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CitySmart Blog

Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Clint Nelms, Practice Manager: Network Infrastructure

Over the last few years, internet-based data backup services geared toward the home user have grown in popularity. These services provide an adequate level of protection for home users at an affordable cost. When looking to back up your city’s data, these consumer-grade backup offerings are so cost effective that you may consider them over the more expensive services aimed at the business sector. However, these services might not meet the stringent data protection needs of municipal government.

A home user of a consumer-grade backup system typically installs a small application onto their computer which the user can configure to suit their needs. The data backup options are usually limited to keep the program easy for non-technical home users. While this is a boon for that market, the lack of customization options can lead to serious problems for government use. When problems do occur, the user is left with minimal expert help on how to address it. By contrast, business-class internet-based data backup solutions provide many customized options and give the user access to expert engineers. Before you make the decision to go with a particular internet backup solution, there are three areas of potential risk to consider:


Who is Doing the Backups?

Most consumer-grade backup solutions are cheaper because they require the user to perform all of the labor. This is fine for home users but governments store much larger amounts of data critical to day-to-day operations. A consumer-grade backup solution will require the city to administer its own backups. For governments without onsite technical staff, this can introduce a great deal of risk into the backup process. If a non-technical city staff member is assigned the job of performing the backups, what happens if they run into an issue? What if they get sick? What if they never tested that the backups worked? Critical backups are all about consistency. If the city has to rely on employees who aren’t properly trained, it could introduce a number of risks such as missed, improperly performed, and unaudited backups. The critical nature of most government data means that these are risks a city cannot take.

Business-class internet backups cost more because they are more than just an application. They include expert engineering staff that will administer, maintain and test the backups for the city. The solution provider’s team can provide a much more stable and comprehensive backup process by leveraging a number of engineers to tackle any problems (instead of relying on one non-technical city staff member). With a solution provider, you don’t need to worry about missed backups due to technical problems, sickness or any of the numerous events that could pull someone away from their backup duties. These solutions provide an element of reliable consistency that is the cornerstone of a good backup strategy.


Are the Proper Files Being Backed Up?

Consumer-grade backup solutions can be much cheaper than business-class backup solutions because there is less variety in home environments. Most households use PCs or Macs with common files (documents, music, photos, etc). Backing up only these common file formats makes it easy for the consumer-grade backup vendor to ensure that service costs remain low and the backup software works for most home users. However, take one look at an average city environment and you’ll see a hodgepodge of different systems, architectures, applications and databases: City Hall might have different vendors for finance and email and document storage, the courts will have separate systems for ticketing and legal cases, and the police department might have numerous different systems to cover areas like dispatch, asset management and squad car camera footage.

Each vendor the city uses might have its own server with proprietary software written in a multitude of languages that use custom file types. With so many variables there is no guarantee that a consumer-grade data backup solution will be able to recognize and properly back up all the city’s data. If that data isn’t properly backed up the city will likely lose far more than a few music MP3s. Financial data loss could grind the city to a halt, courts could lose valuable ticketing information, and the police department could lose important data that may lead to complications in criminal investigations or court cases. In short, the city cannot afford to leave its backups to chance.

Business-class services remove the guesswork during the backup process. By handling a wider variety of applications, operation systems, and languages, these services have much more coverage and flexibility over consumer-grade solutions. The provider’s engineers can specify exactly which servers, applications and files will be backed up as well as allowing for regular testing. Whether it’s squad car footage or court case data, a good provider will guarantee that all of the files that need to be backed up actually are backed up.


Are The Backups Tested?

One area where many businesses and governments run into trouble with their backups is a lack of testing and auditing. Data backups need to be regularly tested and audited to ensure that all of the necessary files are backed up and that the data has integrity. Unfortunately, most consumer-grade solutions do not automatically test or audit the backups and instead rely on the user to make sure that the files are in proper condition. Remember that if the backups aren’t tested, you likely won’t know they are bad until a file is lost, a machine crashes, or a disaster like a tornado or a flood strikes. There is nothing more painful than trying to recover from a disaster only to discover that the backups are useless or corrupt. If this happens, it may put your affected systems on hold for weeks or even months. Imagine losing years worth of police evidence or tax records. Untested backups present a serious problem for governments because they are organizations that cannot afford to be out of commission for even a few hours.

To prevent such data loss, business-class internet based-backups are bundled with testing and auditing services. The provider’s engineers will regularly test and audit the data to ensure that in the event of a disaster the backups may be used to rebuild the city’s systems. If corruption or failure does occur, it will be detected much earlier and allow the city to address the problem before it’s too late. This proactive approach means that the city will have backups that it can rely on.


