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CitySmart Blog

Wednesday, January 06, 2010
Dave Mims, President
Consolidating GIS data from cities, counties and other agencies can be a touchy subject, as this information is usually closely guarded. The result is a bunch of data silos with information that has varying degrees of accuracy. However, new IT initiatives are changing the minds of GIS keepers all over the country. For example, take Houston, which has recently integrated its GIS data into one central system that is over 95% accurate (Many individual systems are as low as 40% accurate.) How did they accomplish this feat? Interestingly, not by focusing on the technology. Instead, the program manager focused on the value that such a system would bring: decreased network loads, increased accuracy, lower costs. This is exactly the kind of thing I like to see, because it’s what we are always striving to do for our city clients: focus on value. And I’d say that this is pretty good evidence of why that works better than strong arming folks with technical reasons.
Monday, January 04, 2010
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
The New York Times is reporting on a new locally-focused free web service called SeeClickFix.com that might perk up the ears of your 311 staff. Using Google Maps, the service allows users to click on a specific area and report a problem like a pot hole, graffiti, or an abandoned house. The system then uses the GPS coordinates of that location to automatically communicate the problem to local governments, businesses, and other entities. This is a further example of how the web can tie together a lot of different pieces of information to help cities improve their services (and hopefully their infrastructure.) If your city is looking into automating some of its 311 functions, you might want to check out SeeClickFix before you purchase any software!
Thursday, December 31, 2009

The folks here at Sophicity wish everyone a happy and safe New Years! Take a moment to celebrate the present, ponder the past, and wonder about the future. We’re looking forward to a great 2010!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
GovTech has an interesting look at social media use in the government sector. Quoting the PTI (Public Technology Institute), the article states that over 72% of cities are now using Facebook as a way of reaching out to citizens. That’s a huge number! With over 19 thousand cities in the US, that means close to 13500 cities are using the popular social network. There are likely many reasons for this rapid growth but I think one of them is that social networks fulfill a need that cities have had for a long time: how do we cheaply, effectively communicate with our citizens? The new crop of social network sites require no maintenance by the city, are free to use, and have an enormous population from which the city can attract its audience. One the surface level, such networks might only seem like another communication channel but I think they are evolving into something a lot more robust as cities figure out interesting ways to use them for crowdsourcing, disaster planning, and emergency management. Is your city doing something interesting with social media? Write us and let us know (Or find us on Facebook!)
Monday, December 28, 2009
Allen Koronkowski, Practice Manager: Projects
More news out of Santa Anna, Ca. According to GovTech, the city has recently implemented a new ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system that should tie many formerly separate departments together in all new ways. They expect to eliminate a lot of redundancy and in turn save money. We’ve managed the implementation of a few ERP systems for cities and they usually represent a huge positive change to the city’s operations. While these systems might cost a pretty penny upfront, the benefits more than make up for it, especially when many cities are being asked to do more with less. Private sector companies have used these types of system for years and it’s great to see them migrating into the public sector as well.
Friday, December 18, 2009
Happy Holidays from the crew at Sophicity! We’ve been working hard all year to help cities and leagues with their IT needs, and we have to admit, we need a vacation. The Sophicity CitySmart blog is going to take a week off and then we’ll be back – rested and ready for 2010! Best wishes to everyone for a restful, fun, and safe holiday season!
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development
Another interesting trend we saw last year is municipal crowdsourcing. What’s that? Well, it’s pretty much a fancy word for “asking a bunch of people to help you make a decision” and its one of the best things to happen to local government in a long time. For instance, Duluth, Ga. Opened up its budgeting session to citizens and asked them to provide feedback on how the budget could be better spent. Or when Oakland County, Mi. faced budget cuts, it put up a website and solicited suggestions from its employees on how it could cut costs or make money, which resulted new ideas that cut the budget by tens of thousands of dollars. What we’re seeing here is technologies that enable cities to put more decision making power into the hands of citizens – a win-win for everyone. Check out this great GovTech rundown on crowdsourcing and let us know if your city is thinking of trying something new!
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Allen Koronkowski, Practice Manager: Projects
Every new budget cycle brings a bevy of projects and ideas before city council for approval. While projects like sidewalk improvement or traffic decongestion are easy to explain in terms of benefits and return on investment, IT projects can be a thorny subject, especially if the council is largely made up of non-technical folks. Add to this the fact that it usually falls upon a non-technical city manager or administrator to present the project to city council. As a non-technical person myself, I’ve spent years presenting technical projects to other non-techie decision makers, and I’ve come up with a few key tips to increase your chances of a successful presentation by presenting the problem as a business solution instead of a technical one.


