CitySmart Blog

Wednesday, August 07, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

It’s fair to say that most cities must operate with tight budgets. Making any investment requires a lot of prioritizing and debate. As one of the more expensive investments on a city’s list, information technology often needs to prove its value. No matter how positive the benefits IT investments can bring, the monetary value must show itself too.

Historically, IT has always had trouble proving its value. That’s because, on the surface, it is an operational cost. Operational costs tend to look like cost centers that don’t save you money or provide a return on your investment, despite being necessary costs. At the same time, just because IT’s value isn’t immediately obvious doesn’t mean it can’t be shown.

Whether you’re evaluating existing IT investments or considering new ones, the following areas can help you understand how to get the most value.

  1. Saving money and slashing waste. The most obvious area to start is the one that cities like the most. Cities often do not realize how much they may be wasting on website hosting, data center costs, or telecom. IT changes so fast, and one of the rules that tends to stay true is that technology gets better as costs go down. It’s good to have an IT expert evaluate new technologies against your existing technologies at least annually in order to find ways to reduce costs. If you haven’t audited your IT in years, then you are probably ripe for saving some money.
  2. Insurance and disaster protection. Probably the most important source of IT value are any technologies that help you avert disaster. Primarily, this will be your overall data backup and disaster recovery strategy. Lost data or failure to submit to open records requests can lead to expensive lawsuits, fines, and investigations. On an operational level, it can be expensive to recover lost data that resulted from inadequate data backup. The cost of dealing with such disasters is monumental. Compared to the minimal costs of a good data backup and disaster recovery solution, the investment definitely pays off—even if you avert just one disaster.
  3. Opportunity cost. This is where you think you’re saving money by not spending money on basic technologies, but you’re actually losing money. You might not have a website, which affects how citizens and businesses perceive your city. You might use obsolete hardware, which means that your city cannot use modern software and Internet applications. You might use a free email address, which opens you up to legal and compliance issues. By underinvesting in critical IT, you are actually losing money by hindering progress or failing to put the best face on your city.
  4. Productivity and improving citizen services. Citizens expect their taxpayer dollars to help continually improve city services. Attracting and retaining talented city staff means giving them the tools to help work on important municipal projects. By investing in the right hardware, software, and infrastructure, you enable your city staff to accomplish more. Department projects are doable. People can find documents easily. City staff can collaborate and work remotely. And citizens can take advantage of the end result such as online payments, videos of city council meetings, or online forums and social media to express their views and concerns.
  5. Return on investment tied to long-term city projects. Most ambitiously, information technology proves its worth by helping city leaders figure out what long-term projects are doable. Having a skilled IT expert at the table when your city discusses revamping an accounting system, building a new website, or digitizing public records helps you understand solutions that may be cheaper than you imagined. Sometimes, it may seem like a project will be cost-prohibitive, but IT will tell you otherwise. On the other hand, IT can also warn you from delving into projects that might be overly expensive or wasteful.

If you’re needing to make the business case for IT at your city, or if you’ve been skeptical of investing too much in IT, we recommend starting with area number 1 above and working your way down to number 5. By gaining some easy wins first, you are often better able to justify additional investments in the future if you’ve shown that you’ve already saved your city money.

The most important point is that you need to see how the cost of IT is outweighed by the value of IT. It’s one thing if you reject a “nice-to-have” piece of software because it isn’t a fit at this time. But if you reject things like data backup or have your employees working on old, unsupported operating systems (like Windows XP), then you’re not tying needed IT investments to their value. You’re just looking at cost. Look at value too. That’s the way you will truly be cost conscious.

To talk more about IT value, please contact us.

Friday, August 02, 2013
John Miller, Network Infrastructure Manager

While larger cities may have already populated their websites with content, we routinely encounter many smaller cities that are creating website content for the first time. Either these cities have had no website or they’ve used a very outdated website in a purely functional way for many years.

