to figure out who has the document, who already provided feedback, and who hasn’t reviewed or approved it yet. It’s like herding cats, and you expend more effort managing the document workflow than you do actually creating or reviewing the document.

In a document management system, you have the ability to set up workflows that force people to follow a series of tasks. From document creation to review to approval, workflows help you focus on the work—not managing the workflow. While there are some technical aspects to setting up a workflow (and some workflows at large organizations can be extremely complicated), most smaller cities will have relatively simple workflows that help manage document creation.

Here are some tips to help you think about how you create workflows. As you can see, these are mostly business decisions, not technical decisions.

  1. Workflow Design. Each department at a city will have a specific way of handling document workflow, so you need to set up workflow processes based on those particular needs. Workflows will differ if you’re creating public-facing web content, internal documentation, invoices, or customer support tickets. For each document created, what needs to happen? How is the document created? How many reviewers? What happens after it’s approved? Focus on creating generic roles such as document creator, reviewer, or approver that are assigned to people. For example, don’t designate Steve or Melanie as the third step of a workflow. Instead, designate a reviewer role for the third step. That way, if Steve or Melanie leave the city, you know that you’ll need to fill the reviewer role with someone else.
  2. Document Creation. Without workflows, people tend to create documents however they like. Word documents appear in different versions, and the person using Office 2003 can’t open up the Office 2010 file. Someone gives you a PDF to edit, but you can’t edit it with the software on your computer. The document creation step of the workflow ensures that everyone is using the same process. That may include the kind of software used, document templates that make users fill in certain kinds of information, and document naming conventions that make them easy to find later. This step of the workflow helps make documents look consistent and ensures that people can open and edit them.
  3. Document Review. Document review is an important step of the document workflow, and it’s usually a chaotic bottleneck when people don’t have a document management system. Who’s reviewing the document? Did they track their changes? Did everyone get the email? When setting up the review step of your workflow, decide how many reviewers you need, how they will be notified, and how many automatic reminders they will receive. These automated features will help the document management system manage the process, not you. You can also decide to limit feedback loops so that a document isn’t in eternal review. Document versioning and locking editing also help streamline the document review process by avoiding duplicate edits and cross-communication.
  4. Document Approval. Approvals tend to be a common bottleneck without document management systems. While we can’t promise that busy approvers can approve your documents faster, we do know that a good document management workflow means that approvers know when documents are ready. No more, “Can you resend the email?” or doubts about if certain reviewers have looked at it. By the time it gets to the approver, they know everything is ready. While the workflow might become more complex if there are more approvers, the process is still streamlined even for multiple approvers. Document management systems can even help collect digital signatures if needed for approval.
  5. Document storage and archiving. After a document is approved, it’s easy to see the project as over and not care about where the document resides afterward. Document management workflows can help you eliminate this mystery and wrap up the final destination of a document in a nice bow. Once approved, who needs a copy of the document? Where will the document be stored in case someone needs to look at it? Who has permission to look at it or change it later? When will it be archived, or deleted? By addressing these important workflow questions, you will strengthen your document and records management retention processes and make it easier to handle open records requests.

With a strong document management workflow, you increase the morale of city employees and make it much easier for them to do their work. Managing documents through email or document management systems without a clear process increases stress, errors, duplicate work, and frustration. If your city is especially working toward greater transparency, document management workflow is a small but important step to clarifying how documents are created, reviewed, approved, archived, and deleted.

To talk about document management workflow in more detail, please contact us.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Clint Nelms, COO

Back in the 1980s, Judge Wapner used to open up each case on The People’s Court by saying, “I know you've been sworn, and I have read your complaint.” The popular show, still running to this day (unfortunately without Judge Wapner), gave people a surface understanding of the workings of a municipal court—albeit with all of the tedious parts edited out. People often see the legal system as obscure and mysterious, and it helps when an entertaining show shines some light on how it works.

However, when citizens have to actually go to municipal court for whatever reason, the process is often just the opposite. People get confused, worried, and tripped up over what to do, where to show up, and how a certain legal process works. While court can be a hassle, you can make it less of a hassle by providing clear, useful information on your website.

Since people usually don’t voluntarily plan to go to court, they will often come to your website on a mission and probably not in the best mood. What greets them when they’re looking for information? The following tips will help you make this website visit as pleasant as possible for your citizens or those needing to use your court system.