Conclusion

While a consumer-grade internet-based backup solution might at first seem like an attractive option due to its simplicity and price, a number of serious risks emerge when applied to government. The added cost of a business-class solution is far outweighed by the added benefits of comprehensiveness, expertise, and testing. Critical data loss can shut a city’s operations down for months. The added cost of a business-class solution is money well spent versus the high cost incurred from a corrupt or failed backup as city departments sit idle, court cases get thrown out and police cannot protect citizens. Cities must always weigh risk against cost but critical data is one area where even one risk is far too many when it comes to providing reliable service to citizens.

Saturday, July 17, 2010
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development
Tim and I just returned from the MASC convention and I must say it was one of the best conventions we’ve been to all year. This year South Carolina’s cities seem to be focused on websites and a number of folks stopped by our booth to chat about their plans for upgrading and improving their web presence. It’s further evidence that cities across the country are realizing that a website is more than just an online directory – it is a crucial part of the city’s communications and services strategies. From YouTube’d mayoral addresses to integrated 311 applications we heard a number of really good ideas of where cities wanted to take their websites. As more city services move to the web is your city’s website up to the demand?
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Dave Mims, President
GovTech has a great interview with Seattle’s CIO Bill Schrier about having to potentially cut IT staff and projects out of the budget for next year. At the mayor’s behest, he’s been compiling information to show the importance of the IT staff and the projects they will take on. Instead of simply taking out the scalpel, Schrier is looking at how IT can actually increase efficiency and thereby reduce the stress in other areas. He also delves into the drastic consequences of cutting IT staff even as cities come to rely more on IT for operations. If your city is thinking of cutting back on its IT staff or project, you might want to check out this interview for some great insights into how to reduce the strain without making the painful cuts.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
We’ve been tracking Google’s efforts to provide super fast broadband to a few lucky cities around the nation. As Google begins to award the bids and roll out the services, it’s launched a website to keep cities everywhere informed on the progress. The site also acts as a call to action to get cities more involved in improving internet access in their area.  Essentially, Google is making the case (and rightfully so) that like sewer and water, internet access is a critical part of a city’s infrastructure. Check the site out for some great information and a very Google-ly YouTube video to explain the program.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Dave Mims, President
Everyone here at Sophicity wishes you a safe, happy, and respectful Fourth of July weekend!

Fresh ideas and hard work are what made this country what it is and we are proud to help cities continue to improve and provide examples of how government can be effective, efficient, and energetic!

Thanks to all who have fought, planned, and worked to make our country great!

Monday, June 28, 2010
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development
We just got back from the GMA convention in Savannah and as always GMA put on a great show. It was great time to sit down with city decision makers from all over Georgia and learn what was on their minds. The biggest topics of conversation seemed to revolve around two things: City websites and project management. Many cities are starting to realize that having a good web presence is now an absolutely necessary part of their overall city strategy. Many are looking to update or redesign their current websites. Also, because it is budget season, many are looking at the potential of putting projects into action and are looking to make sure they are managed properly. IT projects can go bad real fast if the people managing the project aren’t in good shape.

Savannah was beautiful, stormy, and steamy. We even saw a few double and triple rainbows. It’s hard not to like a city with so much charm! Thanks to all who stopped by our booth to say hi!

Friday, June 18, 2010
Dave Mims, President
We’ve discussed IT outsourcing before and even given a few examples of how it can go horribly wrong. But it doesn’t always have to end badly. Gov Tech looks into how San Diego took its IT outsourcing woes and turned them around into a model of a hybrid approach.

After things started to go poorly on the service contract, the city worked closely with its vendor to better define communications, ensured that the contract was clear in its divisions of power, and put staff in place to act as liaisons between the city and the vendor.

In the end service dramatically improved and now other cities are looking to San Diego as a model example of how to do it right. This is something we’re very serious about: the hybrid approach to IT outsourcing is the best way to ensure that both parties have the tools to do a top notch job. If the vendor has no buy in from the city or if the city gives the vendor free reign, that’s when problem arise. The solution is to strike a happy medium between decision making and service delivery.

Friday, June 18, 2010
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
As many cities search for ways to trim their budgets one area that getting a lot of attention is energy savings. This week in Omaha, city officials from all of the country met to discuss ways that city’s can reduce their energy consumption. Topics ranged from updating buildings to swapping out street lights and, of course, IT energy use.

One of the best ways for cities to cut their IT costs for energy is simple: reduce the number of active physical servers. Servers consume a lot of energy and produce a lot of heat which require AC to work harder to cool the server room. By looking into consolidation and virtualization technologies cites can dramatically reduce their energy consumption both via the servers themselves and in cooling costs. For larger cities with 10s or even hundreds of servers, these projects can save millions off the energy bill and will more than pay for the cost of implementation. When it comes to energy efficiency, you’ve got to spend money to save money.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing
Government services and communications are moving online faster than at any point since the birth of the web. Services like 311, utility and ticket payments, and event registration are all becoming integrated with the web to provide an unprecedented level of government-to-citizen communication. With this in mind, it is ever more important for city governments to maintain a functional, well-designed website that is a critical source of community information. Unfortunately, a quick look at many city websites will turn up a wide collection of web faux pas, from 1990s-era design to impossible-to-find information.