In the past, we’ve talked website design, templates, and content management systems, along with also discussing the various audiences that cities need to address. But on a more granular level, cities also seek guidance about the kind of content they need to create—page by page.

Content for each city will be customized and different, but there are some general guidelines about what cities should write for each page. We’ll cover key pages over the course of a series of blog posts, starting with the most important page—your homepage.

Since your homepage is the most trafficked page and the place where people will most likely get their first impression of your city, you need to make sure you have the right content to meet a variety of needs. Here are five essential pieces of content you need for your city’s homepage.

  1. Easy to use navigation. Since people will be looking for content, you need to make sure your navigation tabs (either at the top or sides of your website) easily steer people to various areas of your website. Don’t clutter your navigation or have too many confusing names for sections of your website. A good example would be tabs such as News, Events, Departments, Mayor and City Council, and Services. You might even have tabs for audiences, such as Citizens and Businesses.
  2. Services information. Make sure that service information is easily accessed. We’ll talk about marketing and public relations below, but do not forget that most citizens will be using your website in a functional manner. They don’t necessarily want to see pretty pictures or videos—they want answers to questions. Make sure that common service questions are highlighted and that citizens can find links to tax, fine, license, utility, and other payment information.
  3. Events and meetings. Listing events and meetings in a calendar or simple list does two things. First, it provides transparency about city business such as city council meetings, public function events that the mayor is attending, and other government meetings of interest to civic-minded citizens. Second, an events calendar also shows the city’s economic and community vitality. Listing public events such as farmers markets, new business openings, or holiday festivities is both informative and good public relations for the city.
  4. News, news, news. We’ve emphasized this kind of content in previous blog posts, but we’ll say it again: sharing regular news is one of the best signs of a city’s vitality. You are driving away businesses and future residents when it looks like your city has nothing going on—either from no news or a last news items dating from 2011. News items are all around you - new city initiatives, new businesses, business anniversaries and accomplishments, college and university activity, K-12 accomplishments, health and wellness initiatives, etc. The list is endless. You need at least one person staying on top of news items and regularly posting them to the homepage.
  5. Quality photography. While we stated above that pretty pictures aren’t everything, you still need to pay attention to your visual content. Consider a small investment in upgrading the visual quality of your website. Think about it. You’re making a first impression on a future resident or business researching your city. High quality photography of your city that highlights your downtown area or a scenic nearby landscape will have a greater impact on how people perceive your city than lower-resolution photos, generic clip art, or photos that are too small to see clearly.

If you start with these five elements, your homepage will go a long way toward doing the job it needs to do. If someone visited your city and arrived at City Hall for the first time, wouldn’t you greet them? Show them around? Talk to them about useful and relevant things? Tell them what’s best about your city? That’s what your homepage needs to do for online visitors.

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

Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

When cities finally take the leap and start using a new document management system, many questions arise that have nothing to do with the technology. While document management systems have a lot of slick features and benefits, they don’t solve your business process and policy issues concerning your documents.

While the art of document management can become extremely technical and complicated, especially if you have a large volume of documents that need categorizing and storing, we have provided some questions that will at least help get you thinking about where to start.

  1. What documents do I have? Before throwing documents into your new document management system, use this situation as an opportunity to assess what documents you have. Where are they stored? How many do you have? Which are the most important? The most used? Get a sense of the type and quantity of documents you have. If you have a large volume of documents, you may want to perform a document audit.
  2. How will I organize my documents? After examining what you have, you may discover a lot of junk that is outdated, obsolete, or worthless. Get rid of any documents that do not have a purpose. For those remaining documents, begin deciding how you will organize them in your document management system. If you don’t have many documents, you may want to organize them into simple folders. If you have a large volume of documents, you may consider organizing with metadata.
  3. Who will maintain your documents? While your IT staff or vendor might provide some technical help and assistance with your document management, they are not the people who should be deciding how best to continually organize your documents, ensure that city staff use the document management system appropriately, and retire documents on schedule. Someone should oversee your document management maintenance from a business perspective and make improvements to the user experience over time.
  4. How long will you keep your documents? If laws dictate that you only need to keep documents up to a certain time, then make sure those documents are deleted when that time is up. For less legally bound documents such as policy and procedure manuals, software guides, city staff memos, or other content that simply becomes outdated, make sure expiration dates are set so that these documents can be deleted or archived on a certain schedule. It’s best to keep your document management system full of fresh, relevant content.
  5. What is your process for deleting and disposing of documents? Since government documents can undergo high scrutiny, you need to make sure you have a clear transparent process for disposing of electronic documents. You cannot just hit delete. Consult with an expert contractor or IT vendor to make sure that you are deleting and disposing of documents effectively and appropriately, following any legal requirements. You don’t ever want to say you don’t have a document anymore, and then find out it was actually still on someone’s hard drive or on a server somewhere.