  1. When and where. More than other sections of your website, the when and where of municipal court is the most important information on this page. It should be upfront and absolutely clear when municipal court is in session and where municipal court is located. Otherwise, people will call you and tie up the time of your city staff asking this simple question. Don’t just give a physical address. Provide detailed directions that take difficult-to-find parking, landmarks, and non-descript buildings into account. Getting to court should never be a mystery.
  2. What requires your presence, and what doesn’t. When people are saddled with a parking ticket, accident ticket, or other citation, they might not immediately know if they can pay it without showing up to court. Explain on your municipal court page what can be paid online, what doesn’t require an appearance in court, and what absolutely does require a court appearance. Just because you know this information inside out doesn’t mean you should assume that citizens know.
  3. What lies within your jurisdiction. To many people, a court is a court is a court. They often don’t realize that different courts serve different functions. Your city court, for example, may only deal with violations of city ordinances, enforcement of local laws, and misdemeanors. Different kinds of cases may be served by a county court, and more serious court cases usually take place at the state level. Clarify what falls under your municipal court and help citizens know to work with the county or state courts for other cases.
  4. Easy-to-find contact information. Court produces anxiety, fears, and doubts, which produce lots of questions. No matter how thorough your website, people often like to double-check if they’re doing the right thing when paying a fine or appearing in court. Be ready to answer questions by placing contact information front and center. At a minimum, provide a phone number and an email address. Communicate that you will respond within a specific timeframe, and then do it. This basic information goes a long way toward being helpful to people.
  5. Segmented content based on different needs. Avoid lumping all content on the same page, especially if your court handles different functions. When people visit your website, they will have different processes if they are dealing with a traffic ticket, child support, jury duty, or other court situation. For example, child support information should be clearly called out by heading and section, or even linked to a separate page. Sectioning your content like this helps people find the answers to their specific questions much faster and better meets their needs.

Additionally, when applying the tips above, it’s tempting to provide reams of legal information. After all, it’s a court and it deals with law. While accurate and thorough, legal language is intimidating to most people. You can provide it as extra detailed information, but make sure you don’t bury your most helpful information in legalese. It will only frustrate and confuse people visiting your site.

Municipal courts ultimately reduce all legal situations to simple processes—what to do, where to show up, and how to resolve the issue. Your website is an extension of that simplification and, with the right content, provides a great public service to your citizens. Then, citizens won’t mind getting sworn in, and having their complaint read.

To discuss your municipal court website content in more detail, please contact us.

Thursday, February 13, 2014
Dave Mims, CEO

KLC helps city stabilize data backup and disaster recovery, better respond to open record requests, and delegate all IT support to experienced professionals.

Residing in the beautiful northeastern Kentucky mountains within the Daniel Boone National Forest, Morehead is a city of almost 7,000 people approximately 70 miles east of Lexington. It’s also home to Morehead State University, ranked as a top public school in the south, and Cave Run Lake, an 8,270-acre reservoir that attracts many recreational enthusiasts.

Like many smaller cities throughout the United States, a small dedicated staff oversees many of the day-to-day operations. That means everyone, including the mayor, is hands on helping citizens. But as information technology becomes more complicated in its variety, requirements, and integration with legal aspects of local government, it can be overwhelming to add its hassles to an already overburdened staff workload.


For many years, the mayor and city staff handled any technology needs and requirements for their city. That meant setting up their own computers and calling software, Internet, telecom, and hardware vendors for support requests. Not surprisingly, this essential work can get overlooked and even shelved when day-to-day tasks take over.

This frantic scramble to keep up with technology was a symptom of deeper problems. Without a dedicated person to focus on technology, the city also had uncertainty related to the reliability of its data backup, a compromised ability to respond to e-discovery or open records requests from using an email service that was difficult to support, and no website to communicate with citizens.

However, the potential high cost of hiring IT staff and upgrading the city’s technology prevented Morehead from moving forward.


Morehead solved these challenges by using KLC’s “IT in a Box” service. Powered by Sophicity, “IT in a Box” is a complete IT solution for cities and local governments. The service includes a website, online payments, onsite data backup, unlimited offsite storage of backups, email, document management, Microsoft Office for desktops, server, desktop, and mobile management, vendor management and a 7-day a week helpdesk.


