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CitySmart Blog

Friday, May 21, 2010
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
We spend a lot of time talking about how many people are looking to government websites for information but we don’t always have the luxury of looking at some actual metrics. A recent Pew study offers a number of really fascinating statistics about how the public is using the internet. Here’s a few of the highlights:
  • 82% of internet users (representing 61% of all American adults) looked for information or completed a transaction on a government website
  • 48% of internet users have looked for information about a public policy or issueonline with their local, state or federal government
  • 41% have downloaded government forms
  • 25% have gotten advice or information from a government agency about a health or safety issue
  • 15% have paid a fine, such as a parking ticket
  • 11% have applied for a recreational license, such as a fishing or hunting license
This and many more statistics are available in the full report.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
City portals have been on the web almost since its inception but they are just not starting to be repackaged as mobile apps. This is arguably a better format for them because if your using a portal you are probably out looking for something to do and not sitting at home on your PC. Once such portal, MyCityWay, lets locals and tourists find everything from parking to street food vendors via a collection of highly localized mini applications housed within the portal. What’s interesting here is that the app also tracks a lot of data about who’s requesting what, which could turn into a gold mine for real estate investors, new business scouts, or anyone else looking to tap into the buying trends of the public. For cities, it’s a beneficial move because it helps drive commerce and get people to where they’re going in a more efficient manner. MYCityWay isn’t yet available for all cities, but there’s nothing stopping you from making your own portal for your city.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
If you take a look at current television commercials or tech blogs, you’ll quickly find a great deal of attention focused on smartphones and the mobile applications (apps for short) that are built on top of them. While traditionally focused on the Blackberry-dominated business user niche, smartphones made the shift to the mainstream after Apple’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007. Since that time the industry has experienced intense competition and tremendous growth year over year. While hardware sales have been brisk, the truly interesting part is that there is an ever growing user base for the mobile apps that these phones run. You’ve seen the commercials for apps that can schedule dinner, buy movie tickets, or find your friends. While many of these apps are focused on personal use, there is a growing niche for apps that interface with local governments. These apps have the potential to be a powerful communication tool and may revolutionize the way that governments interact with their citizenry.
 

The Trend
In 2008, President Obama tasked Federal CIO Vivek Kundra with making the federal government’s data more open and accessible to the public. While this information was always available, it often required significant effort to obtain and was in a format that made it difficult to use. Kundra set about taking datasets from multiple agencies and consolidating them at the newly-commissioned data.gov website in a number of widely used formats. With this move, datasets like population, crime, spending, traffic and others became available for anyone to include in their application. For the first time, government data wasn’t just available, it was usable.

While governments at all levels were opening up their data, the public was going wild over smartphones. What was once a niche market became the fastest growing segment in the mobile phone space. Research firm comScore recently reported that smartphones now comprise 19% of the active phones in the United States, some 45 million in total. In response to this market growth, mobile carriers began offering a wider variety of smartphones and implemented cheap unlimited data plans while increasing the speed and coverage of their networks. Product companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft and RIM released free tools that made make it easy for anyone to develop applications on top of their phones and operating systems. They also provide sprawling online stores to make it easy for developers to offer their app to the public. By 2010, Apple reported over 3 billion apps were downloaded on its store alone.

Combine the growing trend to open up government data with the rapid growth in smartphone adoption and you have a recipe for government mobile apps to appear on the scene. Major cities like New York and Los Angeles were quick to jump on board. After making data available they held app contests that rewarded the most creative entries. They then made all of these applications available for their citizens to use. Users could see everything from New York’s most dangerous neighborhoods to up-to-the-minute street parking availability. In the minds of consumers and citizens, this drew a clear line from the vast stores of data that a government collects to its practical use in the ‘real world.’ Let’s take a look at three popular types of local government focused mobile apps.

 

Citizen Relationship Management (CRM)
CRM includes many features that are generally lumped under 311 systems like report-a-pothole and other maintenance requests, reporting utility outages, and traffic updates. Most smartphones are equipped with cameras and GPS units that can record the location of the phone. Mobile 311 apps make use of both of these features to greatly improve the data that the city receives from the citizen. For example, a citizen may openup a 311 app on their phone and snap a picture of a pothole. The phone then records the GPS location, known as geotagging, and sends it to the city’s work order system. The road crew then gets a full report including location and a picture without the request ever needing manual attention from city staff. The potential efficiency gains are evident. Mobile 311 apps are typically developed by vendors as add-ons to pre-existing 311 systems and are among the most popular local gov-focused mobile apps, especially in larger cities with massive infrastructures. While still young, the hope is that these systems will decrease response time to reported issues, increase the number of reported issues, and provide a 24/7 solution to 311 that citizens will embrace.

 

Data Mashups
Data mashups arose out of the app contests held by cities around the country. Once developers had access to the city’s data they could combine it with preexisting applications in surprising new ways. For instance, traffic data could be combined with accident report data and overlaid with Google Maps to give citizens a bird’s eye view of dangerous traffic areas. Thus the term “mash-up” originated, which means “mashing” different data sets together to find something meaningful. Mashups can come in a variety of flavors from reporting areas of dangerous crime, locating open real estate, and showing the best bike routes in the city. The more data a city makes available, the more developers have to work with when designing their apps. Usually mashups are coded by individuals looking to better their immediate community in some way, and both governments and citizens benefit.

