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CitySmart Blog

Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
Cloud Computing is a term you have probably heard quite a few times in connection with local government. Like any good buzzword, it begins to lose meaning after a while and it might not be clear exactly what it is. Is cloud computing a technology? A software product? A philosophy? Or is it just marketing speak? How can cities actually benefit from it? In this article we’ll take a brief, non-technical look at cloud computing and how it could transform the way local governments operate and provide services to their citizens.

What is Cloud Computing?

In its simplest form, cloud computing means accessing a service (such as email) by way of an internet connection without having to worry about the technical details that go into providing that service. Chances are you probably already use a number of cloud computing resources without realizing it. Online email services like Gmail or Hotmail - that’s cloud computing. Social networks like Facebook or Twitter - that’s cloud computing too.

Think of it like the difference between cooking your own food and going to a restaurant. When cooking, you need a kitchen with the right tools. You need to purchase and store ingredients. You need a recipe and the skills to properly make it. You also need to keep your kitchen clean and well maintained so you can continue to use it in the future. However, at a restaurant you walk in, sit down, and pay a fixed price for a professionally cooked meal (hopefully!) without having to worry about how it got onto your plate. You don’t even need to clean up when you’re done!

Cloud computing works just like the restaurant. For example, in a traditional “home-baked” IT environment business-class email requires that you have the hardware, software licenses, server room space, and staff expertise needed to run it properly. This is a tried-and-true method but it can be cost prohibitive for some cities, leaving them without a viable solution to meet their needs. In a cloud computing scenario, you pay a fixed price for access to an email solution that is hosted by a provider. You don’t have to worry about hardware, software licenses or email support. You just pay a fee and a vendor takes care of the rest. And because the vendor is highly specialized and has multiple clients (like a restaurant), they can usually offer this service at a higher-quality for a more cost-effective rate than an in-house solution.

Beyond cost savings, predictability is another important factor when looking into cloud computing. In-house systems may require maintenance, upgrades, repairing, and staff overtime which all add an element of cost and management unpredictability from month to month. With cloud computing, the vendor has complete responsibility for supporting the technology and will charge the city on a flat per-unit rate. For example, email might be invoiced per inbox or storage might be invoiced per gigabyte, which adds a high level of predictability that helps make budgeting easier.

For city governments, cloud computing typically comes in two formats:

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)

Cloud computing software applications, known as software-as-a-service or SaaS, come in a variety of flavors including content management, accounting systems, email, document management, GIS, or nearly any function that modern local governments use to provide services. These applications don’t need to be purchased, installed, or upgraded, and they don’t require confusing licenses. Users are provided access via a web browser (or a mobile application) which allows them to work from anywhere, at any time. The city is only charged a simple per-user rate.

Hardware-as-a-Service (HaaS)

Vendors and some agencies are beginning to open data centers and are providing access to local governments that might not have the ability to house their own IT department. These services are known as Hardware-as-a-service or HaaS. They allow cities of any size to access modern data center services like mass storage, data disaster recovery, fast internet connections, and top grade hardware managed by teams of highly skilled engineers without the associated cost. Each customer pays a fixed rate for access to this hardware without the hassle of purchasing and maintaining it.


