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CitySmart Blog

Thursday, April 26, 2012
Nathan Eisner, Network Infrastructure Manager
It is that time of year again when all thoughts turn to baseball, outdoor concerts, the end of the school year, vacations and, unfortunately, the rising gas prices that seem to creep even higher as the summer vacation season approaches.

A story in Government Technology stated that surging gas prices and reduced budgets were two factors causing state and local government to consider green agendas, specifically teleworking. That story was from 2008 – the last time the U.S. saw average gas prices around $4 a gallon. Many experts expect this year’s gas prices to hit or exceed the $4 mark sometime this summer, maybe even as early as Memorial Day weekend.

While state and local governments have little control over gas prices (with the exception of taxes) common telework-related fear is that employees will flounder and become unproductive in the face of household distractions. However, the opposite may be true. Government employees in Texas frequently report increased productivity at home.

"When I'm in the office, I have phone calls. I have people coming into my office," said Betsi Chatham, senior GIS analyst of the Fort Worth Department of Environmental Management (DEM). "I have ad hoc requests that quite honestly, co-workers could e-mail me and ask me instead of coming into my office taking up 20 minutes of my time [as opposed to] a five-minute e-mail. I take advantage of not being distracted like I am at work. I get more done."

According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) the average fuel economy of passenger vehicles is 20.3 miles per gallon. A recent report conducted during National Telework Week revealed that Federal employees who teleworked 2 days a week would eliminate driving 5.5 billion miles and save $3.8 billion in commuting costs. If we divide 5.5 billion miles by 2013, it would eliminate the need to burn 270,935,960 gallons of gasoline per year.

Teleworking definitely has its benefits. Learn how Sophicity can help you improve your carbon footprint!
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Todd Snoddy, Senior Software Developer
Late last year, Philadelphia’s mayor announced the launch of a special website called ‘Change By Us Philly’ that provides an interactive, social media platform to enable residents to connect with city officials, community-based organizations and each other to share ideas and create projects to benefit the City of Philadelphia. The website is accessed at philly.changeby.us and is operational.

In a press release, Mayor Nutter called the website an innovative, social media tool that will help create initiatives to make Philadelphia a “smarter, safer, greener, cleaner and better City.” 
 
Chicagoans also were encouraged to use an interactive website — www.ChicagoBudget.org — to submit their ideas on how to erase a $635.7 million budget shortfall. Within days of the launch, there were 305 ideas posted on the website. The site also included 2,680 votes and 500 comments. 


While Philadelphia and Chicago are two large cities, municipalities of all sizes are learning to work the web in different ways to engage residents and encourage them to participate in relevant “discussions” about issues impacting their communities.


According to an article in The Atlantic Cities online magazine, cities also are starting to use websites to conduct virtual town hall meetings and for official city blogs or elected city leaders. The article referenced a recent report from researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago that compares the websites of the 75 biggest cities in 2009 and 2011. Over that time, Twitter use increased 62 percent, Facebook use by 74 percent and YouTube linking by 59 percent.


The report states that local websites help make basic information about cities available, including contact information, government policies and processes, government organization, information about council meetings, and important policy documents, such as budgets. This improves transparency and offers citizens information that could help them to intervene on issues if they so choose.


With that as a backdrop, cities of all sizes need to ensure they are using their own websites in ways that help deliver value to residents and drive efficiency for local government agencies.

Friday, March 23, 2012
Dave Mims, President

Save time. Save money. Cut cost. When it comes to business operations, those three objectives are always at the top of the list. City governments are looking for ways to communicate and disseminate information quicker and more cost-effective than before. So where do you start? You can stop using all that paper for starters.

Because paper is relatively cheap to purchase, it is not automatically seen as an expense to cut. It’s time to reconsider that thought. City governments are finding ways to use less paper, while saving their organizations time and money. The City Council of Vancouver, Wash., recently made the switch from paper to iPad communication at the beginning of this year. According to a March 5 article in CNET.com, the Vancouver City Council saw a 40 percent reduction in paper usage in just two months. This would amount to about 50,000 pages of paper over the course of a year.
 
Instead of using hard copies, the council uses iPads to disseminate important information during meetings and internal sessions, as well as the applicant review process for advisory board/commission vacancies, according to CNET. Since the council began using iPads, there has been a noticeable increase in productivity during meetings due to the larger screens when compared to smartphones and ease of use when reading documents and viewing Web sites.

