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Friday, April 5, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

While very large cities and other large organizations find website design an expensive but necessary proposition, expensive website design is something small- to medium-sized cities should avoid. It’s tempting to read the press about what the latest government websites should offer, but the press usually reports on very large government entities that use cutting-edge social media, big data and open data applications, and extensive mapping software.

From our experience, budget-conscious small and medium cities need essential website functionality and a professional appearance, but they often lose money when website vendors oversell them on supposedly “must have” features and custom design. Here’s a quick list of what small and medium sized-cities need and don’t need in their website design.

What You Need in Your Website Design

  • Professional Look and Feel: As long as your website looks clean and professional, without any chaotic or amateurish design elements, it will hold up to positive public scrutiny. Many template websites are available that have been designed by high-end professional designers and have been used by many smaller cities. A professional look and feel should also incorporate a consistent city logo through the website.
  • Online Payment Processing Capability: Since citizens often want to pay utilities, taxes, and fines online, it’s best to have payment processing built in as part of a website design. Years ago, this would be an expensive addition. Today, many template or low-cost websites can easily accommodate this feature.
  • Calendars, Department Pages, and Other Common City Content: There are a few areas that all cities tend to have on their websites such as community calendars, pages for departments (City Hall, Public Safety, Parks and Recreation, etc.), city council agendas and minutes, and news updates - to name just a few. Most basic websites can accommodate such content without expensive design.
  • Ability to Add Pages and Modules: If a city wants to add additional common pages or modules, it should not require another redesign or expensive fees. It’s to be expected that a city will grow and expand over time, and a website design should plan for that growth without a website vendor billing you for each addition.
  • Ability to Put Content Onto the Website: Cities should not have to rely on a third party to put content onto their website. Instead, the website should be designed with a content management system on the back end so that city staff can update webpages without having to code or understand anything technical.

What You Don’t Need in Your Website Design

  • Expensive Multimedia: Too many cities are wooed with the ability to showcase expensive Flash imagery, videos, and photos. Often, this multimedia is not very functional and wastes money. If a city needs to use videos or photos, they need to be functional and reasonably budgeted.
  • 100% Custom Design: Building a website from scratch is risky in terms of time and outcome. Even if it’s done well, it will cost a great deal of money and tends to be overkill for a small or medium city. Stick with templates that are minimally customized.
  • Bells and Whistles: We’ve seen so many cities pay for expensive website design that included sophisticated social media apps, forums, and RSS feeds that often go unused. A city should not be tempted by nice-to-haves. Instead, each aspect of a website needs to be justified and its functionality proven by a business need.
  • Expensive GIS Mapping Tools: Geographic information systems (GIS) continue to be popular at municipalities, and the rich mapping data can greatly enhance websites – especially for certain departmental pages and citizen-friendly website applications. However, many GIS website tools and applications are overkill for all but the largest cities. Integrating live GIS data onto a website is extremely costly. For smaller cities, it’s often better to use a static map, such as having the city’s GIS data manager export a graphic representing the data and have the person managing the website content post the static map to the webpage.
  • Rebranding: We’re not against rebranding. However, website vendors sometimes lure cities into using a website design as a way to also do a complete rebrand of the city’s look-and-feel. If you’re at this stage independently of a website design, fine. But if you’re rebranding just because your website vendor is urging you to develop new logos, taglines, imagery, and colors for the city’s visual appearance, then you’re potentially being ripped off.
  • Amateur Work: On the other end of the spectrum, we still see many cities hand over a website redesign to a single design intern or to a friend of a city employee who has “designed a few websites.” While this may have been acceptable back in the late 1990s when websites were still novelties, it’s unacceptable today. While cheap, the end result will usually be a poor design, hard-to-manage functionality, and a website that breaks down too much. As one example, we see something as simple as fonts crash city websites, especially when amateur designers try to get fancy or make too many words blink. Leave website work to professionals.

These tips give you a quick idea about what you need and don’t need in website design. As you can see, in most cases website vendors are good at upselling design aspects that small or medium cities just don’t need. Sure, some of these aspects do create great-looking websites. There are some great custom website designers out there, and some slick features and apps that can really enhance a website. But those features really only start to make sense once thousands and thousands of people start to visit a website, usually at large cities over 100,000 people.