“IT in a Box” helped Morehead:

  • Launch a high quality, user-friendly website.
  • Mitigate the risk of data loss through onsite and offsite server backups.
  • Ensure a highly available and dependable email system.
  • Support its city staff 24/7 through ongoing monitoring and maintenance of all servers and workstations, coupled with 7 days a week helpdesk support.
  • Mitigate the risk of paper document loss and increase document retrieval ability through a document management system.
Morehead also saved $28,134 (or 60%) of the costs typically spent modernizing a city network of their environment and size.

We now have a level of security unimagined beforehand with constant monitoring and reliable offsite backups. I worry much less with the Sophicity team watching things for the City of Morehead. – Mayor David Perkins
If you're interested in learning more, contact us about IT in a Box.

Print-friendly version of the Morehead, Kentucky IT in a Box case study.

About Sophicity

Sophicity is an IT services and consulting company providing technology solutions to city governments and municipal leagues. Among the services Sophicity delivers in “IT in a Box” are a website, online payments, onsite data backup, unlimited offsite storage of data backups, email, document management, Microsoft Office for desktops, server, desktop, and mobile management, vendor management and a seven-day a week helpdesk. Read more about IT in a Box.

Thursday, February 13, 2014
Alicia Klemola, Account Manager

While larger cities benefit from having procurement offices to spend time researching, selecting, and negotiating with vendors, smaller cities can feel at a disadvantage when procuring items—especially technology products and services. And even procurement directors can have trouble keeping up with the latest hardware, software, and technology solutions.

Despite the overwhelming technical aspects of technology procurement, we’ve found through our experience that there are some basic tips that help cities get the best bang for their buck. Even if you’re not a technical expert, these tips can help you better prepare when you’re ready to invest in technology.

  1. Spend time defining what you need. It’s easy to just think “I need a computer” and go to a retail store to pick up one. Or to think that you know exactly what kind of software you need when you put out an RFP. However, we find that it helps to define what you need from a business point of view before starting to shop for a solution. What business problem do you need solved? What specific capabilities are currently lacking in your current situation? What capabilities do you need? If you can’t invest in everything you need at once, what are the priorities? Asking these kinds of questions helps you define your business problem and reduce the temptation of an impulse or gut purchase.
  2. Shop around and know the industry. This is where your IT staff or vendor comes in handy. You need someone with extensive knowledge of technology to do some shopping. An IT professional will stick to your requirements, understand when vendors are blowing smoke or distracting you with unnecessary features, and ask technical questions that you may overlook. All of this information will affect the price. Since the B2B technology industry is so competitive, starting prices are often ripe for negotiation. When you shop around, never view a price as final (unless it’s a clear-cut price listed in black and white on a vendor’s website).
  3. Know your government pricing. Government pricing isn’t always obviously apparent on major vendor websites and especially not when you shop retail. Take advantage of special discounts for local government offered by major hardware, software, and technology vendors. Sometimes it can be tough to navigate vendor websites to find pricing for specific contracts, select the right menu options that apply to your situation, and understand what’s specially priced and what’s not. Make sure your IT or procurement expert is able to figure out the best pricing for your city.
  4. Don’t just settle on lowest price. Technology is not like buying pens. If three pen vendors are in the running and one has the lowest price, you probably don’t risk a whole lot from buying the lower priced pens. With information technology, we’ve seen so many cities over the years treat a handful of complex IT vendors as equal and simply choose the lowest priced vendor. During the RFP or purchasing process, make sure you evaluate each vendor rigorously against your business needs. What exactly are you getting? What is the vendor’s reputation and experience? Will your business needs be solved? Price is a factor in your final decision, but not the only factor.
  5. Look out for indirect costs. Not vetting technology properly leads to many risks such as indirect costs. One common example is a low-priced vendor offering “24/7” support and maintenance. In many cases, that means installing some monitoring software on your computers but billing you at a high rate when a problem actually occurs—leading to an unpredictable annual IT budget. Another example is when a software vendor sells you software on the premise that it’s easy to install. Once you purchase the software, “suddenly” you find that you need to buy another kind of software, or a server, or additional Internet bandwidth, when you thought you were just paying for the software. Indirect costs usually strike when non-IT professionals buy a technology solution and lack experience to detect major red flags or ask the right evaluation questions.

