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Thursday, February 13, 2014
Alicia Klemola, Account Manager

While larger cities benefit from having procurement offices to spend time researching, selecting, and negotiating with vendors, smaller cities can feel at a disadvantage when procuring items—especially technology products and services. And even procurement directors can have trouble keeping up with the latest hardware, software, and technology solutions.

Despite the overwhelming technical aspects of technology procurement, we’ve found through our experience that there are some basic tips that help cities get the best bang for their buck. Even if you’re not a technical expert, these tips can help you better prepare when you’re ready to invest in technology.

  1. Spend time defining what you need. It’s easy to just think “I need a computer” and go to a retail store to pick up one. Or to think that you know exactly what kind of software you need when you put out an RFP. However, we find that it helps to define what you need from a business point of view before starting to shop for a solution. What business problem do you need solved? What specific capabilities are currently lacking in your current situation? What capabilities do you need? If you can’t invest in everything you need at once, what are the priorities? Asking these kinds of questions helps you define your business problem and reduce the temptation of an impulse or gut purchase.
  2. Shop around and know the industry. This is where your IT staff or vendor comes in handy. You need someone with extensive knowledge of technology to do some shopping. An IT professional will stick to your requirements, understand when vendors are blowing smoke or distracting you with unnecessary features, and ask technical questions that you may overlook. All of this information will affect the price. Since the B2B technology industry is so competitive, starting prices are often ripe for negotiation. When you shop around, never view a price as final (unless it’s a clear-cut price listed in black and white on a vendor’s website).
  3. Know your government pricing. Government pricing isn’t always obviously apparent on major vendor websites and especially not when you shop retail. Take advantage of special discounts for local government offered by major hardware, software, and technology vendors. Sometimes it can be tough to navigate vendor websites to find pricing for specific contracts, select the right menu options that apply to your situation, and understand what’s specially priced and what’s not. Make sure your IT or procurement expert is able to figure out the best pricing for your city.
  4. Don’t just settle on lowest price. Technology is not like buying pens. If three pen vendors are in the running and one has the lowest price, you probably don’t risk a whole lot from buying the lower priced pens. With information technology, we’ve seen so many cities over the years treat a handful of complex IT vendors as equal and simply choose the lowest priced vendor. During the RFP or purchasing process, make sure you evaluate each vendor rigorously against your business needs. What exactly are you getting? What is the vendor’s reputation and experience? Will your business needs be solved? Price is a factor in your final decision, but not the only factor.
  5. Look out for indirect costs. Not vetting technology properly leads to many risks such as indirect costs. One common example is a low-priced vendor offering “24/7” support and maintenance. In many cases, that means installing some monitoring software on your computers but billing you at a high rate when a problem actually occurs—leading to an unpredictable annual IT budget. Another example is when a software vendor sells you software on the premise that it’s easy to install. Once you purchase the software, “suddenly” you find that you need to buy another kind of software, or a server, or additional Internet bandwidth, when you thought you were just paying for the software. Indirect costs usually strike when non-IT professionals buy a technology solution and lack experience to detect major red flags or ask the right evaluation questions.

Technology purchases can be quite expensive and complex. That’s why it helps to follow the steps above to make sure you’re vetting each purchase rigorously and appropriately. With many city revenue streams in a precarious state, you want to make sure you’re investing in the right technology responsibly. You don’t want to become so paralyzed with fear that you don’t buy anything, but you need to have the right guidance and expertise on hand to help you step boldly forward in your investments that will help achieve your city’s vision and business goals.

To talk more about technology purchasing, please contact us.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Nathan Eisner, CMO

In a December 2013 report titled “Cyber Security: Pay Now or Pay More Later. A Report on Cyber Security in Kentucky,” author Adam Edelen discusses some of the biggest cyber security risks to government—including local government. Coming from the state of Kentucky’s auditor of public accounts, the recommendations are serious and worth a read.

I had the good fortune to be on a panel discussion with Adam back in October 2013 at the Kentucky League of Cities’s annual conference. Together, we talked about the risks of cyber security for cities. While we’ve shared our insights concerning the basics of cyber liability in a past blog post, we want to highlight some important and often overlooked cyber security points that Adam mentioned in his report.