Assessing the Problem 


The first and best way to drum up support in council for an IT project is to start with a detailed assessment of the problem. Typically this is done in two main parts: discovery and impact. The discovery phase pins down the exact nature of the problem by taking a cold, hard look at the present state of operations. What’s wrong with the current process or IT solution? What is the cost in employee work hours, support time, and maintenance? Asking tough questions early on will help root out any issues that may come up when the proposal is brought before council. The impact phase will look at how the new solution will effect the city’s operations. What’s the new IT solution adding to the municipality’s operations? Is it increasing efficiency, mitigating risk, or reducing costs? If so, by how much? The goal in this phase is to be as concrete as possible, showing in real numbers how the city would benefit from implementing the solution. Each of these phases will benefit greatly from in-depth interviews with key stakeholders in the project. While managers can offer great insight, try to focus the bulk of the interviews on experienced “in-the-trenches” employees who likely know the intricacies of the current technology or process.

Say for instance you want to upgrade your phone system to a voice-over-IP (VOIP) solution. The discovery phase might focus on how much the current voice line contract costs, the level of service from the vendor, and the inefficiency and lack of features of the current system. Once that is nailed down, the impact phase would determine the cost of the new phones and service agreements, and detail what new features make VOIP more efficient than the old system. You might also try to pin down how many work hours per week would be saved by switching to the new system. In another example, if you want to reduce the number of servers in the IT department, the discovery phase might set out to determine the current cost to purchase and maintain the hardware and software, the energy cost to run the servers and cool the server room, and the amount of space taken up by the equipment. The impact might focus on how much lower the hardware, energy, and support costs would be after consolidation and what could be done with the leftover space and decommissioned hardware.


Presenting the Problem 


Human nature dictates that we have an easier time making a decision when we have a keen understanding of the situation at hand. The problem is that at cities, non-technical people are often asked to make decisions about highly-technical problems. The result is that sometimes a project is shot down due to misinformation or a lack of understanding of the true benefits. This can create an atmosphere where presenting the project to council can be a difficult task. However, instead of a barrier this can present an opportunity to make a great impact on the decision making process by focusing on two key concepts: education and consensus.

When presenting a technical concept to a non-technical audience, try to stay away from the nuts and bolts of how it works. Instead, try to keep it high-level and focus on the key benefits of the new solution over what is currently in place. Make use of simple charts, graphics and other visual tools to bring the solution out of the conceptual and into the real world. For the VOIP project, you might discuss how the current system works: “Presently, when someone gets a voicemail, they need to log into the phone at their desk and get the message.” From there, discuss how a VOIP system would improve that: “The VOIP system allows voicemail to be sent directly to email so an employee can easily check voicemail from anywhere with an internet connection, saving us over 1 hour per day per employee and enabling work from home environment.” Education about the server consolidation project might use simple graphics to explain how the project combines many physical servers into just a few, leading to maintenance and energy cost savings. Educating the decision makers on the basics of the new solution will go a long way towards easing any fears of the unknown and is a lot more effective than “Trust me, we need this.”

Secondly, building consensus is a key value for any government but sometimes the notion is lost in the push to get an IT project approved. However, when presenting a technical project to a non-technical audience, coming into the discussion with a prebuilt consensus can easily turn a tough discussion into an easy decision. Remember the key stakeholder and employee interviews you did during the assessment phase? Once you have chosen a solution, go back to those same folks and get their buy-in before you go in front of council. Not only will they appreciate the gesture, they will have an actual investment in the project and act as an ardent supporter of the cause. While the council may not understand the technical details of the solution, it will understand the power of consensus from the workforce. After all, being able to say “I have buy-in from every major department head on the implementation of a VOIP system” holds a lot more power than “we just need it.”


Conclusion


Pushing an IT initiative through city council is more than just issuing an RFP and letting the vendor make the case. By taking the time to properly assess the problem and describe the impact, you’ll be much better equipped to explain the solution to the stakeholders and gain their critical buy-in. With the consensus in hand, a thoughtful and educating presentation to city council will give you the best possible chance of success in getting your initiative approved and driving true innovation at your city.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
Another story of data loss woe: Detroit has recently lost data that contained the social security numbers and other information of some 10,000 people. It didn’t come from a hacker, or a meltdown, or a virus, it came from classic, old school physical theft. This illustrates a great point: You can have the best network security in the world, but if you store the information locally on laptops or desktop computers which can be easily stolen, it does little to prevent data loss. In this case, now the city has to provide credit monitoring services for each of these people for a year, the cost of which might have put a serious dent in the cost of coming up with a good remote worker policy that prevented sensitive information from remaining on local devices.
Friday, December 11, 2009
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
Sophicity recently had our holiday party at the Sage Woodfire Tavern in Alpharetta. After working hard in our offices all year, it’s nice to get out once in a while and enjoy the finer things in life. We all had a great time and look forward to a prosperous 2010. Check out our Facebook page for photos of the event!
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