Thursday, June 27, 2013

Clark County, Nev., Recorder Opts For Mobility and Accessibility

The Recorder's Office has launched a new Web-based kiosk service and an updated version of its mobile website.

 Last week, the Clark County, Nev. Recorder’s Office launched its new Web-based kiosk service, the latest phase of the department’s ongoing customer service-focused technology efforts, which already include a popular mobile version of the Recorder’s website.

In the release, County Recorder Debbie Conway said that Clark County wants to allow customers to complete transactions without waiting in lines. The machines also eliminate taxpayers’ need for excessive employee assistance.

Clark+County%2C+Nev.%2C+Recorder%27s+Office+kiosk“The vast improvements in kiosk technology have given us an opportunity to introduce a self-service that, in the past, required employee assistance,” Conway said in the release. “We will be able to offset or move more transactions from our front-line staff and to improve efficiencies.”
The kiosk is a freestanding, interactive machine with a touch screen interface that allows users to search for legal documents, including certified marriage certificates. The kiosk accepts payment via credit card instead of cash, and prints documents out instantly, eliminating the need for users to wait for mail delivery.

Courtney Hill, the office’s systems administrator, told Government Technology that the kiosk is basically a freestanding duplicate of the Recorder’s mobile website, which has been operational since August 2012, though it’s undergone successive iterations since its debut.

The county created the mobile website to address users’ growing mobile access needs. In the past, taxpayers used their mobile devices to access the Recorder’s traditional website, which hadn’t been optimized for mobile use and therefore created accessibility problems.

“It was because people were using their mobile phone or their tablet to place orders, and they weren’t coming through correctly," Hill said, "so we decided to make a website that was more mobile friendly."

Clark County Recorder Mobile Website
Conway expects most of the mobile users to be realtors, mortgage companies, surveyors and appraisers who need information while they’re in the field. She told Government Technology that Clark County created the mobile version of the website in part to address their needs.

“We asked them to come together and tell us some of their concerns, and how we could make our office more user-friendly for them,” Conway said.
The Recorder’s Office discovered that housing industry professionals desired a convenient way to access property documents on-the-go. “When we had that conversation with them, we realized that they needed immediate access to our records.”

Hill said that the creation of both the mobile website and kiosk was financed by revenue from county recording fees, though he didn’t disclose a specific amount. The site, which was created in part by the JavaScript Object Notation programming language, has hosted 757 transactions since its August go-live date.

Conway said she feels that the office’s customer service endeavors could be an example for other jurisdictions to follow.

“This type of technology, it’s really unique," she said, "and it’s really something good for recorders all across the country."

Main image courtesy of Wikipedia/Library of Congress. Smaller images courtesy of the Clark County Recorder's Office.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Baltimore Fills New Chief Data Officer Role

Baltimore's Inner Harbor
June 5, 2013 By
Big data and open data being the hot topics they are, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the role of “chief data officer” was created. San Francisco created the position, Philadelphia has one, and Chicago will likely replace outgoing CDO Brett Goldstein soon. And on June 1, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced Heather Hudson as Baltimore's first chief data officer. Hudson, who started her new role on May 20, spent the past two years as the IT project manager in the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology.

In addition to continuing her work on the city's open data portal, OpenBaltimore, Hudson will be responsible for data warehousing and heading big data and business intelligence efforts in her new role.

There has been debate as to whether a chief data officer is a necessary position. Forrester Analyst Jennifer Belissent argued in a blog post that the new position is unnecessary in the public sector because the responsibilities fall under the purview of the CIO. She suggests that a working group would be a better solution. Industry Analyst Peter Aiken argued that the position is now more needed than ever because a CIO’s job function is so broad that an organization needs a specialist who knows data.

In Baltimore, Hudson said, there’s a definite need for a chief data officer because getting the organization’s data in order is such a big undertaking. In fact, she said, when she joined the city two years ago from her position as an IT project manager and programmer with NASA, maintaining the city’s open data effort was to be one of her main responsibilities. She quickly saw, however, that there were problems to overcome before the real work could begin.

Like many cities, Baltimore is budget constrained and wrestling with old mainframe systems, Hudson explained. Getting data out of those systems is a challenge, she said, and so is educating employees on the importance of open data.

Not everyone understood how open data worked, she said, and even today she must explain to some departments how and why open data works. “When I would go to agencies and ask them for data for OpenBaltimore they would give me these summarized reports,” she said. When she explained that she needed the raw data, some workers still didn’t understand. Some of the responses Hudson got, she said, sounded like, “Well, what is the public going to do with that?” and “What is the point?” and “That’s not even interesting.”