Surprisingly, iPads also turn out to be cheaper than the council’s previously used BlackBerry smartphones. At $43 a month for the unlimited data, the iPad is $28 cheaper than the BlackBerry. The City of Vancouver will save nearly $340 a year per device, creating opportunity to invest that money elsewhere to help citizens.  

Looking for more cost effective ways to communicate easier and quicker? Take a cue from the City of Vancouver. Their investment in new technology has put them on the cutting edge while cutting their budget at the same time.
Friday, March 23, 2012
Vladimir Maysuradze, Senior Software Developer / DBA

Microsoft announced that the latest version of SQL Server has been released to manufacturing and will be generally available April 1st (interesting choice for date to release a major product, don’t you think?). This release is packed with plenty of new toys for everyone. DBAs will love the new availability feature called AlwaysOn and performance enhancing columnstore indexes. Developers should be looking forward to the SQL Server Data Tools as well as multiple language enhancements, like window functions. BAs will be interested to learn about multiple enhancements to the SSAS including the addition of the data visualization tool Power View. As always, organizations should exercise caution when adopting new technologies. Enjoy it, with care!

Saturday, March 17, 2012
Dave Mims, President

There are so many in need in this world, and we are all very fortunate and blessed. 

Sophicity signed up, along with other corporate sponsors, to help Sheltering Grace Ministry through High Tech Ministries Serve@Work first service project for FY2012. At this project we came out with jeans, T's, and tools to complete a Home Makeover (removing trees, landscaping, replacing a roof, replacing siding, replacing cabinets, paint, building storage unites, etc.)

Ralph Bell, the Executive Director of Sheltering Grace, shared "Each time I visit the Richard Street property I remember you guys and the rest of the team and how much you gave of yourselves to benefit others, the women in our program. I am still amazed at the transformation of this property as are all the neighbors. Your work is a testament to the love of our Lord and the dedication of His people to serve others, to be His hands and feet in this lost world."

From Scripture, Jesus says “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me”. In the back yard, Quan counted how many stones there were with names of children carved in them. Each name represented a child born as a result of this ministry. There were 36 stones. 36 children born because of that small house. That means there were 36 homeless pregnant women in need, in trouble, nowhere to go, and this ministry provided a place of refuge, a place of safety, a place for that child to make it into this world, a chance for life.

Helping one makes a difference. Helping an organization whose mission is to help those in need, makes a difference.

God bless.

Thursday, March 15, 2012
Dave Mims, President
Americans are using mobile devices to accomplish everyday tasks from making phone calls and taking pictures to visiting websites and paying bills. According to the *Pew Internet & American Life Project, 88 percent of American adults have a cell phone. As of February 2012, most of those cell phone owners are actually using smartphones. About six in 10 adults (63 percent) go online wirelessly and according to the 2011 Mobile Year in Review on MobileFuture.org, more smartphones were purchased in 2011 than PCs.

So, how do you communicate with your citizens? Business and government agencies alike rely on mobile technology. A recent report from Government Technology states nearly 60 percent of state and local IT professionals surveyed expect their respective agencies to spend more money on mobile devices and services in 2012.

DuPage County, Ill. has come up with a great mobile solution. The DuPage Green Grid is one example of how local government is using mobile technology to communicate with its citizens. The DuPage Green Grid identifies alternative fuel stations, car share location and buildings certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program throughout the area. Designed as an app, it is based on GIS technology and is available to residents for free.

Local governments nationwide have actually caught onto the trend. Last year, Sacramento County launched its first app, which spotlights the health scores of nearby eateries. Various counties also have produced snowplow apps so residents can track what roads have been cleared before venturing out into snowy conditions. 

According to Mobilefuture.org, one billion apps were downloaded each month worldwide in 2011. Eight trillion texts were sent last year and there was a 166 percent increase in Facebook mobile users in the first half of the year alone. Your citizens are viewing the world from a much smaller mobile lens. Since they are, make sure they see you!

* Brenner, Joanna. Pew Internet: Mobile. Pew Internet & American Life Project, February 23, 2012, http://www.pewinternet.org/Commentary/2012/February/Pew-Internet-Mobile.aspx, accessed on March 13, 2012.
Friday, March 09, 2012
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager
We don’t need to look too far back to recall a recent natural disaster. When it comes to local governments, there are a lot of things to consider and for which to prepare when it comes to natural or man-made disasters – including what happens to your city’s critical data when something goes wrong.