  1. Human-related incidents are the most dangerous cyber security threats. While a natural disaster can be devastating to your data, at least it’s understandable, somewhat predictable, and rare. Contrast that with human beings who attempt to hack your systems every day, internal breaches of security from loose security policy or poor server configuration, and employees downloading malware and falling for phishing scams. Adam points out that the biggest security breach in recent years (at the State of South Carolina) resulted from an employee falling for an email phishing scam. If you don’t have the proper cyber security measures in place, you’re exposing your data to attack every single day from human-related threats.
  2. Improper server configurations leave open gaping security holes. Even if you have antivirus, antimalware, and antispam software, all of those efforts may not mean anything if your servers were set up incorrectly. These problems are often hard to detect because usually your “IT expert” set them up—whether they are an employee or vendor. Unless you get another IT expert to check on that person’s or vendor’s work, shabby configuration can go undetected for years. Adam’s report points out common issues from poor configuration such as open ports—the equivalent of having an unlocked door in your building that people can walk right through.
  3. Organizations often forget “less important” devices and access points. Your city might focus on security for servers, desktops, and laptops. That’s good. But cities and many other organizations often forget that devices such as printers, scanners, or wireless routers also provide potential ways for hackers to gain access to sensitive information. Remember, any machine that connects to your network is a target for exploitation. Your printers and scanners should be locked down with strong passwords just like your servers and computers. And since people do something called “war-driving” (i.e. looking for open wireless access points), you need to make sure your wireless routers are password-protected and all wireless data transmission is encrypted.
  4. Physical security is an overlooked aspect of cyber security. It’s good to focus on all of the technical aspects of cyber security such as encryption, firewalls, and server configuration. But what about the rooms that host your servers, computers, and other equipment? In many cases, anyone could walk into those rooms, access the servers and computers, and harm them either accidentally or maliciously. Only authorized people should have access to equipment that holds your most sensitive information.
  5. Authorized access to information is one of the most referenced points of the Kentucky report. While there were many variations of issues related to authorized and unauthorized access in Adam’s report, the common theme is to make sure that you clearly give the right people access to the right information. In too many cases, people have either inappropriate access to information or even have access to information after they’ve quit or been fired. Adam talks about paying attention to “logical security” which “involves, but is not limited to, restricting access to only authorized users, strong password settings, and appropriate levels of access granted to a user.”

While there are many more issues contained in the report, these are the five most important cyber security points that we feel are overlooked by cities. Sometimes, IT vendors can be accused or suspected of hyping up these same security issues in order to sell products and solutions. So when the state of Kentucky’s auditor of public accounts is discussing these cyber security threats in such detail as part of an official report, it’s an extra signal to take action and address these issues at your city.

The good news is that most of the security breaches that Adam mentions in the report could have been prevented by addressing some of the basic security measures above, along with implementing preventative tactics such as data backup, ongoing IT support, and antivirus software. In the report, Adam says, “When attacks against public sector entities are successful, citizens begin to lose confidence in government’s ability to protect the data it stores.” If you don’t want your citizens to lose confidence in your city, it’s best to address your cyber security risks now—rather than after an embarrassing disaster.

To talk about cyber security in more detail, please contact us.

Thursday, February 6, 2014
Nathan Eisner, CMO

If you’ve ever added or updated content to a website without doing anything technical, you’ve most likely used a content management system. The phase “content management system” (or CMS) is a bulky term for a tool that simply makes creating web content easy. After all, its goal is to remove technical barriers that prevent you from making changes to your city’s website.

However, confusion sometimes exists about what exactly a content management system is and does. In our latest article to help demystify a common technology term, we will explain what a content management system is and what it’s supposed to do for you.

Content Management Systems Give You Control Over Your Website

When websites first evolved, technical webmasters, coders, and software developers made any and all changes. In order to make changes yourself, you would need to know how to code, how to access the technical back end of your website, and how to upload and publish any changes. These were the days when technical professionals held the keys to your website. Making any changes without technical knowledge was all but impossible.

