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Thursday, July 02, 2009
IT consulting firm Sophicity announced today that it has become a Cornerstone Partner with the Kentucky League of Cities (KLC). Sophicity specializes in reducing IT costs for municipal government and state municipal leagues. Its partnership with KLC will expose the company’s unique focus to municipal officials throughout Kentucky. The Cornerstone Partnership means that KLC will recommend Sophicity to municipal officials that approach the league about technology services. Dave Mims, President of Sophicity, said:

While Sophicity is based in Georgia, we are moving outward to support cities and municipal leagues in other states. Our partnership with the Kentucky League of Cities is a sign of our commitment to support the organizations that help American cities. There are many great cities in Kentucky and we are excited about the opportunity to meet with them, hear their stories, and potentially help them reduce costs and improve their technology infrastructure. Working closely with the municipal leagues brings value for them and for Sophicity, and we will continue to look for similar partnerships in other states.

Sophicity also has a long-standing relationship with the Georgia Municipal Association through its Friends of Georgia Cities program. The KLC partnership marks the second state municipal league that Sophicity supports through sponsorship.

About Sophicity

For more than 10 years, Sophicity’s expertise has unleashed the potential of government IT for municipal leagues and their member cities, meeting the needs of everyone from city hall to public safety. Our senior consultants help improve budget efficiency and increase employee productivity beginning with detailed assessments that identify risks, opportunities, and guidelines for planning. Sophicity makes any IT project worry-free by defining the requirements, managing the project and implementing the right solution. At Sophicity, we put the IT in city.

About The Kentucky League Of Cities

The Kentucky League of Cities is an association of 380 Kentucky cities that was formed in 1927. KLC provides resources, advocacy and assistance to help make cities more livable. KLC offers cities, leaders and employees a number of services including insurance, loss control and employee benefits; policy development, research, finance, legal and information technology services, training and education and legislative advocacy. Their corporate office is based in Lexington and they have an office in Frankfort.

Thursday, July 02, 2009
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
Government Technology has piece on creating an effective government blog. If your city is thinking of starting a blog, it offers some great tips. First and foremost, the article cautions against simply making the blog a place to post press releases. The best blogs, it says, are ones that have a personal point of view.
 
I think this is a great tip that I want to focus on. Blogs are most effective when they are somewhat personal. Take our blog for instance: I tend to post on communications related material, Dave focuses on high level topics on cities or news about the company, Kevin writes about building relationships, Jeramie focuses on innovative technologies, and Allen talks about topics surrounding improving efficiency and process. We each have our own area of expertise and it shows in our posts.
 
When it comes time to launch your cities blog, pick a particular point of view. Perhaps the mayor would like to write about what’s going on at the city, or the Parks and Recreation director might discuss how the sports season is going. This will make it much more personal and the readers will be much more likely to follow.
Wednesday, July 01, 2009
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
Within the collective team at Sophicity, we have a rule that everyone has to be able to "answer why".  The rationale for each decision is expected, so I think that it improves the overall process.  Nobody gets to say something like "because I have 15 years of experience."  Right or wrong, you have to be able to explain your thought process.
 
This same requirement to "answer why" flows into our interaction with clients.  When putting together a proposal, a significant amount of thought goes into what we deliver to our customers.  There's a rationale and associated detail that goes into the proposal and we're pretty transparent when it comes to discussing exactly how we plan to solve their problem.  We share the ingredients of the solution with the customer. 

From time to time, I come across companies that don't seem to share this openness.  Rather than participate in an open discussion with their customer, they seem to want to hide behind phrases like "proprietary business information" or "confidential information".  Now, if they were using these phrases in connection with some intellectual property I might understand.  Kentucky Fried Chicken hides the ingredients of their secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices.  Likewise, Coca-Cola protects their formula.  These two examples might be viewed as competitive advantages for each of the companies.  In the vendor scenarios I most recently came across, the "proprietary business information" was how they came up with a given price for a fixed scope of technology services.

The two technology vendors approached their protection of their price in two very different ways.  In one situation, they flatly denied a customer's request to know how the price was determined.  The project had a significant price tag associated with it and the customer just wanted to know what they were getting for such a large sum of money.  In the second situation, the vendor requested the customer to sign an NDA prior to presenting the price for a project.  I can't imagine the business need to legally prevent a customer from discussing your price.