Acquiring a new document management system is exciting. It provides centralized storage, protection from disaster, better organizational capability, and easier search tools. But a mess of documents transferred to a document management system will still be just a mess of documents if you don’t think through the questions above. If you take the opportunity to review your business processes before transferring your documents, then you will better maximize your document management system investment.

To talk more about document management system best practices, please contact us.

Thursday, July 25, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

Buying used products is great for many areas of life. Used cars, books, or furniture are usually good investments and relatively low risk as long as the quality is still high and the items can be used for a long time. Used servers and workstations are an exception to this rule. They are not only bad investments but also dangerous investments.

Why dangerous? It may seem like you are saving money by purchasing used hardware. After all, you might acquire newer model servers and workstations that you might not normally afford—for only a fraction of the cost. And as long as these machines seem to run properly, it can feel like a great deal.

Here are some dangers that accompany used server and workstation purchases, and why you should avoid such investments.

  1. Used machines are usually obsolete. Unlike used cars or furniture, information technology changes quickly. By the time you purchase used hardware, those machines are often obsolete. You’re getting the tail end of a hardware investment that you will have to replace soon anyway. Part of a responsible technology investment is using machines that meet current user and software needs. Purposely buying hardware that is lagging in modern features and functions is not a smart use of money.
  2. Hardware lifecycles are 3-5 years. People tend to overestimate the lifespans of servers and workstations, thinking they should hang onto them until they are no longer usable. However, computers have a typical lifespan of 3-5 years - maximum. If you buy a quality new workstation and maintain it properly, you can expect it to last as long as 5 years. A new bargain-basement workstation will usually last only 3 years. Used hardware lasts even less time than a new bargain-basement workstation. That means your machine will be worthless in less than 3 years.
  3. There is no “Carfax” for computers. Perhaps one day we will see the equivalent of Carfax for servers and workstations. Until then, you will not know the history of the used machines that you’re buying. You’ve worked with computers, and you’ve seen others work with them. You see on a day-to-day basis how much “abuse” servers and workstations take—physical damage, wear and tear, software installed and uninstalled, viruses, spyware, etc. Has a glass of water ever spilled on your used machine? Has it been infected with malware? What was the machine primarily used for? You don’t know, and that’s a huge risk. And keep in mind that most used servers and workstations are not professionally wiped clean of past data.
  4. You may be using illegally purchased software. We see many people unknowingly using illegally purchased software on used equipment. If you’re using an unauthorized copy of the operating system (such as Windows) or any software installed on the server or workstation, then you are liable for the illegal use of that software. Cities need to be careful and use only authorized, licensed versions of software so that they are not pirating or stealing.
  5. Your total cost of the hardware investment usually negates the savings. You may buy your cheap used servers and workstations only to find that they need additional memory, storage, software, or peripherals. As we noted above, your hardware is already lagging behind technologically, so you will need to invest in upgrades to make sure you can use current versions of software, browse the Internet without issues, and make sure you have enough room to store files and data. You may even need to buy items like monitors or keyboards if they don’t come with the machine. After these additional purchases and upgrades, your so-called savings suddenly becomes even less.