Technology purchases can be quite expensive and complex. That’s why it helps to follow the steps above to make sure you’re vetting each purchase rigorously and appropriately. With many city revenue streams in a precarious state, you want to make sure you’re investing in the right technology responsibly. You don’t want to become so paralyzed with fear that you don’t buy anything, but you need to have the right guidance and expertise on hand to help you step boldly forward in your investments that will help achieve your city’s vision and business goals.

To talk more about technology purchasing, please contact us.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Nathan Eisner, CMO

In a December 2013 report titled “Cyber Security: Pay Now or Pay More Later. A Report on Cyber Security in Kentucky,” author Adam Edelen discusses some of the biggest cyber security risks to government—including local government. Coming from the state of Kentucky’s auditor of public accounts, the recommendations are serious and worth a read.

I had the good fortune to be on a panel discussion with Adam back in October 2013 at the Kentucky League of Cities’s annual conference. Together, we talked about the risks of cyber security for cities. While we’ve shared our insights concerning the basics of cyber liability in a past blog post, we want to highlight some important and often overlooked cyber security points that Adam mentioned in his report.

  1. Human-related incidents are the most dangerous cyber security threats. While a natural disaster can be devastating to your data, at least it’s understandable, somewhat predictable, and rare. Contrast that with human beings who attempt to hack your systems every day, internal breaches of security from loose security policy or poor server configuration, and employees downloading malware and falling for phishing scams. Adam points out that the biggest security breach in recent years (at the State of South Carolina) resulted from an employee falling for an email phishing scam. If you don’t have the proper cyber security measures in place, you’re exposing your data to attack every single day from human-related threats.
  2. Improper server configurations leave open gaping security holes. Even if you have antivirus, antimalware, and antispam software, all of those efforts may not mean anything if your servers were set up incorrectly. These problems are often hard to detect because usually your “IT expert” set them up—whether they are an employee or vendor. Unless you get another IT expert to check on that person’s or vendor’s work, shabby configuration can go undetected for years. Adam’s report points out common issues from poor configuration such as open ports—the equivalent of having an unlocked door in your building that people can walk right through.
  3. Organizations often forget “less important” devices and access points. Your city might focus on security for servers, desktops, and laptops. That’s good. But cities and many other organizations often forget that devices such as printers, scanners, or wireless routers also provide potential ways for hackers to gain access to sensitive information. Remember, any machine that connects to your network is a target for exploitation. Your printers and scanners should be locked down with strong passwords just like your servers and computers. And since people do something called “war-driving” (i.e. looking for open wireless access points), you need to make sure your wireless routers are password-protected and all wireless data transmission is encrypted.
  4. Physical security is an overlooked aspect of cyber security. It’s good to focus on all of the technical aspects of cyber security such as encryption, firewalls, and server configuration. But what about the rooms that host your servers, computers, and other equipment? In many cases, anyone could walk into those rooms, access the servers and computers, and harm them either accidentally or maliciously. Only authorized people should have access to equipment that holds your most sensitive information.
  5. Authorized access to information is one of the most referenced points of the Kentucky report. While there were many variations of issues related to authorized and unauthorized access in Adam’s report, the common theme is to make sure that you clearly give the right people access to the right information. In too many cases, people have either inappropriate access to information or even have access to information after they’ve quit or been fired. Adam talks about paying attention to “logical security” which “involves, but is not limited to, restricting access to only authorized users, strong password settings, and appropriate levels of access granted to a user.”

While there are many more issues contained in the report, these are the five most important cyber security points that we feel are overlooked by cities. Sometimes, IT vendors can be accused or suspected of hyping up these same security issues in order to sell products and solutions. So when the state of Kentucky’s auditor of public accounts is discussing these cyber security threats in such detail as part of an official report, it’s an extra signal to take action and address these issues at your city.

The good news is that most of the security breaches that Adam mentions in the report could have been prevented by addressing some of the basic security measures above, along with implementing preventative tactics such as data backup, ongoing IT support, and antivirus software. In the report, Adam says, “When attacks against public sector entities are successful, citizens begin to lose confidence in government’s ability to protect the data it stores.” If you don’t want your citizens to lose confidence in your city, it’s best to address your cyber security risks now—rather than after an embarrassing disaster.

To talk about cyber security in more detail, please contact us.

Thursday, February 6, 2014
Nathan Eisner, CMO

If you’ve ever added or updated content to a website without doing anything technical, you’ve most likely used a content management system. The phase “content management system” (or CMS) is a bulky term for a tool that simply makes creating web content easy. After all, its goal is to remove technical barriers that prevent you from making changes to your city’s website.