When reviewing a vendor proposal, expect to know the ingredients that went into it.  Feel free to "ask why" and expect the vendor to explain their thinking to you.  You should be able to feel comfortable in their responses and truly understand what you are getting for your money.  This is the first step in building long term trust and a fruitful client/vendor relationship.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
We’re continuing to see a push for a more open government on every level from local to federal. Innovative cities like Duluth, Ga. are asking citizens to help with the budget, and the Federal government has launched a website that details all of its IT expenditures. Both of these moves provide unprecedented access to information that was often difficult or even impossible to obtain. This can only mean good things for cities. By allowing open access to information, it will lay the groundwork for new and innovative approaches to problem solving and increased citizen interest in the day-to-day operations of the City. It’s great to see cities adapting to the modern business and governmental climate, where customers and citizens alike want a more active role in these organizations.
Monday, June 29, 2009
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development
Although this incident occurred in England, the repercussions of a serious security breach applies to American cities – many of whom have the same weaknesses. ZDnet's Zero Day blog reports:

"The [Conficker] infection obviously caught [the city of Manchester] off guard, since no antivirus, IPs, patch management solutions or general security awareness were in place. The results came shortly - hundreds of unprocessed bus lane fines due to service disruption, post-infection network-wide USB device ban, installation of antivirus software and patch management solutions, and a thousand Conficker infected laptops accumulating such a hefty clean up bill."

The clean-up bill? $1.5 million pounds (or about $2.4 million). Many cities have weaknesses in their antivirus, patch management, and security. Yet, tight budgets are often used as an excuse not to properly maintain and secure their IT infrastructure. The big question: Can your city afford the cost and embarrassment that Manchester experienced?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
While many cities have embraced the web as a way to communicate with their citizens, many are still trying to figure out the best way to leverage the vast number of tools and programs available to them. Most have websites up, but other technologies such as RSS, Twitter, and Blogs, are just now starting to come into play at the local government level. Since no one channel is usually good enough for every “listener” in the audience, a multi-pronged approach is the best way to effectively get information out into the world. Here, we’ll focus on one of the easiest methods of disseminating information – RSS.

At its heart, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) gives your website visitors the power to subscribe to the information that you put online. As you add new information to your site, users who have subscribed will automatically receive that information in much the same way that they receive email. This saves citizens time because they don’t have to periodically return to your site to check for new content. Not only does this help get information out quickly, it broadens the number of users that actually see it.

In a typical example, a user would come to your website’s news section and click on the RSS feed icon on the page or in their browser. Once the feed is saved, they’ll be able to pull into their RSS feed reader, like those provided in Outlook or by Google. It is very much a “pull” philosophy instead of the traditional “push”.

So where does RSS fit in amongst all of the other options? One disadvantage in RSS is that the feeds are anonymous so you will not be able to see who has subscribed to any given feed. This means that RSS generally works best if you don’t need to know who the identity of the subscriber. The advantage here is that by publishing once, you get two separate channels: The traditional site visitor and the visitor who would like to be kept instantly informed through RSS. With major web browsers supporting RSS, you’d be surprised at how many users take advantage of the technology.

One of our long-time Tribune customers, the City of Tybee Island, has embraced RSS as an additional means of communicating with their citizens. Realizing that some site visitors may not be as comfortable with RSS as others, the City thoughtfully provided a very concise introduction to RSS on their site. In addition to a clear description of the usage and benefits of the technology, there is also a link to an entertaining but informative YouTube video on RSS.

If you’d like to know more about getting RSS up on your site, contact me and I’d be glad to discuss it with you.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development
Thanks to all those who stopped by our booth and left a card with us at the Georgia Municipal Association’s 2009 annual convention. We saw a good turnout this past weekend in the exhibit hall and enjoyed chatting with everyone about ways to reduce their city’s information technology costs.

Dave Mims (yes, our fearless leader) forgot to post the winner of our drawing on the bulletin board, so he has told me to announce the winner ASAP! Drum roll please… … …

The city of Covington, Georgia won the drawing for a free CitySmart Network Health and Security Assessment (valued at $3,975). Our certified network engineers will do an in-depth investigation and analysis of the city’s network, and then draft a detailed findings and recommendations report. Find more information about our assessments here.

For those of you who didn’t win (or even if you didn't enter!), we can still provide a CitySmart IT Cost Analysis at no charge for your city that:

  • Examines your technology budget for gaps and inefficiencies.Inventories your servers, workstations, printers, and network to compare against best practices.
  • Recommends ways for your city to reduce costs and address risks.
I encourage you (or a recommended person at your city) to contact me if you are interested in setting up a time for the cost analysis, which may identify ways to cut your city’s budget. For over 10 years, we have assisted the Georgia Municipal Association and many Georgia cities with their technology needs.

Again, thanks for stopping by, and we look forward to hearing from you if the cost analysis is of interest.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Allen Koronkowski, Practice Manager: Projects
Two weeks ago, I was having a discussion about Twitter with several business executives and the general consensus was that it was a “cute technology” but lacking in practical applications. It was notable that we all actually had accounts, but really couldn’t think of a reason to “tweet.” I pointed out to the others how some cities were beginning to use the technology for informing residents about important information, such as crime alerts, accidents and other such events, but this fact was anything but revolutionary in their minds. After all, there were many ways to push that information to those interested.