Buying used hardware is risky even for individuals. There are many horror stories about computers purchased on Craigslist or even from friends where too many things went wrong and ruined the purchase. For cities (and any professional organization), the risks are even greater. And the investment is entirely unsound.

Budget tightening should not lead to desperation or shortcuts. Plan out what hardware you need, understand the best investment to maximize over 3-5 years, and buy new. New machines give you the highest quality, the most modern equipment, the right software and peripherals included, and the best bang for your buck.

To talk more about buying hardware, please contact us.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

A recent research report from Veeam (a provider of virtualization and backup solutions) points out a number of problems that small and medium businesses are having with data backup and recovery. Since a city’s IT needs often parallel the needs of small and medium businesses, we think that some of these numbers are worth highlighting.

  • 1 in 6 (17%) data backup recoveries do not work.
  • Only 8% of small and medium businesses test their data backup.
  • e-Discovery is too expensive for 65% of small and medium businesses.

As SMBs are struggling with these issues, our experience shows that cities struggle with these issues even worse. We find similar patterns in the quality of data backup, the lack of rigor and testing, and an ability for cities to respond to open records requests effectively.

Using this excellent report as a foundation, we wanted to draw out some points that we think are relevant for cities when they confront similar data backup issues.

  1. Struggles with the cost of data backup management, licensing, and storage. Just like SMBs, cities struggle with the cost of data backup. Depending on the solution they are using, it often takes IT staff or vendor time to manage a solution, the software licenses are expensive, and the data storage costs often force cities to limit what they can back up. Data backup costs have come down as the technology has gotten better. We recommend that cities look at solutions that take advantage of cloud backup (which requires less management time), monthly subscription costs (instead of annual or multi-year software licensing), and unlimited data storage options.
  2. Improperly setting up and maintaining a data backup solution. Just like SMBs, many cities sadly try to set up and maintain their own data backup solution—with mixed results. While data backup management costs from vendors might seem like something to skip, you don’t want to try to do it all yourself. Many cities use backup agents but fail to manage them properly, leading to slow and failing data backups. If your data backups seem to take too much time and you cannot guarantee that they will work, then you need a professional to handle them.
  3. Testing and auditing your data backup. While knowing only 8% of businesses test their data backup is shocking, this shock also applies to cities. Many cities still do not regularly test and audit their data backup. That means when a server failure or disaster hits, they risk losing important data forever—financial data, public safety data, online payment data, etc. Testing should take place at least quarterly and simulate a disaster. You should pass that test with flying colors and have audit documentation to prove it. City data is just too important for anything less.
  4. Simplifying your IT environment to help reduce data backup needs. One interesting aspect of the report is its acknowledgement of how IT complexity affects your data backup needs and costs. If you have not performed an IT asset audit and simplified your environment, then you may have too many (and possibly redundant) servers and workstations, too many applications and software that you’re managing, and too many “do it yourself” IT management tools that often conflict and confuse each other. We often untangle complex IT environments by reducing hardware, moving certain software applications into the cloud, and simplifying the overall management of a city’s data and IT environment. This simplification makes it much easier to back up data.
  5. Understanding the trend that small organizations now have large organization IT needs. In the Veeam report, its President and CEO says, “More and more, SMBs are being subjected to the same IT challenges and business pressures as large enterprises. As such, any disruption to their IT infrastructure can have severe consequences.” Smaller cities may have gotten away with less technology a few years ago, but with high-speed Internet so prevalent, the Internet now a source of primary information for people, and the demands for modern business requiring fast information processing and response, it’s becoming less of an excuse for smaller cities not to have basic enterprise technology. At a bare minimum, cities are expected to have a functional website, document management that allows for easy search and retrieval, a professional customized email address, and a data backup solution that insures that data will not be lost.

Again, while the Veeam report focused on SMBs, cities also need to pay attention to these trends. An enterprise technology environment with cost-effective and tested data backup is not out of reach. However, cities are stuck with or have been burned by vendors over the last 5-10 years who have gouged them with the high costs of annual fees, licenses, and add-ons to their services.