Losing critical data can hinder not just the city but also the businesses in the community. Even with that as a backdrop, many local governments don’t have the contingency plans in place to protect their cities’ valuable data – whether the loss stems from a hurricane, earthquake, snowstorm or even something much less dramatic like a busted water pipe in the building.
  • What are you doing today for data backup? Are we still swapping tapes after a nightly backup?
  • Who is checking our backups?
  • Are all of our servers being backed up?
  • Who in our community will be impacted if 'this' city server crashed?
  • How fast can we be back operationally if 'this' city server failed?
  • Are we ready if a disaster occurred? What is our plan? 
  • When did we last check our backups? Could we recover if it were necessary?


The reality is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure as far as data backup goes. Rather than waiting for the worst and hoping for a good outcome, consider frequent backups and offsite storage that is actively monitored, managed, and tested.
Friday, March 09, 2012
John Miller, Network Infrastructure Manager
There’s an old quote or phrase that states, “we have met the enemy and it is us.” Although the quote didn’t address technology concerns, in the world of IT security issues, the quote is rather applicable. In fact, many local governments and organizations are vulnerable to IT threats because of employees.

Employees are not deliberately posing threats to their organizations. The issue is a security threat called social engineering defined as a type of fraud in which the bad guys obtain information or computer system access through trickery or deception of an individual. 

Nearly 50 percent of businesses have suffered social engineering attacks according to recent report by Dimensional Research. The same report shows that 34 percent of respondents also are not educating employees of such dangers. 

Ignorance is Not so Bliss
Poorly trained employees are a major concern in the world of IT security. In fact, educating them about possible threats is the first step in addressing the issue. According to Network World, every employee is a viable target. Eighty percent of those scammed aren’t the executives in the C-suite with access to all of a company’s data. It is the “regular” worker bees who provide easy access to the fraudsters.

Educating employees and thinking like the hackers will put your local government ahead of the game when it comes to social engineering. Moreover, if you can think like a fraudster, you can take the necessary steps to prevent breakdowns.
 
Once employees are “educated”, take steps to keep them aware and send out regular reminders about policies such as limited or no visitation of social media sites and restrict use of company email for personal reasons.  

Who is at risk
Some local governments may think they are immune to security issues or that hackers only target the big guys. Not true. In a recent issue of Government Technology reported that an Arkansas’ sheriff’s office website had been hacked and that it was one of 70 law enforcement agencies in several states that had been victimized by hackers.

Take the time to roll out the necessary policies and training to minimize the risks to your local government and find out what other security solutions may help stem social engineering.
Tuesday, March 06, 2012
Kevin Beaver, CISSP
It’s as predictable as the rising sun. Organizations often spend effort and money securing their more visible systems such as Web applications, databases and the like but often forget about their “lowly” email servers. Sure, email servers aren’t all that sexy and there’s certainly not much to them compared to, say, a Web-based ERP system. But this leads to the common assumption that they’re not a target for hackers, malware and rogue employees looking for ill-gotten gains.
 
There are a few issues with this approach:

1. Your email server is critical – arguably the most critical system on your network. We’ve all experienced email being unavailable. Spread that pain across your entire organization – especially if email is down for a considerable time – and you’ve got quite the dilemma on your hands.

2. Your email server has vulnerabilities just like any other system on your network. From weak email account passwords to missing patches to outdated anti-malware protection, there are numerous weaknesses that can put some of your most sensitive information at risk. All it takes is someone with free tools and minimal skills to scan for and exploit vulnerabilities on your server. Weak passwords can be exposed on webmail systems with even less effort. Malware propagation is a given that affects everyone.

3. Regardless of whether you believe you’re a target or really have anything of value that the bad guys want, you are and you do. It may not be sensitive emails and files shared on public folders but instead processor cycles and network bandwidth. Many of the attacks today are not intended to access critical information but rather so the bad guys can setup shop and use your system to attack others.  

If you don’t have the proper resources to properly manage the security of your email server – or your network overall – then outsource the hosting and management of it to a reputable cloud provider who can. 

You cannot secure what you don’t acknowledge. Make sure your email server is included in your ongoing information security testing. In the end, if a computer system has an IP address or a Web URL then it’s fair game for attack. It’s up to you to take the proper steps for minimizing the risk of a security incident and then prepare yourself and your organization for when something does go awry. You’ll never have 100% security and that’s okay. Just avoid being one of the organizations that has zero percent. 