Some Background…

For those of you unfamiliar with Twitter, it’s a social networking technology that allows users to develop a group of followers. If you’re familiar with Facebook (and anyone with a teenager at their house should be), it’s very similar to your “friends” on that web site. An interested person can go to the Twitter web site and ‘tag’ you as a follower. You as the account holder post messages about anything you’d like—where you are, what you’re doing, what you think – the catch is that you only get 140 characters to do it in. Your followers then receive those updates from you. You, in turn, receive updates from the people you follow. These messages posted back and forth are called “tweets.” In addition to sending and receiving these tweets from the twitter web site, they can also be sent and received on your mobile phone as text messages.

Back to the discussion, no one in the room could think of a reason why anyone would be interested in this information. Who cares what I’m doing at the moment?

Then the riots in Tehran erupted. In an attempt to suppress the news, the Iranian government shut down foreign news organizations. These same news agencies—and the people on the street—then turned to technologies such as Twitter and Facebook to get the news out. One blogger reports that Twitter was so important during this time, that the US government asked them to postpone scheduled maintenance that would have taken the site down during the crisis.

Needless to say, the discussion of Twitter’s importance has changed in my little group. I think this could be a useful technology for any City looking to quickly disseminate information to citizens, especially in terms of crime watches, missing persons, and disaster preparedness. If your City is using Twitter in an innovative way, drop me a line and let me know how. And by the way, you can follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/Sophicity.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Allen Koronkowski, Practice Manager: Projects
Cutting a city’s budget is never easy and it is even harder when it comes to IT spending. While cuts in other departments might mean living without a few things, cutting out the wrong technology risks a service interruption or security breach.

Budgeting is made even more difficult by the fact that IT investments are traditionally thought to be difficult to measure in terms of return on investment, putting them at odds with other areas of the budget and making departmental cooperation difficult. This article will help the City plan for, or restructure, an IT budget by suggesting ways to:

A. Clarify what results the city expects from IT investments.

B. Identify if the city is over- or underspending. You will get the most out of this document if you go through it with your IT manager or current vendor.
 

A: Clarify What Results a City Expects from IT Investments

A city can run into problems when there is no strategy behind its IT investments. This lack of planning creates a reactionary “break-fix” type of approach that may create painful IT vulnerabilities in the City’s environment. Therefore, a city’s IT budget should, at a minimum, address and outline costs for:

  • Data Backup Strategy: How is the city’s data backed up?
  • Disaster Recovery: How soon will a city bring its network, servers, and user access back online when a disaster occurs?
  • Hardware + Warranty Contingency: What are a city’s hardware investments (servers, workstations, etc.) and support agreements? Additionally, what is the decommission schedule for hardware as it reaches end of life?
  • Internet Service Provider (ISP): Is it reliable and fast enough based on current usage?
  • IT Support and Maintenance: Are the hardware, applications, and end user needs including replacing dated hardware, patching and monitoring servers and applications, and supporting the end users as they have issues being met?
  • IT Consulting Projects: Are there technology offerings that can increase efficiency or decrease cost that could be implemented this budget year?
  • Software License + Support Purchases and Upgrades: Are any of our existing software applications no longer supported by the vendor or need to be upgraded? Are there additional software applications that could be implemented that can increase efficiency or decrease costs?
  • Telecom: Have we explored alternative solutions like voice over IP (VoIP) systems? Is our current voice provider cost competitive against others in the market?
  • Training: Does our staff know how to best leverage the current technology the city has in place to help them perform most effectively?
  • Staff: Are they being utilized in the most efficient manner? Do they need help?
Simply thinking through these items is a good start toward examining the various areas of IT that are utilized to drive specific results for a city and will give you a good start for identifying strategic risks and weaknesses, if they exist. Instead of a reactionary budget, plan for a proactive budget that eliminates problems, and saves time and money. Take a moment to think these questions through before continuing on to the next part.
 

B: Identify If a City is Overspending or Underspending.

If you examined your city’s IT strategy and found the results to be lacking, the next step should be to have your internal IT team or a trusted vendor to perform an IT cost analysis. This report will give you an idea of how much you are spending compared to the expected results, hopefully exposing areas for improvement. Once you know both of these items, you can consult the steps below to see where you fit:

  1. Poor Results + Low IT Spending: Additional spending is probably needed.

    However, if you’ve been asked to cut the budget, you may not be able to spend more on IT until you’ve found other areas to cut. Look for hidden ways that the City is spending more money than it should, and factor that into the cost cuts. For example:

    • Are there manual processes that could be automated?
    • Is there equipment failure that results in lost productivity and/or costly emergency repair?
    • Is there loss of revenue due to inadequate data backups?
    • Are there delays in processing due to outdated equipment?