However, confusion sometimes exists about what exactly a content management system is and does. In our latest article to help demystify a common technology term, we will explain what a content management system is and what it’s supposed to do for you.

Content Management Systems Give You Control Over Your Website

When websites first evolved, technical webmasters, coders, and software developers made any and all changes. In order to make changes yourself, you would need to know how to code, how to access the technical back end of your website, and how to upload and publish any changes. These were the days when technical professionals held the keys to your website. Making any changes without technical knowledge was all but impossible.

Of course, websites were also simpler back in the 1990s and early 2000s. But as websites grew more complex, they also began to mature and require more timely information. Updating simple news items or correcting an error on a website became more important to business but could take a long time if there were other requests in the webmaster’s queue. This situation was not sustainable as the Internet became a more critical source of communication for businesses and organizations.

While content management systems have existed since the 1990s, these early systems were technical and hard-to-use. By the mid-2000s, content management systems began to incorporate user-friendly features and remove many of the technical obstacles that prevented non-technical users from publishing website content. When blogging exploded in popularity in the mid-2000s, blog content management systems became so easy to use that those tools pressured website content management systems to replicate many of these easy-to-use features. Today, every organization with a website is, in a sense, a publisher. And it needs a CMS to quickly publish and update content.

Content Management Systems Help You Publish and Update Your Website

As an application, a content management system may either be part of your website or a third party application that needs to be integrated with your website. This content management system application gives you a back end interface connected to your website that allows you to create, upload, edit, publish, and update content without technical knowledge.

  • Create. Most content management systems offer an interface that works similarly to Microsoft Word. You decide to create a new piece of content and you can type or paste it right into the content management system. Just like a Word document, you can enter and format text, upload images, and even embed audio files or videos.
  • Publish. Content management systems put the publishing process in your hands. It’s best to set up permissions and workflows to ensure a quality publishing process. Once it’s clear who can publish and who needs to approve content, then it’s easy for people to add and update website content without any technical obstacles. And in case you accidentally publish something you shouldn’t, a content management system usually allows you to go back to a previous version of the website or web page.
  • Store. Your content management system also serves as a central repository for all of your website content including text, images, documents, videos, audio files, and other specialized items such as third party applications or code. Content usually consists of important fields such as page, page title, author, and tags to help identify and index content. This storage capability makes it easy to find and search for content on your website if you need to edit something.
  • Edit. If content needs correcting or updating, it’s easy to simply go into your content management system and make the changes. This is especially important for cities when incorrect information can be a liability, and also when communicating important, timely updates to citizens.

Additional Anytime/Anywhere Benefits

Beyond these features, modern content management systems are also often cloud-based. That means they are accessible from anywhere as long as you have an Internet connection. In the early days of the Internet, someone would have to be at the city and access a web server to make any changes. With a content management system, people can manage your website content if they are at work, at home, or traveling.

As long as you explore a website option that includes remote hosting in a data center or through the cloud, your content management system will likely have the benefit of remote access. Such ease-of-use also reduces the cost of having a technical professional having to help you create, publish, and update content. That’s because you are able to do it yourself.

While content management systems certainly are capable of much more than we’ve discussed here, these features are the core of why content management systems have become standard back end applications for websites. If you’re still using a webmaster or someone is coding your website updates, then you’re long overdue to explore some website options that offer a content management system.

To talk about content management systems in more detail, please contact us.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Dave Mims, CEO

With so many recent advances in website design, email software, and social media, the importance of online website forms are often overlooked. Yet, they remain one of the best ways to capture information and serve citizens.

Online forms are not great for every situation. When used in the wrong place (such as having someone fill out a form to read an article), they can annoy people and cause them to leave your website. But for situations such as general contact submissions, specific customer service requests, and questions targeted for a department (rather than a specific person), online forms can be a great tool.

With online forms now easier to create and implement on websites more than ever before, we’ve shared some benefits that may get you thinking about how to use this helpful tool on your website.