To discuss website design in more detail, please contact us.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

One of the most common yet overlooked tasks of anyone taking care of servers and workstations is basic hardware maintenance. That includes monitoring hardware, applying patches, and upgrading software. Like a car, basic maintenance ensures that your investments run smoothly from purchase to decommission.

However, in our many network assessments over the years, we’ve found that lack of server and workstation maintenance often crops up as a critical problem at many cities. The city’s IT staff might be inexperienced or strapped for time, or the city’s IT vendor might not be maintaining equipment at a professional level. The result? Slow servers, poor computer performance, unhappy employees, and city operations interrupted.

While hardware maintenance involves many complex technical aspects, we are providing a high level overview of five basic activities that your IT staff or vendor must perform to keep your hardware optimally running.

  1. Proactively monitor health and performance. Too many cities simply react when a server fails or a workstation breaks down. We recommend having an experienced IT professional proactively monitoring the health and performance of your hardware. Many 24x7 monitoring and alerting tools exist that raise red flags when issues arise. However, those tools alone will not make a difference unless you have an expert analyzing the results and knowing how to identify, escalate, and deal with performance issues.
  2. Patch, upgrade, and leverage support. While it seems simple that patches and upgrades that solve security and performance problems should be applied to servers and workstations, we’ve analyzed many environments where this is just not happening. You are paying for expensive software, so why not apply patches and upgrades delivered as part of the vendor software support? Leverage any included support related to your hardware, especially when you are unable to solve a problem yourself.
  3. Replace aging hardware. Natural wear and tear, storage and memory limits, and evolving technology all eventually make hardware obsolete. Don’t wear out hardware for too many years and only replace it when it dies. You need a plan to replace your hardware, usually every 3-5 years. Your IT staff or vendor needs to be on top of your hardware asset management and track the purchase, deployment, depreciation, and decommissioning of all hardware.
  4. Apply strict security. Especially at a city, you need to make sure your servers and workstations are protected as much as possible from hacking, phishing, and other unauthorized attempts at access. Apply an enterprise firewall, properly configured to close off all gaping security holes. Enterprise antivirus should be applied across all servers and workstations, and strong antispam and content filtering help protect city staff from clicking on phishing emails or dangerous websites that can open up a security hole in your network. Do not compromise in any way on hardware security.
  5. Back up all data on your hardware. Despite your best proactive maintenance, servers will fail and computers will be lost or stolen. A data backup plan that provides daily backups and full disaster recovery is essential for covering all unexpected situations. At cities, it’s usually a good idea to use onsite data backup that takes hourly snapshots of your information. That means if a server fails, you should be up and running within an hour or two. For disasters, you should be up and running within 24 to 48 hours by using offsite data backup.

When you buy a car, you can decide to worry about maintenance only when it breaks down. But you know that your car performs better when you have your oil changed every three months, tires rotated every six months, and a full inspection at least every year. Server and workstation maintenance works similarly, although much more frequently. With 24x7 monitoring and maintenance by experienced IT professionals, a data backup and disaster recovery plan, and a hardware lifecycle replacement strategy in place, your hardware investment will be maximized and run in the most optimal fashion.

To talk more about hardware monitoring and maintenance, please contact us.

Friday, March 29, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

Even at smaller cities, it’s easy for your IT assets to get out of hand. Servers and workstations accrue, software lingers after being purchased many years ago, and data backup media piles up. A good question to always ask about your IT assets is, “Am I using them?”

Taking a look through your existing assets can be enlightening, and sometimes shocking. Often, valuable real estate, power, and IT staff time is consumed maintaining assets you don’t need. Here, we take a look at some common IT infrastructure assets and offer ways to eliminate or trim them down.

