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CitySmart Blog

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.


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.
Friday, June 11, 2010
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing
If you live in the Tallahassee area you might want to check out the “Getting it Right: Customer Service and Citizen Engagement” event being put on by Governing magazine and Adobe. Speakers John Miri (Center for Digital Government) and Josh Van Tonder (Adobe) will discuss what governments are doing to increase citizen engagement while reducing the costs of communication. The event is on Tuesday, July 13 at 8:00 am.
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing
Is your city grappling with issues of social media policies and do’s and don’ts? Check out this great website put together by April Edmonds of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. She is responsible for the agency’s use of Twitter and Facebook to communicate with hunters, fishers, and other people interested in Florida’s wildlife and game. She’s learned a few lessons along the way and she’s opened up for any government agency to share and collaborate. If you need a primer on proper Twitter etiquette and Facebook rules, this is the website for you.
Friday, June 4, 2010
Dave Mims, President
Lately we’ve been looking at how mobile apps are making the jump into the mobile space but a new Bloomberg piece suggests that it might just be the next internet boom. From open data initiatives to app contests and 311 improvements, private sector companies are lining up to help transition government entities into the modern business world and perhaps even give them an industry of their own. It might a bit early yet to call this the next internet boom but its certainly going spark a lot of innovation and improvement in the sector. I happen to know a company that might be able to help. ;)
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
While backing up your data is an important first step forwards data security what is possible more important is how that data is backed up. It might seem like a simple cost effective solution to back up data on a CD or a thumbdrive and store it in a safe. However, anytime your putting data on a physical object it is subject to the limitations of physical world, namely being lost or destroyed.

This is a lesson that Charlotte, NC recently learned when its vendor lost a year’s worth of employee health insurance data containing social security numbers due to misplaced DVD. To further the damage, the information on the discs was not even encrypted. This represents a huge danger to data security.

The Lesson? If you are backing up data, make sure it is backed up to multiple secure places (offsite and onsite) and that it is encrypted so even in the event of theft the data is nearly useless.

Friday, May 28, 2010
Dave Mims, President
Governing is running a great article about the black eyes that outsourced government IT has received over the past few years, especially in Virginia and Texas. Its great read because it espouses and important fact that we are committed to here at Sophicity: a hybrid approach is the best method for outsourcing your IT. In places where a vendor had complete control, the projects did not often go well. The key is having both government departments and the vendor working in lock step to create an IT infrastructure that efficiency supports the city. We’d much rather be in touch with city staff on the ground then trying to run the whole thing ourselves. To trot out a platitude, it’s a real team effort. Check out the article if you’re thinking of completely outsourcing the IT at your city.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
This month we wrote about government mobile apps and Governing has a great companion piece on what DC is doing for the Government App Explosion. They’ve held an app contest, but that’s nothing new. What they want to do now is expose more of their operations to the public in hopes that app developers will come up with ways to actually improve the operating efficiency of the government. Releasing pubic data is one thing, but releasing operational data will be a whole new era of transparency. I’ll be very interested to see what they come up with as this is a challenge we at Sophicity face every day – how to make our government clients more efficient.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Dave Mims, President
Google recently commissioned a study to look at citizen opinion on how government should be spending on technology. With the economic downturn, many cities might be thinking to cutting back on their technology spending, but Google’s data shows that a choice like that might not ring too well with the constituency. The study found that 70 percent believed that the government should use ‘the computer power and expertise of private companies to improve information technology departments in government agencies’ and 75 percent said they support spending on "quicker and more efficient e-mail systems" to increase productivity. That represents a significant portion of the voting population and it shows that most people understand that while technology can be expensive, it can save governments far more money than it costs.
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