  1. Collects data in a centralized place. If people are contacting a city employee or department via email, the emails can get scattered across a variety of people’s individual or group inboxes. Even a contact@city.com email address can be spread across a variety of people’s email accounts and the responsibility of answering can easily get lost. With online forms, you can collect citizen requests and communications in a centralized place. Then, it’s easy to find, assess if someone has responded, and close out the communication transparently.
  2. Ensures data consistency. If people contact you through email with a specific kind of request, they may not include the right information. That means it can be difficult to help and you might have to waste time asking the person for additional information. With an online form, you can ensure that you capture specific information such as first and last name, a phone number, location, a clear description of the problem, etc. Every incoming communication then gives you a basic set of information to work from when handling a request.
  3. Reduces unnecessary emails. When people are desperate or in need of contacting you, a lack of online forms means they are tempted to send an email to somebody—anybody! You already receive enough emails during the day that clutter up your inbox. General requests from people visiting your website can add to that burden and increase your daily emails unnecessarily. Use online forms to route general requests from citizens and other website visitors into a separate repository.
  4. Increases customer service. While we still recommend providing specific city employee names and emails on your website in case someone needs to contact a particular person, online forms help streamline communications between citizens and cities for general customer service requests. A short online form can make a website visitor feel there is a customer service process in place and that someone will respond to them within a certain timeframe. With emails, it’s more of a gamble if someone will respond or not, especially if a city employee is out of the office or on vacation.
  5. Creates mobile friendly communication. Especially if an online form requires some basic information and even some dropdown menu choices, you can provide mobile-friendly methods of communication with online forms that work well with smartphones and tablets. For example, an online form for reporting a pothole would work great for mobile devices since people would discover potholes while out and about. Since mobile device adoption continues to drastically increase, having easy ways to submit a request or question to a city through an online form can benefit your citizens.

A recent Mashable article listed online forms as a great alternative to email in certain situations, signifying that online forms definitely remain a great tool to use on your website. Take a look at common questions that inundate your email inboxes, customer service requests that typically take place by email or phone, and forms that you have tied up in PDFs or paper. Then consider if online forms might be an easier way to deal with these requests for information while also increasing customer service for citizens and easing the email burden on city employees.

To talk about online forms in more detail, please contact us.

Thursday, January 30, 2014
John Miller, Senior Consultant

While there are many data backup solutions out there, they can be misleading when you think they all do the same thing—completely and flawlessly back up your data. If you believe that they all work the same way, it can be a rude awakening when a server fails or disaster hits. At that point, you might find yourself unable to recover or piece together your data into a reasonable working condition.

For cities, data backup needs to go beyond consumer-grade backup or a cheap automated solution requiring little oversight. Why? Here are a few things that a data backup solution does not automatically cover.

  1. Data organization. We’ve seen many situations where a backup solution is in place but the data is quite a mess. From tape to consumer-grade backups, it’s not terribly convenient to get your data back in the equivalent of an unorganized pile of papers on a desk. While the data backup solution may back up the data, you need to think about how you organize the information so that it’s easy to find, sort through, and restore quickly to working condition. Otherwise, you might be staring at a pile of tapes or oodles of unorganized computer files and wonder where to begin.
  2. Data comprehensiveness. Without planning, a data backup solution may not back up every single bit of data. For example, many forms of consumer-grade data backup have file and data limitations. They might exclude important operating system files, applications, or third-party software that you will need backed up. Your city likely needs a more sophisticated backup solution assisted by some IT planning to help identify and ensure that every critical piece of data is backed up.
  3. Data storage. You may use a new data backup solution that you like and then hit a wall: data storage limitations. The backup software may have physical storage limitations (such as tape or disk) or simply become pricy the more storage you use. With storage space so cheap today, you should be able to find a data backup solution that accommodates as much storage space as you need. It’s also important that employees are storing their data to some kind of centralized location. Otherwise, the data backup solution may not be able to reach local hard drives on desktops, laptops, tablets, or smartphones.
  4. Data backup testing. One of the major failure points for most organizations’ data backup is a failure to test their solution. Data backup software will not tell you to test it. That is a business process that you need to do to ensure that it’s working. When you test, you identify problems such as failures to back up certain kinds of data, corrupted files that don’t work, and any other problems with how the data is organized. You want to discover any serious problems during a test, not after a disaster.
  5. Data restoration. The data itself won’t do you any good if you don’t have the appropriate equipment and the right expertise to make sure the data can be restored to an operational level. That means ordering new servers and computers, transferring the backups to the new equipment, and working out any disruptive issues resulting from the restoration process. Sometimes, we’ve seen situations where the data might be in a pile of tapes, the city might not know what server they should order, and different hardware and software vendors might give conflicting information about what to do. It helps to have IT staff or a vendor who understands how your data backups all work together holistically in order to coordinate a complete data restoration across the entire city.