Of course, websites were also simpler back in the 1990s and early 2000s. But as websites grew more complex, they also began to mature and require more timely information. Updating simple news items or correcting an error on a website became more important to business but could take a long time if there were other requests in the webmaster’s queue. This situation was not sustainable as the Internet became a more critical source of communication for businesses and organizations.

While content management systems have existed since the 1990s, these early systems were technical and hard-to-use. By the mid-2000s, content management systems began to incorporate user-friendly features and remove many of the technical obstacles that prevented non-technical users from publishing website content. When blogging exploded in popularity in the mid-2000s, blog content management systems became so easy to use that those tools pressured website content management systems to replicate many of these easy-to-use features. Today, every organization with a website is, in a sense, a publisher. And it needs a CMS to quickly publish and update content.

Content Management Systems Help You Publish and Update Your Website

As an application, a content management system may either be part of your website or a third party application that needs to be integrated with your website. This content management system application gives you a back end interface connected to your website that allows you to create, upload, edit, publish, and update content without technical knowledge.

  • Create. Most content management systems offer an interface that works similarly to Microsoft Word. You decide to create a new piece of content and you can type or paste it right into the content management system. Just like a Word document, you can enter and format text, upload images, and even embed audio files or videos.
  • Publish. Content management systems put the publishing process in your hands. It’s best to set up permissions and workflows to ensure a quality publishing process. Once it’s clear who can publish and who needs to approve content, then it’s easy for people to add and update website content without any technical obstacles. And in case you accidentally publish something you shouldn’t, a content management system usually allows you to go back to a previous version of the website or web page.
  • Store. Your content management system also serves as a central repository for all of your website content including text, images, documents, videos, audio files, and other specialized items such as third party applications or code. Content usually consists of important fields such as page, page title, author, and tags to help identify and index content. This storage capability makes it easy to find and search for content on your website if you need to edit something.
  • Edit. If content needs correcting or updating, it’s easy to simply go into your content management system and make the changes. This is especially important for cities when incorrect information can be a liability, and also when communicating important, timely updates to citizens.

Additional Anytime/Anywhere Benefits

Beyond these features, modern content management systems are also often cloud-based. That means they are accessible from anywhere as long as you have an Internet connection. In the early days of the Internet, someone would have to be at the city and access a web server to make any changes. With a content management system, people can manage your website content if they are at work, at home, or traveling.

As long as you explore a website option that includes remote hosting in a data center or through the cloud, your content management system will likely have the benefit of remote access. Such ease-of-use also reduces the cost of having a technical professional having to help you create, publish, and update content. That’s because you are able to do it yourself.

While content management systems certainly are capable of much more than we’ve discussed here, these features are the core of why content management systems have become standard back end applications for websites. If you’re still using a webmaster or someone is coding your website updates, then you’re long overdue to explore some website options that offer a content management system.

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

Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Dave Mims, CEO

With so many recent advances in website design, email software, and social media, the importance of online website forms are often overlooked. Yet, they remain one of the best ways to capture information and serve citizens.

Online forms are not great for every situation. When used in the wrong place (such as having someone fill out a form to read an article), they can annoy people and cause them to leave your website. But for situations such as general contact submissions, specific customer service requests, and questions targeted for a department (rather than a specific person), online forms can be a great tool.

With online forms now easier to create and implement on websites more than ever before, we’ve shared some benefits that may get you thinking about how to use this helpful tool on your website.