  1. Data backup. We often see a lot of waste here, especially from manual data backup processes. Tape, external hard drives, or other transportable media not only adds manual risk to the process of data backup but also wastes physical space. Manual media is usually not tested or audited, and so you are often storing backup media that won’t work when you need it. Modern data backup systems can mostly back up remotely, freeing up space and eliminating your need for portable media.
  2. Servers. With advances in cloud computing, many servers are simply taking up space at cities. Dedicated servers for email or specialized software can often be eliminated and replaced with cloud services that require no onsite servers. In addition, completing an assessment of your current servers can help analyze if they are really worth the maintenance or software license costs. Do you have expensive software on a server used by very few employees? Do you have an email server that is hard to maintain? Be brutal and have your IT staff or vendor help you figure out if you absolutely need each server.
  3. Workstations. Typically, a lot of waste pops up with workstations. Over time, if employees needed workstations, they were bought on the fly with discretionary budget, without much thought as to what city staff actually needed to perform their work. Are there computers not being used by anyone? Are those computers still being maintained? Similar to a server audit, it’s good to look at your workstations (including laptops). Are the machines a fit for how they are actually being used? If not, you might consider decommissioning, selling, or stripping down the features and services attached to each machine.
  4. Printers. Printers are often overlooked as a major IT asset, but they are networked machines that tend to proliferate too much within an organization. For example, people tend to buy printers for themselves rather than maximizing the use of a printer for an entire department. With an assessment, you’ll often find too many printers, unused printers, and potential to trim down your annual maintenance costs.
  5. Telecom, Internet, and Wireless. Traditional phone systems and unruly wireless systems can also be a waste. You might have expensive phone equipment that could be eliminated and replaced with a more streamlined VoIP phone system that relies on an Internet connection. Also, organizations tend to accrue wireless devices that people buy on impulse to solve a temporary need, and then sit unused. Your city might benefit from an inventory of telecom, Internet, and wireless equipment to see if you can reduce some hardware and maximize the usage of fewer devices.

IT infrastructure is expensive, so you want to make sure you are using all of your assets wisely. Even hardware and equipment that you bought three to five years ago can potentially be reduced or eliminated by newer cloud services. And any organization, unless you’re rigorously auditing your IT assets on a regular basis, can find itself with too many servers, workstations, printers, and other equipment that is excessive or lies unused. Cities can’t waste a penny, and so it might be time for your city to do some IT spring cleaning.

To talk more about reducing your IT infrastructure clutter, please contact us.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013
John Miller, Network Infrastructure Manager

As cities transition to an online payment system or reevaluate their online payment vendor, it’s good to look at the basics of what makes a city’s online payment information safe and secure. In this multi-part series, we will cover the basic Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) requirements one by one, teaching you about what a city and its online payment vendor needs to be compliant.

The basics of secure online payments starts at the network level, and the PCI DSS requirements begin by examining firewall and password policies. These best practices also correspond to many other IT-related services and provide good questions for other aspects of your city business.

Use enterprise-level firewalls for your network.

Both you and your online payment vendor need at least an enterprise-level firewall to handle sensitive payment data. Coupled with enterprise-level antivirus, this essential network configuration creates strict access for outside sources wishing to communicate with you.

As you may know, firewalls work rather like a border crossing or airport security. Only specific approved information is allowed inside your network. When you’re dealing with sensitive online payment data, it’s imperative that any information requests are authentic—both inbound and outbound. Hackers are always trying to access valuable data, and payment data is worth more to them than many other kinds of data. Not only must your online payment vendor have sufficient firewalls, but you should also make sure your firewalls match their high standards if possible—especially since it’s likely that online payment data will cross in and out of your environment (e.g. in your accounting software, on your website, etc.). Hackers look for gaps to exploit, and it would be unfortunate if your network was their way into your online payment data.

Use strong passwords and user authentication.

You may have had the experience of accessing online payment websites and...suddenly the experience changes. There are different passwords. Maybe a passkey, or another kind of user authentication. The URL on your browser switches to a higher level of security and encryption. That’s because the level of authentication needs to be higher when sensitive online payment data is involved. That means password best practices that include:

  • Strong passwords. That means long passwords with numbers, letters, and a mix of characters that are irregular and unusual—and difficult to hack.
  • Training and guidance about phishing. It should be clear to users when an online payment site is authentic, and when it is not. This may involve a secure URL, a passkey, or some other kind of unique identifier that—if lacking—should alert a user that they may be on the wrong website.
  • Considering 2 factor authentication. An extra level of password security is not a bad idea. That means authorizing a person’s computer by, for example, getting an authorization code send to their mobile device.

If your online payment vendor cannot confirm the rigor and security of these two items to your IT staff or vendor, then that lack of information should raise a red flag. But know that even if your online payment vendor can handle these requirements, you should also close the loop by providing your city with at least an enterprise-level firewall and a strong password policy. These two items form the basic foundation of securing a network from most common hacking and unauthorized access to data.

Having a strong firewall and password policy is like having locks on your doors and windows, along with personal security to make sure that only authorized people enter your house.

In our next online payments post, we will discuss encryption and other ways to protect data. If you want to talk about online payment security in more detail, please contact us.