But even in the last two years, IT has changed drastically and the quality standard has risen. Cities need to reevaulate their current data backup solutions and really look at the cost, current assets, and maintenance. If any of the above points seem to indicate any gaps, then it’s time to address those gaps so that you can increase your data backup quality while reducing costs.

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

Thursday, July 18, 2013
John Miller, Network Infrastructure Manager

Whether cities are pressured to buy hardware onsite or at a data center, vendors continue to assert that cities need to own their own hardware rather than rent it. While this used to make sense in the early days of the Internet before social media, mobile technology, and cloud computing became the norm, old habits die hard. Many cities unfortunately pay for expensive hardware that is overkill for their needs and budget.

Before considering new hardware purchases, cities first need to consider hybrid cloud solutions depending on their needs.

  • Public cloud - This is renting like a utility. You pay a monthly fee and can turn it off anytime. Your servers are hosted at one or more data centers, and may share space with other client data.
  • Private cloud - This is still renting, but you are renting individual machines for your own use. Your servers are hosted at your city or at a data center, and are kept separate from any other client data.
  • Dedicated hosting - This is the traditional method of how servers work, either residing at your city or at a data center. These are servers that you purchase.

We’ve noticed that many vendors are not offering cities these options. Instead, they are pressuring cities to only buy dedicated hardware for each software application instead of exploring hardware-as-a-service through the public or private cloud.

Why would vendors not tell you about these other options?

  1. Vendors want their equipment on dedicated hardware and isolated from other software applications. Understandably, it’s easier for vendors to manage their own equipment and software when it’s on a dedicated machine. Since they often need to access machines to perform upgrades and repairs, they tend to frown upon any hardware configuration that deviates from a single dedicated machine that you own.
  2. Vendors want you to purchase hardware from them directly because they make more money that way. Vendors enjoy a nice markup when you buy hardware from them. This includes money made from:

    - You purchasing the hardware at the vendor’s price, instead of the special state and local government price.

    - Bulk add-ons such as backup hardware and licensing. (Think of how car dealers make most of their money off of special features rather than the car itself. It’s the same idea.)

    - Professional services labor to perform the hardware installation.

  3. Vendors sell warranties and promote aggressive hardware lifecycles so they can keep replacing your equipment every time a new version of their application comes out. While many cloud software applications are wising up and simply providing upgrades as part of your ongoing service, there are still many vendors who make a lot of money the old-fashioned way by forcing you to buy new hardware too frequently.

A lot of municipal software still works primarily with the dedicated hardware model. As an example, we recently saw that the latest version of a particular kind of city software will cost cities about $15,000 in fees—before even considering the actual software licensing costs! This approach to always buying hardware is not sustainable economically, and these vendors will eventually need to relent and offer other options.

On the other hand, some purely cloud-based hardware models, where you’re essentially 100% renting, may not best fit your city’s website and software application hosting needs. However, there are hybrid or customized cloud offerings from vendors that work just like servers deployed onsite. The price points for these offerings continue to drop, so it’s time that your city started looking at these options. Otherwise, you’re just paying unnecessary fees to vendors and losing money.

So, to debunk the myth, buying is NOT better than renting. To talk about hybrid cloud options and hardware-as-a-service in more detail, please contact us.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

One of the main reasons cities utilize IT vendors is to help with IT talent or staffing shortages. In some cities, there might not be enough IT talent to hire locally, or the city’s budget would be strained with the salary required to hire an IT staff that covers all of its needs. An IT vendor can be a much more cost-effective solution that provides a city with all of the IT talent and resources they require.

But cities must also challenge the decision to use an IT vendor. Over the years, we’ve heard many questions about our people and expertise. Why us? Why any vendor? And while we get plenty of questions about the technology, the questions that matter most in the end are about the people.

Based on our experience, we offer up some observations and insights about what people-focused questions to ask when you’re evaluating IT vendors.