Through SaaS and HaaS offerings, cloud computing brings cutting-edge technology and services into reach for municipalities that might not otherwise be able to implement them due to a lack of resources or expertise. It allows cities to easily budget for their IT needs by removing much of the unpredictability of maintaining an in-house solution. Cloud computing finally moves IT from the realm of confusing technical problems to something as simple and basic as a utility bill. It allows a city to be more efficient, more agile, and better able to provide the kind of modern services that citizens have come to expect in the information age.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
Continuing on our Gov2.0 theme for this week, is another study from Grant Thornton and FreeBalance that looks into the actual measurable effects of social media on the government space. We can talk about this all day but what about some metrics? Check out this post from SmartPlanet that highlights some of the advantages that government organizations are seeing from social media. In fact Atlanta’s own Beltline project gets a shout out for its mass mobilization of supporters using Facebook. And if you want the details check out the study itself It's an interesting look at how governments are thinking different and winning big.
Friday, April 9, 2010
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
Continuing with our Cloud Computing theme, GovTech has an article about how a county in Minnesota is using virtualization and cloud-based services to increase its operational efficiency. The county was able to afford much more computing horsepower for a lower cost, leading to huge decreases in data retrieval times. In one case, an operation that took 48 hours is now taking just 8. Check out the article to find more ways that the county is benefiting from its move to the cloud. We’ll continue to report on cloud computing in the government space as we firmly believe this is where a lot of the services of the future are heading.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
Lately we’ve been discussing cloud computing and how it is revolutionizing the government space. (In fact, stay tuned next week when we release a full article about it). For anyone interested in just how powerful this technology can be, look no further than our Federal CIO Vivek Kundra. This week he gave a talk on how the Feds are using cloud computing to dramatically reduce the over $76 billion a year they currently spend on IT infrastructure. Naturally most cities aren't going to be dealing with those kind of massive numbers, but there are still lessons to be learned and money to be saved, even at smaller towns. Check out the full version of his speech and look for the attached slide presentation. Good stuff.
Friday, April 2, 2010
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
We’ve discussed a number of times how Facebook and other social media sites are changing the way governments interact with their citizens. Many activities that once had to be performed in face to face meetings with officials can now be quickly handled through online social networks. Still, we can philosophize about this all day. It is real examples that will help bring the idea home to those that may still be on the fence when deciding to start a social media campaign at their city. This article from a the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette provides some real examples of how Facebook is helping cities in Pa. offer better services by leveraging social media.
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing
In its continuing interest to get more on the mind of towns, Google has launched a new content to make 3D models of your home town using Google’s SketchUp , Building Maker and popular Maps applications. Cities all over the world have some amazing architecture and by using these tools you can take those flat buildings in Google Maps and turn them into 3D versions in all of their glory. Google opened the contest to the entire world and the entries are starting to pour in. Check out the contest homepage to get instructions on how to build your own town and even vote on which town should win the contest. (Our vote is on the entry from Braunschweig, Germany for the beautiful cathedral the artists created.)
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
SmartGrid Technologies have been a hot topic recently as several cities make preparations to roll out their version of the technology. What is a SmartGrid? The easiest way to think of it is as a modern update to the way utilities are managed. It’s essentially hooking up electric, water, gas and other utilities into a giant network that has access to the internet and has the potential to change utilities in much the same way computers changed the office environment.

Remember when the meter man around to read your meter? SmartGrids make it a thing of the past. Hate paying for three separate utility bills? SmartGrids can solve that too by grouping all your utilities into one bill. SmartGrids can also do things you could only dream of 5 years ago, like showing you online charts of your energy usage, letting you know when electricity is cheapest, and even controlling your thermostat from anywhere in the world via the internet.

Tallahassee, Fl. Is the one of the first cities in the nation to roll out a SmartGrid system and GovTech has a great piece on how its going to help the city and it citizens save money, time, and resources. It’s worth the read!

Monday, March 29, 2010
Dave Mims, President
At the Spring 2010 Southern Municipal Conference (SMC) in Richmond, Virginia, I presented to a number of state municipal leagues on Driving Member Services Using the Web.  Without a doubt, this is an exciting topic for me to present on.  The web channel for delivery of services is aggressively growing in the number of possibilities for reaching and engaging cities and the people who are stewards of the cities. Just as there has been wide user adoption for full service portals, social media interaction, and rich anywhere anytime applications in the consumer market, the same is now expected for local governments. It’s my feeling that the state municipal leagues should be leading the way and setting an example for their member cities on how to provide modern, innovative web services.
To find out how, check out the presentation slides. And as always, ping me if you have any feedback.
Friday, March 26, 2010
Dave Mims, President
City governments, and governments in general, have been struggling with the new legal hurdles that the internet and widespread access to connected mobile devices bring. What happens when jurors tweet? Are text messages subject to Open Records Act requests? Are apps that help you find legal parking an obstruction of justice? Each one of these questions and many more are in play at cities across the nation. In some cases, cities choose to fight the technological onslaught and in others they seek to work with it as a way to improve their operations. Personally, I tend to embrace the later ideal, because I honestly feel that cities can revolutionize the way they do business by embracing technology instead of shunning it.

Such is the case at Elgin, Illinois where a man developed an iPhone app to help people park smarter and avoid parking tickets. In some cities, similar aps have appeared and been shut down for reducing parking ticket income. But in Elgin, the city has actually embraced the application has a way to reduce congestion and help people get to where they are going faster, which in theory, should help increase sales, accessibility, and reduce costs related to dealing with that congestion. In the end it’s a win-win for the city and its citizens. Sure, the city might see less parking ticket income but it should more than make up for it in increased revenue from businesses and reduced administration costs.

Thursday, March 25, 2010
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
We’ve discussed a number of App contests that cities are running, most notably in New York, but the newest version comes from Portland, Or. where they have given their developers access to a wider data set from cities, counties, and various other agencies like transportation (Portland has some of the best mass transit in the country) and traffic. In the end, what you get is more data for the application developers to build off of. It’s a bit like giving an artist more paint – the results are likely to be much more robust and fruitful when the contest comes to a close. And like the other contests, anything developed for it must remain open source so that anyone can further modify it to their liking. As a data geek, it’s a good time to be alive. Where’s your app contest, Atlanta?
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