Thursday, March 21, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

The rise of cyber liability insurance matches a growing trend in which targets with valuable information (e.g. financial institutions), combined with weak IT security, create rich opportunities for hackers. Since municipalities store sensitive information such as social security numbers and tax information for businesses, then they become obvious targets.

Not only are municipal data breaches embarrassing, but they are also expensive. Computerworld recently reported:

The costs of simply investigating and responding to these losses—not to mention the resulting lawsuits and regulatory fines—can be staggering. For instance, the Ponemon Institute estimates that response costs can be as high as $200 per compromised record. It is not difficult to understand how total costs for a wide breach can quickly escalate well into the millions of dollars.

A great article last year from Dark Reading outlined the top 10 security breaches of 2012, and it’s sad for us to see how many of these breaches were caused by preventable IT best practices. Many municipalities still lack basic IT infrastructure, policies, and training to prevent even amateur hacking attempts.

Last year, we produced a series of articles addressing data loss, website hacking, and virus attacks, but we want to address some other common issues that impact cyber liability. These best practices can help lower your risk, which then lowers your cyber liability insurance premiums.

  1. Educate and train employees about phishing. This may seem very non-technological and simple, but phishing led to 3.8 million Social Security numbers and 3.3 million bank account numbers stolen from the South Carolina Department of Revenue last year. Employees need to understand that clicking on links from suspicious emails opens up a city to high risk. Better yet, couple training with good antispam software to ensure that most phishing emails never even reach a person’s inbox.
  2. Eliminate as much physical storage and manual processes as possible. Risk increases when you need to physically handle data. Even the combined clout of IBM and Iron Mountain could not prevent a massive data breach last year when those vendors were transporting data backup tapes. If you know us well, you know that we sound like a broken record when we tell cities to stop using tape backup. Day-to-day manual handling of tapes introduces too much risk at every step (theft, loss, forgetting to back up data, etc.). And in this case, yes – you can get fired using IBM.
  3. Create a strong password policy, everywhere. Hackers most often exploit weak passwords, either through bad server configurations or poorly maintained web applications. Many hacking outfits will use something called a SQL injection to break through, like a burglar kicking down a door with a weak lock. That means you need to force users to have strong passwords, train users to never give out their passwords over the phone or through a suspicious web link, and to have everyone—IT staff and non-IT staff—change passwords often. (Read about password best practices in more detail.)
  4. Encrypt laptops and mobile devices. Too many major data breaches arise because of stolen laptops or other mobile devices. Encryption (which the South Carolina Department of Revenue is still putting in place to prevent another data breach) means that users must enter a password to access any information on the laptop. This is different than simply logging in to Windows or your routine desktop applications. Encryption is an extra layer that means if someone doesn’t know the password, the data is useless. If a person steals a laptop, for example, they could not even hack into the hard drive without the encryption password.

Cyber liability is understandably a hot topic for cities, since the stakes have never been higher. Hackers have become more sophisticated and aggressive, and small to medium-sized cities become juicy targets—precisely because they often lack basic IT security measures. While the above cyber security tips sound simple—and almost obvious—they are exactly what lead to most data breaches.

In future posts, we will look more closely at some non-technical policies and procedures (such as working from home and employee background checks) that provide a strong foundation for your technical cyber liability. To talk about cyber liability in more detail, contact us.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

Just when you thought you may have figured out data backup and disaster recovery for your city’s servers and workstations, along comes mobile. A January 2013 article from Computerworld UK (which also surveyed United States companies) showed that there are deep concerns about backing up mobile data.

Partly, that’s because mobile is still so relatively new and blurs the boundaries between business and personal data. But also, the lack of mobile data backup reflects the continuing failure to follow general data backup and disaster recovery best practices.

If you’re using smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices at your city, here are some tips on backing up data for those devices.