  1. Collects data in a centralized place. If people are contacting a city employee or department via email, the emails can get scattered across a variety of people’s individual or group inboxes. Even a contact@city.com email address can be spread across a variety of people’s email accounts and the responsibility of answering can easily get lost. With online forms, you can collect citizen requests and communications in a centralized place. Then, it’s easy to find, assess if someone has responded, and close out the communication transparently.
  2. Ensures data consistency. If people contact you through email with a specific kind of request, they may not include the right information. That means it can be difficult to help and you might have to waste time asking the person for additional information. With an online form, you can ensure that you capture specific information such as first and last name, a phone number, location, a clear description of the problem, etc. Every incoming communication then gives you a basic set of information to work from when handling a request.
  3. Reduces unnecessary emails. When people are desperate or in need of contacting you, a lack of online forms means they are tempted to send an email to somebody—anybody! You already receive enough emails during the day that clutter up your inbox. General requests from people visiting your website can add to that burden and increase your daily emails unnecessarily. Use online forms to route general requests from citizens and other website visitors into a separate repository.
  4. Increases customer service. While we still recommend providing specific city employee names and emails on your website in case someone needs to contact a particular person, online forms help streamline communications between citizens and cities for general customer service requests. A short online form can make a website visitor feel there is a customer service process in place and that someone will respond to them within a certain timeframe. With emails, it’s more of a gamble if someone will respond or not, especially if a city employee is out of the office or on vacation.
  5. Creates mobile friendly communication. Especially if an online form requires some basic information and even some dropdown menu choices, you can provide mobile-friendly methods of communication with online forms that work well with smartphones and tablets. For example, an online form for reporting a pothole would work great for mobile devices since people would discover potholes while out and about. Since mobile device adoption continues to drastically increase, having easy ways to submit a request or question to a city through an online form can benefit your citizens.

A recent Mashable article listed online forms as a great alternative to email in certain situations, signifying that online forms definitely remain a great tool to use on your website. Take a look at common questions that inundate your email inboxes, customer service requests that typically take place by email or phone, and forms that you have tied up in PDFs or paper. Then consider if online forms might be an easier way to deal with these requests for information while also increasing customer service for citizens and easing the email burden on city employees.

To talk about online forms in more detail, please contact us.

Thursday, January 30, 2014
John Miller, Senior Consultant

While there are many data backup solutions out there, they can be misleading when you think they all do the same thing—completely and flawlessly back up your data. If you believe that they all work the same way, it can be a rude awakening when a server fails or disaster hits. At that point, you might find yourself unable to recover or piece together your data into a reasonable working condition.

For cities, data backup needs to go beyond consumer-grade backup or a cheap automated solution requiring little oversight. Why? Here are a few things that a data backup solution does not automatically cover.

  1. Data organization. We’ve seen many situations where a backup solution is in place but the data is quite a mess. From tape to consumer-grade backups, it’s not terribly convenient to get your data back in the equivalent of an unorganized pile of papers on a desk. While the data backup solution may back up the data, you need to think about how you organize the information so that it’s easy to find, sort through, and restore quickly to working condition. Otherwise, you might be staring at a pile of tapes or oodles of unorganized computer files and wonder where to begin.
  2. Data comprehensiveness. Without planning, a data backup solution may not back up every single bit of data. For example, many forms of consumer-grade data backup have file and data limitations. They might exclude important operating system files, applications, or third-party software that you will need backed up. Your city likely needs a more sophisticated backup solution assisted by some IT planning to help identify and ensure that every critical piece of data is backed up.
  3. Data storage. You may use a new data backup solution that you like and then hit a wall: data storage limitations. The backup software may have physical storage limitations (such as tape or disk) or simply become pricy the more storage you use. With storage space so cheap today, you should be able to find a data backup solution that accommodates as much storage space as you need. It’s also important that employees are storing their data to some kind of centralized location. Otherwise, the data backup solution may not be able to reach local hard drives on desktops, laptops, tablets, or smartphones.
  4. Data backup testing. One of the major failure points for most organizations’ data backup is a failure to test their solution. Data backup software will not tell you to test it. That is a business process that you need to do to ensure that it’s working. When you test, you identify problems such as failures to back up certain kinds of data, corrupted files that don’t work, and any other problems with how the data is organized. You want to discover any serious problems during a test, not after a disaster.
  5. Data restoration. The data itself won’t do you any good if you don’t have the appropriate equipment and the right expertise to make sure the data can be restored to an operational level. That means ordering new servers and computers, transferring the backups to the new equipment, and working out any disruptive issues resulting from the restoration process. Sometimes, we’ve seen situations where the data might be in a pile of tapes, the city might not know what server they should order, and different hardware and software vendors might give conflicting information about what to do. It helps to have IT staff or a vendor who understands how your data backups all work together holistically in order to coordinate a complete data restoration across the entire city.