The important point is that data backup consists of more than just the act of backing up data. There are a variety of important processes that must take place around this activity, and some upfront planning and organization helps customize your data backup solution to your particular situation. Never assume the data backup solution is “just working.” Make sure you have IT professionals helping you organize, test, and restore data while guided by an overall plan.

To talk about data backup in more detail, please contact us.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Brian Ocfemia, Technical Account Manager

Like many other forms of technology, the modern website continues to evolve at a rapid pace. We know that cities don’t need websites that are as complex as Amazon’s or Facebook’s, but we do see a lot of cities with either no website or what’s now termed a “brochure website” or static website. Those websites tend to be obsolete and outdated, presenting limited, unchanging information to your audience that is difficult to update and might require special coding to change.

While modern websites offer a lot of complex features, there are some basic features that a city website should have that create the greatest efficiency for both technical and non-technical users alike. To demystify the basic elements of a modern website, we’ll outline how it’s hosted, how content is created and updated, and how online payments are handled.

Website Hosting

Modern websites are not just simple pages to display. They involve a lot of memory, storage, and databases in order to do things like edit and update content yourself, offer dynamic content (i.e. information that automatically changes on your website), present decent graphics and visual presentation elements, host files such as video or audio, offer the ability to integrate with other software and applications, provide search capabilities, and give you the ability to scale up by adding pages, information, and data.

That means your website needs some form of server to host all of these various parts and pieces. Depending on the complexity of your website, you may host your website on a server onsite at your city, in a data center, or through the cloud. Part of website hosting ensures purchasing a specific website domain (e.g. sophicity.com). When people type in that domain name, it translates on the back end to a specific numeric website address—like a unique physical address. That’s how people then get to your website, connecting with your website server and accessing pages.

It’s important to understand the strengths and limitations of each website hosting option. For example, it may be difficult and expensive to maintain your own onsite web server, and a cloud hosting option may be more robust, cost-effective, and provide anytime/anywhere administrative access if you need to make changes.

Content Management System

Modern websites have evolved to help non-technical people manage the information that is displayed on a website. Many years ago, technical webmasters controlled all of the content and display through coding. That meant anyone without technical know-how could not add or update website content.

Today, websites usually include a “content management system,” which is a back-end part of the website software that allows you to create, upload, edit, and update content by yourself. Ideally, the interface is easy enough for you to use so that if you know how to use Microsoft Word then you can use the content management system. It’s meant to be user-friendly because it’s often essential today for non-technical people to update websites with timely, up-to-date content.

Content management systems also allow you to set permissions for different users so that unauthorized people can’t alter important parts of your website. And while there are more complicated website content features including tagging, metadata, archiving automation, search engine optimization, and security management, the bottom line is that a content management system takes the power from technical people and puts it in the hands of non-technical people.

Online Payments

As more and more people become used to paying online (and even using tablets and smartphones to make payments), they expect that modern websites will accommodate online payments. Many city services are such a routine part of people’s bills and payments (utilities, property tax, parking tickets, etc.) that the ability to pay online is a sensible thing to expect on a website.

The capability for a website to provide online payments basically ensures that a person can transact business over that website. To do this, the website needs to contain an online payment interface (usually webpages that include forms that people can fill out and submit) that allows people to sign up for services, set up billing preferences, send payments, and receive various communications. When credit card or checking account information is exchanged, a special software known as a “gateway” ensures that payment information is approved and coordinated between the city, the credit card company, and the customer’s bank.

Both your website and the gateway software vendor need to provide high standards of security, especially when dealing with sensitive information such as credit card or social security numbers. Part of setting up online payments includes following the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) which ensures that all sensitive information is secured, encrypted, and protected.

Moving to a Modern Website

When evaluating if you need to upgrade your city’s website, it’s good to first see if you are behind in providing a website that serves your citizens in a convenient way. You might be challenged by an expensive, difficult-to-maintain web server. Your city staff may not be able to upload and update website content. Or you might not be offering online payments at all. If so, it helps to get up to speed about modern web hosting, content management systems, and online payment options in order to see if you can improve your website experience for citizens and city staff alike.

To talk about website modernization in more detail, please contact us.

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