    As an example, the City Council at one of our customers asked the Public Safety Department a few simple operational questions that, due to the highly manual nature of the operations, took a great deal of manpower to research and answer. This resulted in fewer officers on the street and exposed a major area for improved efficiency. Because of this, our client was able to justify some automation purchases for the Police Department that greatly simplified future efforts. The paradox is that sometimes in order to spend less overall, you must initially spend more.

  2. Poor Results + Average IT Spending: Look for ways to replace existing processes with low-cost alternatives that perform better or equal to current solutions. For example:
    • A disaster recovery service may be cheaper than tape backups that require daily support
    • Eliminate capital hardware expenses by seeking a hardware-as-a-service vendor that will provide workstations and servers for a monthly fee
    • Eliminate capital software license expenses for purchases and upgrades by seeking a software-as-a-service vendor that will provide software for a monthly fee
    • An outside service might help the City’s IT team maintain the network in a more cost effective manner without having to hire additional staff.

    There are many products and services today that might be appropriate for your city and even manage your infrastructure for a fraction of your current costs. Transferring some functions to a vendor could provide the immediate results you need as well as ensure that the City’s environment stays current with the latest technology.
  3. Poor Results + High IT Spending: This indicates that there may be some serious and out-of-control problems in the city’s IT environment due either to poor management, poor technology choices, or both. This is a good indication that an audit by an objective third-party may be necessary.

    The auditor you select should be an expert consultant in process improvement and have experience with the technology in your environment. At the end of the audit, the city should be presented with a clear, detailed, and objective plan that can be taken to any vendor to perform the suggested work.

Even if the expected results are positive, complacency can be the single greatest threat to day-to-day IT operations. Here are some budget recommendations when your expected results are positive:
  1. Good Results + Low IT Spending: If things seem to be operating well on a minimal IT budget, improvements have most likely been introduced that have brought costs down. This is where all cities should strive to be (even though it might seem impossible!)
  2. Good Results + Average IT Spending: If everything seems to be satisfactory, the key to cutting the IT budget is innovation. Efforts should focus on looking for high-value, low-cost products and services to replace existing ones. You may have already established a routine of continual improvement and have ideas on what can be done to reduce costs. If not, begin such a program as part of a cost-cutting effort.
  3. Good Results + High IT Spending: In this situation, your organization might be in the middle of a major IT investment such as a software implementation. However, if no major IT investment is underway, then cost cutting will focus on “trimming fat.” Review the city’s IT budget line-by-line, department-by-department and expect your IT department to justify each expense. Explore lower-cost alternatives to any suspect line item. There are many technologies designed to both improve performance and reduce operating costs such as:

    • Cloud Computing allows access to systems and applications from anywhere at anytime in a pay-as-you-go model and can be managed internally or externally.
    • Tapelessbackup services eliminate the need for expensive backup hardware and tapesthat require daily maintenance.
    • DisasterRecovery Services allow complete restoration of critical services after acatastrophic failure in as little as 24 - 48 hours.
    • RemoteManaged Network Services allow monitoring, alerting, patching, maintenance,and antivirus services on all hardware so that problems can be rapidly identified and addressed.
    • Softwareas a Service replaces costly software license fees and maintenance with alow monthly fee.
    • Hardwareas a Service replaces very costly and quickly obsolete computer hardwarepurchases with a rental-based hardware model. Similar to how a utility bill works, the city pays only for what it uses in a given month, throttled up and down as staff changes over time.
    • Virtualdesktops and servers replace PCs and servers by providing similar computingfor a low monthly fee and saving on energy costs.

Creating an IT budget should be much more than a handful of line items in the overall city budget. Research, critical thinking, and detailed planning are necessary in order to create a budget that allows the city to offer critical services to its citizens, keep costs in check, and innovate well into the future.
Friday, June 12, 2009
Allen Koronkowski, Practice Manager: Projects
The ZDnet Emerging Tech blog has an interesting post on a talk about Government 2.0 given by Google’s Andrew McLaughlin during the Web 2.0 Expo in San Diego this week. He discusses a number of government-related web 2.0 applications and how they allow governments to do work that once cost millions of dollars for an estimated 1/10 of the cost. There are some great examples here, but my personal favorite is “Virtual Alabama” which is:

A 3D, geo-tagged application that leverages existing state asset imagery and infrastructure data into a visualization tool. It is open to the public and supports 550 agencies.

A great read for anyone interested in the cutting edge of government technology.

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