The important point is that data backup consists of more than just the act of backing up data. There are a variety of important processes that must take place around this activity, and some upfront planning and organization helps customize your data backup solution to your particular situation. Never assume the data backup solution is “just working.” Make sure you have IT professionals helping you organize, test, and restore data while guided by an overall plan.

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

Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Brian Ocfemia, Technical Account Manager

Like many other forms of technology, the modern website continues to evolve at a rapid pace. We know that cities don’t need websites that are as complex as Amazon’s or Facebook’s, but we do see a lot of cities with either no website or what’s now termed a “brochure website” or static website. Those websites tend to be obsolete and outdated, presenting limited, unchanging information to your audience that is difficult to update and might require special coding to change.

While modern websites offer a lot of complex features, there are some basic features that a city website should have that create the greatest efficiency for both technical and non-technical users alike. To demystify the basic elements of a modern website, we’ll outline how it’s hosted, how content is created and updated, and how online payments are handled.

Website Hosting

Modern websites are not just simple pages to display. They involve a lot of memory, storage, and databases in order to do things like edit and update content yourself, offer dynamic content (i.e. information that automatically changes on your website), present decent graphics and visual presentation elements, host files such as video or audio, offer the ability to integrate with other software and applications, provide search capabilities, and give you the ability to scale up by adding pages, information, and data.

That means your website needs some form of server to host all of these various parts and pieces. Depending on the complexity of your website, you may host your website on a server onsite at your city, in a data center, or through the cloud. Part of website hosting ensures purchasing a specific website domain (e.g. sophicity.com). When people type in that domain name, it translates on the back end to a specific numeric website address—like a unique physical address. That’s how people then get to your website, connecting with your website server and accessing pages.

It’s important to understand the strengths and limitations of each website hosting option. For example, it may be difficult and expensive to maintain your own onsite web server, and a cloud hosting option may be more robust, cost-effective, and provide anytime/anywhere administrative access if you need to make changes.

Content Management System

Modern websites have evolved to help non-technical people manage the information that is displayed on a website. Many years ago, technical webmasters controlled all of the content and display through coding. That meant anyone without technical know-how could not add or update website content.

Today, websites usually include a “content management system,” which is a back-end part of the website software that allows you to create, upload, edit, and update content by yourself. Ideally, the interface is easy enough for you to use so that if you know how to use Microsoft Word then you can use the content management system. It’s meant to be user-friendly because it’s often essential today for non-technical people to update websites with timely, up-to-date content.

Content management systems also allow you to set permissions for different users so that unauthorized people can’t alter important parts of your website. And while there are more complicated website content features including tagging, metadata, archiving automation, search engine optimization, and security management, the bottom line is that a content management system takes the power from technical people and puts it in the hands of non-technical people.

Online Payments

As more and more people become used to paying online (and even using tablets and smartphones to make payments), they expect that modern websites will accommodate online payments. Many city services are such a routine part of people’s bills and payments (utilities, property tax, parking tickets, etc.) that the ability to pay online is a sensible thing to expect on a website.

The capability for a website to provide online payments basically ensures that a person can transact business over that website. To do this, the website needs to contain an online payment interface (usually webpages that include forms that people can fill out and submit) that allows people to sign up for services, set up billing preferences, send payments, and receive various communications. When credit card or checking account information is exchanged, a special software known as a “gateway” ensures that payment information is approved and coordinated between the city, the credit card company, and the customer’s bank.

Both your website and the gateway software vendor need to provide high standards of security, especially when dealing with sensitive information such as credit card or social security numbers. Part of setting up online payments includes following the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) which ensures that all sensitive information is secured, encrypted, and protected.