  1. They have experience with cities. While information technology can have many similarities across industries, cities are a specialized niche. There are common types of software, particular needs of departments such as public safety, and various demands such as open records requests and state retention policies that usually throw IT generalists off balance. Having many years of city experience helps IT engineers understand your environment quickly and lessen the learning curve.
  2. They have business acumen. While some junior IT engineers might stay extremely focused, most experienced IT vendors will have basic business acumen. That doesn’t mean you need to hire IT vendors whose staff have MBAs or who have owned businesses. It just means that your vendor’s IT engineers should always think cost-benefit when evaluating your IT. It’s when your IT vendor doesn’t think about cost that bad financial decisions are made and money is wasted.
  3. They focus on IT and wear one hat. We understand that smaller cities must make do with little to no IT resources, and that means giving certain vendors a wide range of responsibilities. While not ideal, at least an overtaxed IT vendor is focused on IT. What we see and discourage is when a general vendor helps not only with IT but other handy work. Your website developer or software vendor should not also be your IT vendor on the side. Despite a person’s natural ability, that lack of focus is not beneficial. On the flip side, your IT vendor should not also be handling non-IT tasks.
  4. They stay on top of technology innovation. While cities do not need to be bleeding-edge, their IT vendors do need to investigate, research, and embrace valuable new innovations in technology. We’ve seen IT vendors over the years tell cities things like, “I don’t think we’re ready for the cloud.” Or we see websites that are still run by a webmaster and require IT to make any changes. Understandably, many IT vendors fear change because they feel it threatens their security (like thinking the cloud will leave them with nothing to do). So, they don’t rock the boat or they use fear (such as questioning the security of every new innovation) to defeat any new initiatives.
  5. They have curiosity and passion. We had to include one intangible that is hard to quantify but impossible to do without. The best IT vendors, no matter what experience level, delve into IT problems because they are curious. They want to find answers to your questions, and they enjoy solving problems. IT vendors that bring an indescribable attitude to their work, those who really get into what they’re doing, tend to also be the ones who learn about your city the quickest and contribute the most.

While easy to talk about, it’s unfortunately difficult to find such IT vendors. When evaluating IT vendors, be picky. Look for vendors that combine municipal, business, and technical experience and who embrace change. By setting the bar high, you benefit from having the right IT vendor helping you.

To talk more about evaluating IT vendors, please contact us.

Friday, July 12, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

When we recently started offering unlimited data storage as part of IT in a Box, some cities asked us how this was possible. After all, data must reside somewhere and take up finite space. How can it make sense from a business standpoint to offer unlimited storage?

In this post, we’ll take you through various historical factors that have helped data storage evolve along with some reasons why there is an increased business need for unlimited data storage. As you will see, we are at a point in the evolution of information technology where cities no longer have to worry about limited (and expensive) data storage space.

Moore’s (and Kryder’s) Law. At the heart of understanding why unlimited data storage space is possible, you must understand the basic premise of Moore’s and Kryder’s Laws. Moore’s Law famously says that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit (the kind used in your computers) doubles in performance every 18 months, and Kryder’s Law applies a similar law toward disk storage density. Just like with circuit technology, we’ve also seen data storage capacity increase exponentially. This technological evolution also lowers the cost of data storage. It’s why when you buy a new computer, tablet, or smartphone, it seems to store more data while costing you less than a machine you bought a few years ago.

High-speed Internet. Until recently, the limitations of high-speed Internet affected how much data you could use and access. But with high-speed Internet becoming more ubiquitous even in rural areas, you can quickly access more data than ever. Smartphone and tablet technology has all but caught up too, with people accessing their email, Internet, and rich media while on the go. As high speed Internet access improves, the need for data storage grows as people need places to store their files, documents, and content.

Consumer-driven competition. While businesses obviously use more resources than individuals, early innovations in consumer-driven applications have often led to businesses also taking advantage of those innovations. For example, Gmail shocked everyone when it came out, offering 1 GB of storage for users when they were accustomed to only a few MB from other free email providers. As people began to take more photos and videos with phones, they needed places to store and back up that data, driving the creation of services ranging from Dropbox to Carbonite. Those competitive wars have helped increase data storage capability and reduce its costs.