About the author 
Kevin Beaver is an information security consultant, expert witness, and professional speaker with Atlanta-based Principle Logic, LLC. With over 23 years of experience in the industry, Kevin specializes in performing independent security assessments revolving around information risk management. He has authored/co-authored 10 books on information security including The Practical Guide to HIPAA Privacy and Security Compliance and Hacking For Dummies. In addition, he’s the creator of the Security On Wheels information security audio books and blog providing security learning for IT professionals on the go. Kevin can be reached at www.principlelogic.com and you can follow in on Twitter at @kevinbeaver.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Dave Mims, President

While cloud computing has been generating buzz for the past several years, this technology will continue to gain in popularity in 2012 – especially among city governments. Leveraging cloud-based technology eliminates capital and operational expenses associated with servers, software licenses, maintenance fees, project labor for software upgrades, and, more. Other benefits of the cloud include:

1. Lower, affordable, monthly costs for exactly what is needed. Pay monthly for needed hardware, software, and services. IT is scalable – add or subtract users as necessary, and the cost is adjusted on the fly.

2. Clear, transparent ROI. Information technology has matured into a transparent reportable investment. A cost analysis of the money spent for traditional hardware, software, and services can be outlined and compared against a flat monthly operational-cost model. When this cost analysis is performed, many cities often uncover an opportunity for instant cost savings.

3. Included, no-cost hardware and software upgrades. With “pay as you go” IT service models, there is no longer any worry about upgrading hardware or software. With a city’s monthly costs, all upgrades are included.

4. Minimized risk of data loss and security breaches. With an IT environment that is monitored and maintained with consistent, upgraded, quality hardware, software, and services at a monthly cost, the burden of data retention, security, and maintenance falls upon the service provider. Recovering from theft or a disaster can be much quicker and more cost effective for the city.

The Changing Face of IT

Many cities have over-spent, under-spent, risked data loss, slowed employee productivity, and jeopardized the completion of major projects during the last few decades while wrestling with information technology. As IT has evolved through mainframes, desktop computers, the 1980s software explosion, and the 1990s Internet explosion, the last decade found nearly all organizations having to harness information technology in some form. Like everyone else, cities have had no choice but to learn and wrap their minds around information technology’s revolutions and evolutions.

“Pay as you go” IT services, reflected in flat monthly operational costs (versus expensive upfront capital costs), will lead to high quality, low cost technology infrastructures for cities. A January 2009 article entitled “Buyer Beware” from Public CIO states:

Despite [service issues from vendors], government organizations still turn to the private sector for help with their IT management. This trend will accelerate as workers currently managing legacy systems retire, organizations update technology, enterprise-wide software applications are implemented and shared services arrangements are adopted, infrastructure and applications become more complex, and securing talent at government salary levels becomes more difficult.

Information technology is evolving toward more of an operational cost and less of a capital cost. This involves “pay as you go” monthly fees for hardware, software, and services that can be turned off and on, saving significant money for a city’s IT budget – and overall bottom line. An expensive upfront capital cost is often an obstacle for cities when they wish to invest in essential IT infrastructure. With a series of smaller, more predictable payments, it is easier to justify such costs to city decision makers.

As can be seen, anyone concerned with a city’s IT budget needs to seriously consider cloud computing as a tool to reduce costs and save money. And with increasing budget shortfalls and greater calls for transparency, the time is ripe for cities to reexamine their IT budgets and find ways to save hard dollars through these emerging technologies.

Five Questions to Consider
 
1. Have you ever discussed the city’s information technology spending in terms of money saved each year (ROI)?
 
2. Identify a list of hardware and software upgrades you need. Is the upfront cost of this hardware and software prohibiting you from moving forward with upgrading the city IT infrastructure?
 
3. Look at your city’s IT budget. Are most of your costs related to capital expenses? Operational expenses? “Services” expenses? Do you know where the money allocated for your city’s IT budget is clearly going, and why?
 
4. Can you say with confidence that all servers, workstations, and network infrastructure components in your city are 100% current with patches, antivirus, antispyware, and security protection? If not, why?
 
5. Can you say with confidence that the city is not in danger of data loss or significant down time to critical applications at Public Safety or City Hall? Are there risks for security breaches?

As you enter a new year, are you confident in your city’s security infrastructure? Are you taking advantage of available technology to streamline IT costs and operate more efficiently? There is still time to examine your IT infrastructure and make the necessary changes for 2012.
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