Moving to a Modern Website

When evaluating if you need to upgrade your city’s website, it’s good to first see if you are behind in providing a website that serves your citizens in a convenient way. You might be challenged by an expensive, difficult-to-maintain web server. Your city staff may not be able to upload and update website content. Or you might not be offering online payments at all. If so, it helps to get up to speed about modern web hosting, content management systems, and online payment options in order to see if you can improve your website experience for citizens and city staff alike.

To talk about website modernization in more detail, please contact us.

Thursday, January 23, 2014
Clint Nelms, COO

Even budget-conscious cities often have a temptation to stay up on new technology by purchasing what other cities use or what the media says is essential to have. When we sit down with a city for the first time, we sometimes find hardware, software, and other technology tools that may be exceptional and robust but that sit mostly unused, not serving the needs of the city for the money they’re paying.

Unfortunately, technology has a history of being sold on features and benefits that were often crammed into organizations to fit the product, instead of the product adapted to meet the needs of the organization. Today, with so many technology advances continually occurring, it helps to review the timeless principles of looking at your current technologies through the lens of your users. Then, if you do make a decision to change your technology, you’re doing it based on user research rather than peer pressure or gut instinct.

Ask yourself the following user-focused questions as you’re evaluating either current or new technology.

  1. What do your users need to do? While an obvious question, it’s often overlooked when cities start shopping for technology. It’s good to get a sense of how people use technology on a day-to-day basis. Some city staff may only use it on a limited basis, such as basic features of a word processing or accounting program. Other users may have complicated day-to-day tasks such as using GIS mapping tools or public safety video software. Drill down to what they actually do with the software.
  2. What pain points do users experience? At the same time, you need to figure out where people have trouble carrying out their day-to-day tasks. Is the current software too hard to use? Does it lack essential features needed for their job? Are they using tortuous manual workarounds because their software doesn’t do what it’s supposed to? Uncovering pain points helps you figure out real user struggles that are costing you lost time and productivity.
  3. What city business goals will affect what users will do in the future? It’s also important to look at the vision and mission of the city, including any goals set by city administration that might change how users will work in the future. Cities are always evolving, introducing new projects and changing the way they operate. Ask yourself if any city goals will affect users, and if technology may be needed to help carry out those goals.
  4. What technology tools and solutions best fit user needs? Taking what you learned from 1, 2, and 3 above, you now have specific information that you can use to evaluate technology solutions. It is very important to start evaluating new technology once you’ve collected the earlier information. Otherwise, you’ll be too tempted to make a gut decision and be swayed by vendor benefits and features that may not actually solve any problems for you. For example, if your users only need basic features for accounting software, you won’t be lured by expensive accounting software with bells and whistles that you don’t need.
  5. How much training will users need? Sometimes, even technology that users need and that seems cost-effective might fail if user training and support isn’t properly taken into account. Is the technology easier to use? Harder to use? How many days, weeks, or months will it take until users are comfortable with the new technology? Any new technology introduces change and will disrupt people’s routines and habits for a brief period of time. To make sure any new technology gels at your city, incorporate the right amount of training and follow-up support.

By focusing on users of technology, you will answer many questions that help you shop for just the right solution or tool. Again, notice how the questions above are technology-agnostic. They ignore cool benefits and features, focusing only on what users need and how any business objectives may impact those user needs. With this information in hand, you will have better conversations with technology vendors as you evaluate solutions. Overall, you’ll reduce costs as you use this information to eliminate wasteful technology.

To talk more about technology user needs, please contact us.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Alicia Klemola, Account Manager

A city’s planning and development website content must cover a wide range of information from visionary multi-year plans to specific questions about building permits. Managing city growth is complicated, but the content on your city website should simplify that complexity by making it easy to find information about land use, zoning, building permits, development projects, and much more.

Since many city websites tend to provide too little information or an information dump of PDFs for citizens to laboriously sift through, you’ll be ahead of the curve if you apply the following tips to your planning and development content.