Rich media now a must, not a nice to have. The expectations for rich media - video, audio, animation, presentations, etc. - have grown as the Internet becomes more sophisticated. As services such as YouTube grew over the past five years, businesses started to understand the power of using rich media to differentiate their content from competitors. To use rich media, you need storage space. Today, the appetite for rich media continues to grow - along with the storage space to match.

Cloud computing. The scale of cloud computing - with thousands of servers spread across many geographically dispersed data centers - has brought down the cost of data storage. Onsite hardware (with limited data storage space) is much harder to maintain and will be more expensive. It’s more cost effective to store your data in the cloud, and technology innovation keeps increasing cloud data storage capacity and reducing the cost. As a result, storing your data in the cloud becomes a no-brainer when cloud vendors can offer you the best quality and lowest cost when they operate on such a large scale.

Obviously, one last thing that makes unlimited data storage possible is knowing the human limits of how much data is actually needed. Most cities, even those with lots of videos or documents, will not come close to creating an abnormal amount of data. Whether it’s for data storage or backup, we’re now at a point where a typical city that has a need for growth and doesn’t want to worry about storage limits can comfortably store all of the data they want without any worries. Only very large cities with highly unusual data storage needs might require special customization.

If you’d like to talk more about unlimited data storage, please contact us.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

Having covered three PCI DSS compliance topics in past posts (vulnerability management, data protection, and network fundamentals), we now move on to authorization. While past discussions have focused on what you can do to secure your networks, it’s all useless if the wrong people have access to your systems.

Preventing unauthorized access to online payment information is extremely important because you are responsible for the protection of extremely sensitive citizen information. That includes credit card numbers, financial history, and even social security numbers. If the wrong person accesses that information, maliciously or innocently, you can find yourself legally liable.

Let’s look at some different aspects of authorization that need to be covered if you’re going to offer online payments.

  1. Vet your front-end administrative access. Probably the most obvious tip, you need to plan out who has access to what information. While most front-line employees will be responsible and ethical, it’s not uncommon for lower salary or entry-level employees to turn over more rapidly than higher-level positions. Since the requirements for hiring an administrative employee are much less than for a city manager, you cannot give these employees access to sensitive information. Work with IT and your online payment vendor to restrict access to sensitive information such as setting up dashboards that only show need-to-know information to employees.
  2. Vet your back-end administrative access. Just as importantly, you want to make sure your IT staff, IT vendor, and online payment vendor are the right people to have back-end access to your data. Have all technicians with access to your data been given criminal background checks? Have you met your technicians? Do they come highly recommended from other cities? Remember, these are the people who not only can look at this data but also control access. If they are not experienced or ethical enough, they should not have access to such sensitive information.
  3. Strengthen user access to online payment information. Whether it’s a citizen, administrative staff, or IT staff accessing online payment information, make sure you strengthen passwords and other forms of authentication. Consider using 2- or 3-factor authentication, which makes it harder for hackers and other unauthorized users to access an account. These forms of authentication could be passwords, captchas, a mobile confirmation code, a passkey, or some other extra authentication layer. Make them easy enough so that people don’t get frustrated when accessing information.
  4. Strengthen physical security. Often overlooked, physical security is an important element of preventing unauthorized access to information. Disgruntled employees or vendors with either IT knowledge or city password information should not be able to access machines once they have left their job or been terminated. Sensitive servers and computers should not be out in the open, sitting in unlocked rooms, or unmonitored during busy workdays. Security cameras, locked rooms, and physical authentications (such as key card access to machines with online payment information) can help prevent malicious behavior from someone entering your buildings and offices.
  5. Revisit and review policy. Often, unauthorized access to online payment information can take place when administrative and technical authorization is weak. If I call up your city, pretend to be someone else, and ask to get my financial information about a payment, what questions will I be confronted with? Am I asked any security questions to confirm that I am who I am? You don’t want your policy to be too overbearing, but at the same time employees should not give out sensitive information over the phone or through email without confirming the identity of the person on the other end. In addition, both IT and non-IT employees need to be clear on policies about not giving away usernames, passwords, or sensitive information to third parties without clear authentication.