 

Disaster Recovery
Every city dreads a disaster but if one happens the citizens will turn to their local government for help and guidance. Some mobile apps are starting to focus around allowing government to better communicate disaster planning and recovery information to and from their citizens. These apps might warn people about a tornado sighting in their area, provide updated evacuation routes, and allow for citizens to report conditions on the ground to emergency service personnel. Now that most people have mobile phones, these apps allow for anytime, anywhere disaster communication instead of relying on television or radio. Some of these apps will even use social media sites like Twitter or Facebook to automatically update followers as to the status of the disaster. Not only are disaster recovery apps useful, they can help save lives.

 

Conclusion
Those are just three of the endless possibilities for government focused mobile apps. If your city is exploring this area, think about which datasets you can make available and how to generate interest in them. Remember, the more available your data, the more likely your citizens will come up with something unique and useful for the community. Also talk to your vendors to see if they are implementing mobile apps into their systems. These might help you reduce costs, increase revenue, and improve the level of service you provide to the community. Mobile apps may provide an additional means for governments to get their citizens truly engaged in a cost-effective and fruitful way.

Monday, May 17, 2010
Clint Nelms, Practice Manager: Network Infrastructure
Earlier this month MeriTalk and Axway released the results of a survey they conducted in the Federal government regarding file transfer policies. It may come as no surprise that many of the employees at the agencies do not use safe file transfer methods - after all, people are people. What’s interesting here is that the surveys uncovered that most of the agencies have policies and technologies in place to safely transfer data but few employees knew about them or were trained to use them properly.

This goes back to a maxim I frequently use – the weakest link in any security system is the human link. If you have policies in place that no one knows about or that aren’t practical, people aren’t going to use them or will find ways to circumvent them. Sure there are technical solutions like blocking FTP sites or removing storage medium capabilities from the workstations, but people always seem to find some unsecure way to send data back and forth.

The solution is training! If you put policies and technologies in place make sure every employee goes through intensive training so that they are aware of and know how to use them. Furthermore, discuss in detail the consequences of going lax with data security, especially in environments that are dealing with sensitive data. We’ve all heard the horror stories of government agencies getting hacked yet no one really ever thinks it’ll happen to them. As someone who’s spent a great deal of time helping cities recover from such attacks, I can safely tell you that its far better to assume you will be attacked eventually and then plan and act accordingly. Training your users is the single best way to prevent data security holes from affecting your organization.

Thursday, May 06, 2010
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
In the unfortunate event that a disaster strikes your city, who are the citizens going to turn to? Their government. Alvin, Tx. Understood this when they implemented a emergency management system that allows them to instantly inform citizens via email and phone during the event of a disaster. This is the kind of technology that saves lives and helps people put more faith in their government. It’s great to see cities using technology effectively for the betterment of the community.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
I’ve written a number of times about the various open data initiatives that have been going on in the Government space and it looks all the excitement around this topic is actually having a measurable affect. The Pew Internet and American Life Project recently did a study and discovered that 40% of the adult internet going population has looked up government data online. Folks are looking up information on bills, stimulus spending, Data.gov and other data initiatives. Bottom line: like everything else in our modern age, the power of the web is now rapidly transforming governments. I’m glad I get to be a part of making this happen.
Friday, April 23, 2010
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
We talk to a lot of cities about their websites. One thing that we see a lot of is the age-old war between design and usability. Many times cities want very pretty and elaborate looking websites that end up actually detracting from the usefulness to the average citizen. If your city is thinking about desiging a website soon, check out this link from GoverningPeople called Citizens ‘wish list’ and frustrations with local government websites. It details some of the common pitfalls of city websites and provides some insight on how to improve them - a must read.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Dave Mims, President
Looking for a great resource on everything Gov 2.0? Check out this portal site from Deloitte. It’s got a ton of research, resources, articles, and data on how governments large and small are embracing the growing Gov2.0 trend. This goes beyond operational advantages and delves into how these technologies are actually transforming democracy and making it…well…more democratic. More than ever before the people have a voice and a window into the interworkings of government. It’s an exciting time to be in this business!
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development
One of the hardest things about selling IT services and products to local governments is justifying costs. When we are selling something that helps reduce the amount of money a city is spending, it’s a no-brainer. But when we are trying to sell something that costs more but adds other benefits (like decreasing risk or increasing productivity) the case becomes much harder to make. We typically try to help folks see the value in these types of decisions by comparing the increase in cost to the value of the benefit our product or service offers. For example, if we’re increasing productivity, we’ll have the city look at how much staff time or resources this increase will save instead of just a direct comparison to current versus new cost.

If you are at a city and currently find yourself in a position to make this sort of decision, GovTech has a must-read article about an economic theory called comparative advantage. It’s a great way of thinking about how the cost of something is only one part of an equation. Depending on what you’re buying, there may be a whole host of other factors that come into play to help you determine if the decision is a wise one. The trick is sifting through all of the data to find out what really matters.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
We’ve been spending a lot of time talking and thinking about social media and local government. The mobile app explosion combined with the expectations of the Facebook Generation have created what is arguably one of the biggest disruptions in the status quo of government-to-citizen communication since the radio. From open budget initiatives to map mash-ups, every facet of G2C communications is being co-opted into this new way of thinking. Some call it Gov2.0, we call it progress. Still, not all cities are jumping on the bandwagon and in many cases this is due to some lingering fears about how to properly use it.

Our friends over at the Georgia Municipal Association point us to a study from the Fels Institute of Government, University of Pennsylvania that details seven social media lessons for cities. If your city is grappling with how to use social media, this may be exactly what you’re looking for to break through that barrier.

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