  1. Create pathways to information for common questions. While you may offer a lot of planning and development information, people tend to ask common questions such as “How do I get a building permit?” or “How do I schedule an inspection?” Make sure that you provide easy-to-find answers either on your main planning and development page or by featuring links to those answers. From dealing with citizens, your experienced city staff should be able to tell you what questions people tend to commonly ask.
  2. Extract useful information from lengthy PDFs or long blocks of text. It might seem easier to just provide links to PDFs of lengthy planning and development documents that you’ve already created. But while easier for you, put yourself in the mindset of a citizen. Would you want to go sifting through 20- or 50-page PDFs looking for the right information? With some upfront work extracting the most useful information from PDFs and paper documents, you can create citizen-friendly planning and development content that truly helps citizens. Do the work so that they don’t have to.
  3. Provide highly visible contact information. Because of the complexity of planning and development questions, it’s inevitable that people will still need to call people at the city to get questions answered. Make sure you provide that contact information in a highly visible place on your main planning and development page. If different questions require different experts in your city to answer them, break them out by topic or task.
  4. Give helpful, proactive answers. Sure, it’s helpful to provide purely functional information about zoning or a permit. But you’ll be even more helpful if you guide people through difficult processes and even give them tips. For example, the City of Austin provides some guidance on how to select a contractor within their planning content. You might provide some information about what to do when planning to build, tips on passing an inspection, or an overview of a handling a special scenario (such as food trucks).
  5. Be transparent about major planning and development news. For your more visionary projects involving planning commissions and official decisions from city council, make sure you provide all important information in an upfront timely manner. Citizens can become angry if it seems like a city is hiding information about annexations, rezoning, rights of way, building demolitions, or new buildings. Since planning and development decisions can impact citizens for years, even decades, you need to use your planning and development page as a communications vehicle to keep citizens informed.

While these tips follow the basic principles of website content like many other city pages, your challenge for the planning and development page is complexity. Take some time to sit down with both your planning and development department and your communications person to sift through all of the information and what to prioritize that best helps citizens. Remember, your citizens will not know your policies, rules, and regulations as well as you. It’s up to your planning and development content to do a lot of heavy lifting in providing answers when citizens need them.

To talk about your city’s planning and development website content in more detail, please contact us.

Thursday, January 16, 2014
Nathan Eisner, CMO

It can be frustrating to use a document management system but then never seem to find what you want. It’s like trying to find a reference in a lengthy book using an index that lacks the words and phrases you’re looking for. At that point, a book full of useful information becomes useless if you can’t find specific information quickly.

Document management system indexing works by the same principles. Uploading documents is the easy part. But work and planning needs to be done to make sure you index documents enough to make them findable. This becomes especially crucial for open records requests, timely information needed for a city council meeting, or specific information that may be stored within hundreds or thousands of similar documents.

While an IT vendor can help you with some of the technical aspects, keep the following tips in mind to help you index your documents and save hours of wasted time having city staff futilely search for information.

  1. Have at least one unique identifier per document. Whether it’s a unique invoice number, a social security number, or a file name, there should be at least one unique identifying field that no other document can have. Without unique identifiers, you might confuse documents or enter duplicate information. For example, each utility customer’s bill might have a number identifying the specific bill. That way, if a customer wants to discuss a specific bill, they can reference the bill number.
  2. Create metadata to help you search for documents. We’ve talked about metadata in more detail in other blog posts, but the important point is to create some fields and data that you fill in about documents as you upload them. Your document management vendor can work with you to implement what fields you’d like, but you need to decide what fields are important to capture from a business perspective. For example, you might require that all files have a title, author name, department, and short description of what the document contains.
  3. Make sure you use consistent terminology when labeling documents. When filling in metadata about your documents, make sure you use consistent terms and vocabulary. For example, a document shouldn’t be labeled “Police” in one place and “Public Safety” in another place if you are intending to refer to the same department. Agree on consistent terminology so that people don’t hit an unnecessary roadblock when searching. If you’re worried about people using similar terms to mean the same thing, talk to your document management vendor to see how you can direct alternate searches to a main term.
  4. Don’t just rely on the document management system’s automatic indexing features. Just because the document management system automatically indexes your documents doesn’t mean those automated results are very helpful. You’ve probably searched for terms on Google that bring up search results that, on the surface, look just like the other search results. But those results are not user-friendly or helpful because Google pulled whatever it could from that page—even if the description is meaningless. Document indexing works the same way—you have to help it out to make it really useful for city staff.
  5. Don’t forget to index non-text content. Label images, audio files, videos, and other non-text files with indexable metadata in order to make it findable and searchable. It’s a standard feature in most document management systems to allow you to label these files with metadata including names, descriptions, and numbers. If you’ve ever looked for a photo among hundreds when they are all named Pic00001, Pic00002, etc., you know the frustration of no indexing. But if a set of photos are all labeled by a particular event (such as a picnic) with people identified in each one, it then becomes easy to find photos of events and people through search.