  1. Put as much of your data in the cloud as possible. With cloud data, you minimize worries about backing up mobile—or any—data. If your email, documents, and even VoIP phone system is cloud-based, then the mobile device is just accessing that data over the Internet. If the phone is lost or destroyed, all of your data is still in the cloud. As long as your cloud data has appropriate security, then accessing the data with a mobile device follows standard protocol. With the cloud, there are no worries about having to store mobile-specific data.
  2. Back up city-issued mobile devices. The safest way to ensure the strictest and most efficient mobile data backup is to back up only city-issued mobile devices. While we have written about the “bring your own device” (BYOD) trends in organizations, we always recommend issuing city-specific mobile devices to employees. That means you can lock down these devices however you’d like. By contrast, you do not have complete access to an employee’s personal mobile device and you risk losing city data that you cannot back up.
  3. Tell employees about business and personal data boundaries. Even if you issue a city-owned device to employees, it’s tempting for them to use those devices for personal calls, emails, and media (such as photos or videos). But when you are backing up data on those devices, that means contact information, email, calendar information, and even text messages. If an employee does not want personal information exposed to public view or an open records request, then it’s best to keep that personal information on their personal (not city-owned) devices.

While we’re still adjusting to the mobile revolution, with new and more sophisticated devices coming out every day, the principles of data backup remain the same. We recommend taking your existing data backup and disaster recovery policy and extending those policies to mobile. If you have not developed an overall data backup and disaster recovery policy, then you can use mobile devices as a good excuse to create a plan today.

To discuss mobile data backup in more detail, please contact us.

Friday, March 15, 2013
John Miller, Network Infrastructure Manager

This year is the 20th anniversary of the initial release of the Portable Document Format, commonly known as the PDF. Along with Microsoft Word and Excel files, the PDF is probably one of the most commonly used file formats at cities and most other organizations. It caught on as a file format because it retained a consistent look and feel independent of whatever software someone used. That’s made the PDF handy for sharing and storing standardized documents.

When managing your documents, the use of PDFs can raise many questions. We’ve worked with cities that became “PDF happy” and turned anything and everything into PDFs, while others went in the opposite direction by clinging to Microsoft Word and PowerPoint documents without bothering much with PDFs.

To help find a good middle ground, here are some benefits and situations that suggest when PDFs can best help your document management.

  1. Use PDFs when you want an exact, official copy of an original document. Whether you scan the original document or simply want a locked down, official version that you don’t want edited any further, then publish it as a PDF. With a good scanner, it should become part of your routine to take official paper documents and scan them into your document management system as PDFs. Other editable documents (such as Microsoft Word files) should become PDFs after they are finalized.
  2. Use PDFs when you need a print-friendly document. PDFs follow the rules and formats of paper documents to a high degree. They are designed to parallel the high quality of a paper document. If internal employees need to print high quality documents or visitors to your website need printer-friendly forms and documents, then PDFs are the way to go. PDFs also work well for printed forms, which people can often fill out on their computer screen and then print out.
  3. Use PDFs when you want to easily secure your documents. The PDF has some of the best and easiest security features for any document format. You can password protect a PDF, electronically sign a final version of a document, and prevent people from printing, saving, or editing it. Just like a signed and notarized document represents its final, official version, PDFs provide plenty of security features to ensure that people cannot alter, edit, or manipulate an official document in your document management system.
  4. Use PDFs when you want to cut down on storage space. PDFs are very economical files, taking what were once large files and reducing their size considerably. You can merge multiple files into single PDF files to maximize your use of document management storage space. Opening large files (especially with slower Internet connections) can be a hassle for people, so converting and merging large files into PDFs can be helpful for both you and your users.
  5. Use PDFs when you want to store “more information” or “further details.” When people create content either for a website or an internal document management system, it’s tempting to share excessive details instead of sticking to a focused point. Use PDFs for when people need “more information,” such as citizens wanting to read full details about city policy or internal users wanting technical details behind an audit or analysis. That way, you don’t have to clutter up your content with every single detail imaginable. Store those “further details” in easy-to-create PDFs.

While PDFs have been around for 20 years, it’s sometimes still confusing when and how to use them. Considering our tips above, it’s good to consider that PDFs most often follow the traditional rules of paper-based documents, both in a legal sense and also in an accessibility sense. We see many document management systems where everything has been turned into a PDF, or websites where too much vital information is buried in PDFs. A mix of concise, public-facing information backed up by substantial details and official documents in PDFs is a balance you should strive for.

If you’d like to discuss PDFs and document management in more detail, please contact us.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

The state of Texas recently made a major shift by transitioning more than 100,000 workers to Microsoft’s cloud services. While this shift is occurring at the state level on a massive scale, many of the reasons why Texas chose to transition to the cloud applies to cities. Texas is not alone in realizing the benefits of the cloud.