Authorizing someone to access sensitive online payment data covers administrative policy, technical know-how, and physical security. All need to be considered and working together to make sure that only authorized people have access to online payment information. Work with your IT staff and vendors to both test and audit your overall security, including authorization. Look for gaps that may make it easy for people to gain access to your data, and shore up those gaps with a stronger information security policy, better IT network security, and more comprehensive physical security.

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

Wednesday, July 03, 2013
John Miller, Network Infrastructure Manager

An operating system such as Windows XP can become so familiar that it seems unnecessary to change it. In fact, about 37% of desktops still use Windows XP. Many employees are not technologists who often seek the latest and greatest technology solutions. Non-technologists are like most people—you get used to something and become comfortable with it.

But there are many dangers to clinging to an operating system or outdated software. We’ll use Windows XP as an example, since so many cities use it and it’s been tagged by Microsoft for end-of-life in April 2014. When it reaches end-of-life, that means cities continuing to use Windows XP create huge security and liability risks.

Let’s cover some reasons why sticking with Windows XP will hurt your city.

  1. Microsoft will no longer support Windows XP. After April 2014, Microsoft will stop supporting Windows XP. That means when something breaks or goes wrong, there will be no one Microsoft-certified who is guaranteed to fix your problems. Think about how many Windows XP issues your users have and what it means if Microsoft no longer has your back in supporting you in fixing those issues.
  2. Microsoft will no longer release security updates for Windows XP. One of the most important features of supported software is that you receive important security updates from the vendor. For example, Microsoft regularly provides patches through Windows Update that cover security flaws and potential breaches. When those security updates stop, your Windows XP software becomes more at risk— like an abandoned house that no one is keeping up.
  3. Microsoft stops ensuring that software (even their own) is compatible with Windows XP. If you keep using Windows XP beyond April 2014, you may even find that software (even Microsoft Office!) stops working properly. That’s because vendors will not accommodate their software to work with such ancient platforms as Windows XP. Even if you’re using Microsoft software, that doesn’t mean it will work with Windows XP. Microsoft wants you using newer operating systems such as Windows 7 and 8, and you’ll find more and more that software you want to use simply doesn’t work on Windows XP.
  4. Windows XP cannot handle the system resources of newer computers. Newer computers are equipped with very advanced software applications needing lots of memory, storage, and other important system resources. Windows XP was built for the days of 2001, not 2013. When you purchase a new computer and yet install Windows XP onto it, you will find that a person cannot use most of the common resources and software on their computer.
  5. Windows XP is harder to manage, especially for mobile devices. Windows XP debuted in 2001. In technology time, that might as well be 100 years. In that time, the IT community has improved the way an operating system is managed on the back end. More current operating systems like Windows 7 and 8 benefit from an easy-to-use management interface. This makes the cost of managing your IT environment much lower for IT staff or vendors. In addition, Windows XP was not built for a high-speed Internet, cloud computing, teleworking, and the mobile world. As your employees work remote or need support on mobile devices, you will find yourself flailing more and more if you’re still trying to use Windows XP.

Remember that technology—hardware or software—is not like most things a business would buy. Buildings, cars, office equipment, and furniture can all last for many many years. Software such as Windows XP not only gets obsolete quicker, but it also becomes more and more of a risk when you keep it way beyond its shelf life. If Microsoft stops supporting it, that’s a sign you’ve kept it too long.

If you need one last reason to consider, then think about compliance and cyber liability. If you get hacked and your information is stolen because you were clinging to an unsupported operating system, then you will have a lot of legal questions to answer when people start piecing together what happened.

To talk more about updating aging software, please contact us.

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