Making sure that you can index and find files easily in your document management system gives you a taste of how massive a challenge search engines like Google have on a daily basis. We produce so much digital information today that what starts as a seemingly modest list of documents can soon become unmanageable. But with the right indexing planning and ongoing filling in of the right fields for each document or file, you are on the road to making your information as findable and searchable as possible within your document management system.

To talk more about document management indexing, please contact us.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Dave Mims, CEO

When most people want to avoid computer viruses, the common wisdom says to focus on your antivirus software. Of course, that’s a sensible strategy since the purpose of antivirus software is to stop viruses from ever infecting your computer. This report from KUTV in Salt Lake City, Utah is typical of the kind of advice that’s usually dispensed in lieu of a particularly nasty virus attack.

Only at the tail end of this report, buried underneath advice about antivirus software and even paying a ransom to criminals in order to get a businessperson’s data back, do we hear about data backup. Even more than antivirus software, data backup is actually your best antivirus protection.

Even Microsoft said in a recent post that “the most important tool for dealing with ransomware is to make sure computers are backed up.” Why? Let’s look at the reasons.

  1. Even the best antivirus software doesn’t catch every virus. New viruses are created by people every day, and it’s difficult for even the best antivirus software to keep up with every single one. If you only depend on antivirus software, some viruses may slip through if they are very new (which are usually the most damaging when they break out) or written by professional criminals to bypass the software. No antivirus software will protect you 100%.
  2. Employee error is still the source of many virus outbreaks. No matter how good your antivirus software, you may still get a virus if an employee clicks on a malicious website or email attachment. While sometimes your antivirus software might step in to prevent a virus from activating, it’s much harder to prevent a virus if an employee takes a completely voluntary action (such as opening a file). This is why phishing is such a popular scam because it tries to get a person to take an action that bypasses antivirus software.
  3. A virus can encrypt, corrupt, or destroy your data. Once a virus is activated, any number of things that happen to your data. A recent ransomware virus encrypts your files and threatens you to pay a ransom. Other viruses corrupt, damage, and even destroy your data. An antivirus program might be able to get rid of a virus once it infects your computer, but it won’t be able to get your data back.
  4. Your entire computer might need to be wiped clean or decommissioned. In more serious cases, we’ve occasionally had to completely wipe a computer clean of data or decommission it in order to ensure that a particularly nasty virus is gone. When that happens, your data is gone forever if it’s not backed up. Ask yourself if you’re prepared to recover your data in case of this scenario, just as in a worst-case disaster recovery situation.
  5. Online storage often just syncs, rather than backs up, data. If you’re relying on cloud-based storage software, be careful if it syncs your data across a variety of different access points. For example, if a ransomware virus encrypts your files in one place, it will encrypt them in every place if you sync your files. You need a separate data backup solution in place to make sure that you are backing up files in a completely different location than how you normally access your files. That way, if a ransomware virus encrypts your files, you can rest assured that your files are okay in another location.

Data backup is a more fundamental and important way to prevent the effects of a virus outbreak than even antivirus software. We recommend making sure you have a data backup and disaster recovery solution in place, combined with an enterprise antivirus solution that is managed by IT professionals.

And even though the businessperson in the TV clip paid the criminals that held his data hostage, we recommend to never pay a ransom! These are criminals. It is not guaranteed that you will get your data back, and they may also use your credit card information to commit identity theft. With data backup in place, you won’t even be tempted to pay a criminal for your information.

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

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