As we’ve reported in past blog posts, the cloud is slowly becoming law and more mainstream by the steady adoption from federal, state, and local government. So why should smaller cities embrace the cloud? Mostly, it’s because of the merging between improved technology and higher-speed Internet connections. Together, these innovations have made the cloud a compelling option.

Here are five key reasons why the cloud may have a positive impact on your city.

  1. You will save money. The biggest impact is financial. If you’re not using cloud services, then you’re paying for servers, software licenses, and maintenance costs for all of that investment. The burden is on you to purchase hardware and software licenses with heavy upfront investment, and those investments are recurring and often inefficient. With cloud computing, you eliminate the servers and only pay (like a subscription model or utility) for what you need. All maintenance takes place remotely on the cloud vendor’s dime.
  2. You will have less hardware to manage. As mentioned above, you will save money managing less hardware. But those benefits extend even further to freeing up your IT staff to work on more important projects, freeing up building space when you don’t have to manage your own servers, and worrying about buying expensive new hardware every 3-5 years—or having to cling on to old, obsolete hardware when you haven’t budgeted the extra money to replace it. With the cloud, it’s like you’re using the most up-to-date hardware—but all unseen and remote.
  3. You will use only what you need. With the cloud, the scalability is powerful. If you have new users, you can add them with the click of a button. If you’ve dropped users, then those cloud subscriptions are eliminated—saving you money. Normally, you would buy hardware and expensive software licenses for a set amount of users. You pay for those licenses, even if users are not using the software or if you lost users due to staff retiring or finding employment elsewhere. The cloud allows you to use only what you need, making your investment extremely efficient.
  4. Your data is backed up remotely by the best cloud vendors. When you are responsible for your own data backup and disaster recovery, significant risk comes into play. Many cities still back up data manually, which happens irregularly and without much rigorous process. If cities do back up data remotely, they often don’t test and audit their backups. Cloud vendors at the level of Microsoft, Amazon, and Google apply the best data backup and disaster recovery standards to their services. If you lose data or a disaster occurs, all you need is an Internet connection and you’ve got your data backed up in the cloud.
  5. Your data is secured by the best cloud vendors. To stay in business, cloud providers must provide the highest level of security to meet compliance standards and a variety of regulatory requirements across industries. To stay competitive, cloud providers also exceed those security standards. Security was the leading reason why the State of Texas decided to choose Microsoft’s cloud services. Everything from the technology standards to preventative measures against hacking to hiring standards for IT employees tends to reach a higher bar than most cities can do on their own.

When it comes to finally considering cloud options and making a decision, it can still seem like a leap to see your data go...elsewhere. There is still something psychologically reassuring about seeing your servers and knowing your data rests inside those machines. But the reality is that your data is often safer, more secure, and better backed up in the cloud. And most importantly, you must consider the cloud when both quality increases and cost of investment goes down. After all, that’s the ideal business case.

To discuss the cloud in more detail, please contact us.

Friday, March 8, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

Nearly all businesses must eventually use your city’s website to answer a question about taxes, licenses, or other information. Is that experience a positive one for businesses? Or a negative one?

Many cities believe they provide the right information to businesses by featuring bare bones yet useful information—forms, documents, and links. But that alone might not accommodate the basic needs of businesses.

If you really want to offer both essential and also reassuring information to build positive relationships with the businesses in your community, consider building up the following areas of your website with plenty of user-friendly content.

  1. Welcome businesses with guides and information. A friendly welcome is strangely overlooked by many cities. Don’t bury it on your site. Within one click, a business should be able to see a welcome from the mayor, elected officials, or city manager. Thank the business for being a part of your community and share the excitement you feel for your city. Offer quick links to guides, how-to’s, and policies that businesses should be aware of.
  2. Provide easy-to-find information about taxes and licenses. To be realistic, this will be the primary reason a business will visit your website. So make the experience smooth and seamless. Provide easy ways for businesses to log on, find any necessary taxes or licenses, and pay online. Don’t make taxes and licenses a hassle. Otherwise, word will spread that your city is business-unfriendly, and businesses may be less likely to locate there.
  3. Offer online access to forms, documents, and resources. You don’t want businesses calling City Hall asking where to find important forms and documents. Make information about permits, utilities, zoning, public safety, and local chambers of commerce readily available on the website. Be helpful by offering links to county, state, and federal resources if businesses frequently ask for this information.
  4. Share impactful city news and events. This may seem obvious, but many cities often don’t share stories that may have an impact on businesses. Instead, businesses will find out about city news through the filter of local media or word-of-mouth, which can make the city look defensive and reactive. Share any important news—positive or negative—through press releases and news announcements. If local or national media write up positive stories about businesses in your area, share those too.
  5. Have a strong economic development section of your website. Show that your city is vital and business-friendly by highlighting local stories, relationships, and pro-business city council activity. Applaud long-lasting businesses in your community, celebrate significant anniversaries and milestones with them, and go into detail about long-term projects and investments that will have a positive impact on businesses. Businesses are extremely sensitive to this kind of data. Cities that actively trumpet their economic development attract more businesses.