While the first era of city websites were simple and contained a few descriptions and contact information, modern users expect far more from government websites. Timely information, ease of use, and modern graphic design are all requirements of the new wave of city websites. If your city hasn’t looked at its website in a long time it might be time to think about modernizing it. Below are a few tips to help get your city’s website up-to-par so that it appeals to increasingly web-savvy citizens.


Usability Trumps Style

At its core a city website needs to be functional. While exploring a municipal website redesign, try not to fall into the trap of making something too flashy. Citizens are visiting the site to quickly find information and don’t want to sit through flashy animations, graphic design, or other gimmicks in order to find it. Some web design firms will be accustomed to designing websites for private sector companies where style is king. Talk with them at the start of the project to lay out your requirements and ensure that usability of the site takes precedence over design. Keep things clean, simple and easy to use – think more Wikipedia and less MTV.

For an example, look at Fairfax County, Va. The county wanted to update its website and when they released an artsy, flash-filled version, citizens negatively reacted to the design citing difficulty finding information, increased load times, and distracting photos and colors. The County eventually ended up with a very spartan website that focused more on usability than design and, lo and behold, user satisfaction dramatically improved.


Organize By Task, Not Department

When it comes to organizing the information on the site, many cities fall into the trap of structuring it just like their internal organization. However, most citizens are looking to perform a task and could care less about how the city’s departments are structured. Instead, organize information in terms of what tasks citizens are going to perform. You likely already know what these tasks are because they are the same ones that generate frequent foot and phone traffic – ticket payment, city council meeting information, taxes, and contact information. Give these tasks precedence on the site and make them easy to find and simple to use.

As an example, let’s look at paying a ticket online. While the finance or accounting department might actually handle the transaction, this would not be the best place to put the ticket payment section on the website. To a citizen, tickets come from police so that is the first place they are likely to look. If your city does online payments create a central hub to house all types of payments from tickets to bills in one easy place and then link to it from the police page and the home page. Remember, the easier you make it for citizens to find the online payments, the more likely the city gets paid and the less time staff has to spend administering the program. This is a great way to reduce costs and traffic at city facilities.


Don’t Sell Ads

The cost of maintaining a website might tempt some cities to recoup the money by selling ads to local advertisers or search engine companies. This is a mistake. Citizens expect a government website to provide quick and easy information without being hassled by ads. If ads get in the way of citizens finding information they will react negatively and lose trust in the city’s ability to provide easy to find information. Furthermore, an advertising program requires a lot of additional overhead. Advertisers will need help purchasing ad space, creating ads, uploading the ads to the city, tracking metrics and many other tasks that the city might not be staffed or trained to properly support. Your website is an extension of your city - would you install a billboard in your council chambers?


Update Regularly

Nothing will kill citizen usage of the city website faster than finding it stocked with old and useless information. A government website needs to be actively maintained and groomed on a regular basis. Before creating time-intensive features like calendars, agendas, news feeds, and blogs make sure your staff can keep them regularly updated. If the citizens don’t trust the information on the website, they won’t return. If citizens don’t use the web it might lead to increased calls and foot traffic at city hall, which can decrease operational efficiency and increase costs. The power of the web is that it can be instantly updated so make sure to harness that power by keeping your website fresh.


Ensure Accessibility on Mobile Devices

If your city is redesigning its website keep mobile devices in mind. The new generation of citizens is increasingly using phones and other devices to access the web. If the city’s website is not accessible or legible on these devices, it will negatively impact some citizens’ perception of the city, especially among younger citizens. Try to refrain from using heavy graphics, photos and animations and make sure that buttons and navigation elements are large and easy to read. As the adoption of mobile devices grows, maintaining a mobile-friendly government website will become an increasingly important aspect of any city’s web strategy.


Conclusion

As you think about your municipal website, remember that it is a reflection of your city. It needs to be updated, modern, and well-kept just like your town square. For the new generation of web surfers, poor design, difficult usability and a lack of timely updates are akin to having boarded up windows and uncut grass in front of your city hall. Your website is no longer an afterthought. It should be an integral part of your city’s operations and communications strategy.

Friday, June 11, 2010
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing
If you need further evidence that governments the world over are leveraging Twitter to communicate with their citizens, look no further than Twitter itself. The company announced this week that it is hiring its first government liaison. The position will be based in D.C. and the company is looking for someone that can help them better understand the needs of government and how they might better use Twitter to communicate with citizens. This is an important move for Twitter as it signifies that they are serious about tackling the needs of the government space and moving beyond their traditional sweet spots.
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