If you lack content or presence in any of these areas, know that it does take some concerted effort to plan out what you want to say. Often, the exercise of deciding how you want to position your city to a business audience will force you to think about your city’s strengths, weaknesses, and areas to best highlight. There are often many positive business stories happening in your community. But if your website does not talk about them, for many businesses it’s like that good news doesn’t even exist.

Interested in talking more about business-friendly websites? Contact us.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

One of the areas where cities often challenge our recommendations is hardware replacement. Over the years, we’ve seen many cities keep servers and workstations long past the time those machines should be replaced. Understandably, servers and computers are viewed as such expensive investments that many city managers and finance officers want to see them used up for all they’re worth.

However, rather than maximizing your investment, aging hardware is actually negatively impacting your bottom line. That’s why we urge cities to follow a hardware replacement lifecycle and plan for the replacement of servers, desktops, laptops, and other IT hardware. But we’re still often asked, “Why do you need to replace a computer after only 3-5 years?”

Here’s why.

  1. Natural wear and tear. Servers and computers take a beating. Unlike even cars or air conditioning units, IT hardware usually runs non-stop, all of the time. And just consider your own desktop or laptop. How much work do you perform on it? How much software do you download onto it? How many videos do you watch? How many web conferencing meetings do you attend? The list goes on. Plus, think about the wear and tear from carrying around a laptop constantly, banging on the keyboard every day, or letting it sit around in a typical volatile work environment. From this natural wear and tear, your hardware weakens over a period of years, slowing down and then ultimately failing.
  2. Intensified software and program demands. Even if you take pristine care of a server, workstation, or mobile device, it will still eventually slow down and become unbearable to use in only a few years. Why? It’s not the machine. It’s new software, more sophisticated websites, and higher end videos and graphics. These technology evolutions are gradual, and once a new norm is established 3-5 years after you bought your hardware, you’ll notice your machines seem to become slow, creaky, and useless. Times change, and your hardware can’t (and won’t) change fast enough.
  3. Support and warranties disappear. If you use Microsoft XP, mainstream support ended almost four years ago. Microsoft Vista’s mainstream support ended last year. Microsoft operating systems are just one example of how disappearing support is a clear sign of aging hardware. If your current servers and workstations cannot handle modern operating systems, new accounting systems, or even current Internet browsing, you are losing productivity and lowering employee morale. If you have more sophisticated hardware, you’ll begin to notice after many years that warranties expire and replacement parts are no longer made by the manufacturer.
  4. Storage and memory limits. For both servers and workstations, another sign of aging hardware is reaching limits to your storage or memory. Buying additional storage or external hard drives as a stopgap is just putting your hardware on life support. You need more modern, robust hardware that accommodates your current storage and memory needs. Otherwise, your hardware begins to slow, your work is constantly interrupted by “creative” uses of storage and memory swapping, and your machine eventually is unable to handle your workload.
  5. Basic graphics don’t work properly. Photo albums, videos, interactive maps, GIS software, and other graphic-heavy uses of your hardware become more and more difficult on aging hardware. Similar to the evolution of software and the Internet, the norm for graphics keeps improving over time. Instead of low-definition four-minute videos, we now have high-definition 1 hour videos. Instead of early map applications like Mapquest, there is now the sophistication of a Google Maps. City software—especially for public safety, GIS applications, and citizen services like City Council live videos—requires that modern graphics work, and work well. Aging hardware cripples your use of videos, Internet applications, and graphic-heavy software.

If your hardware is showing some or all of these signs, it’s time to think about replacing it. But re-envision how you justify the cost. You’re not just buying really expensive hardware and hoping to get as much life out of it as possible. Instead, you’re investing in a 3-5 year asset, and you need to plan and budget for replacing this hardware.

If you’d like to talk about hardware in more detail, please contact us.

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