Part of the problem is budget limitations, she said. Government workers are as busy now as they’ve ever been, so when they get a request for data for OpenBaltimore, it doesn’t necessarily go to the top of their to-do list. Once she’s able to demonstrate that the work being done by OpenBaltimore could eventually make everyone’s jobs easier, however, she usually gets the support she’s looking for.

Hudson pointed to Philadelphia’s “Sheltr” app as an example. The app allows smartphone users to find services for homeless people, such as shelters or soup kitchens. The app was made possible by Philadelphia’s open data effort, which released the raw data pertaining to those services and locations. Hudson said she wanted a similar app for Baltimore, and after the usual initial confusion while trying to get the data from the responsible department, she showed the agency’s director the Sheltr app and that’s when the light when on. The director loved the app, Hudson said. The raw data for homeless services got released a few months ago and during the June 1 and 2 Hack For Change Baltimore event, a team of developers used the data to essentially replicate the Sheltr app being used in Philadelphia, for Baltimore.

Sometimes, Hudson said, open data can teach a city unexpected lessons. In February, a parking app called SpotAgent was released for use in Baltimore. The app helped users avoid parking tickets. By using the city’s open parking ticket data, which is updated daily, the developer could predict how safe a given parking spot was during a certain time from receiving a parking ticket. As it turned out, the app worked a little too well at first, Hudson said. “Then someone in our department of transportation realized we shouldn’t be that predictable,” she said. As a result, meter maids started randomizing their routes. The app's creator was a little disappointed, Hudson said.

Open data is part of her new position, Hudson said, but her main efforts will be focused on business intelligence, big data and transitioning Baltimore’s CitiStat performance measurement program to modern technology. “I’m anxious to get going, but I’m also a little bit humbled because it’s a massive effort ahead of me,” she said. “I’ve laid out the plan, but this isn’t going to be a quick transition. But I’m excited. This is something that’s going to benefit the city and the community enormously when we’re sharing data and doing true analytics with it.”

Photo from Shutterstock.

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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Social Network for Emergencies to Launch in San Francisco

May 8, 2013 By
Disasters are scary — there’s no question about it. But as much as they cause fear, they also bring people together, connecting communities in ways that few other incidents can. Focusing on those connections, rather than the catastrophe, is the theory behind the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management’s (SFDEM) new project, created to enhance the city’s disaster preparedness.

The site, set to launch this fall, aims to connect citizens willing to offer resources and services — from food, water and an extra generator to mechanical services and a place to stay — 72 hours after a disaster occurs.

“We wanted to create a message of preparedness that focused on creating communities that made people the star of the show rather than the catastrophe,” said Francis Zamora, public information officer for SFDEM.

The site will feature four categories: a place for people to connect and share resources and services; instructions on how to prepare for a disaster, including videos on putting together a kit and making potable water, plus testimonials from those who have survived disasters; a “make” section for users to invent their own ways to help; and an emergency mode, which will switch on when disaster strikes and share live information with the public, plus check for missing persons.

Created in collaboration with design firm IDEO, the goal is to make the site approachable and uncomplicated to help people shift from thinking that they should be doing more to prepare to actually taking action.

“We want to get people into the sharing mode ahead of time,” Zamora said.

SFDEM research shows that communities with natural social networks are more resilient than others, as citizen-to-citizen resource sharing proved necessary during hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

Encouraging communities to connect through a social network is part of the department’s larger plan to enhance San Francisco’s preparedness, said Zamora.

For those who aren’t connected online, the department is planning to have leaders from churches and other city organizations log-on to the site and relay the updated information to their social networks in person.

SFDEM is also looking into having people sign-in through Facebook or Google, limiting the amount of log-on information needed. will be completely open source, so any city around the country could potentially make the concept its own. There’s been regional interest and New York has already contacted the department to learn more about it, Zamora said.

The department recently completed a beta test for an app that allowed people to connect with others in the same neighborhood for sharing resources. But nothing is set in stone.

“We want it to be device and mobile friendly, but there may not be an app; it might just be a website,” Zamora said. SF72 could evolve after the launch, he said, if, for example, a coder has a people finder that works really well.

Zamora said the department is also exploring trusted networks for sharing resources to address privacy concerns about publicly announcing that someone owns a generator.

The first phase of work, which was grant funded and included research, design of mock ups and brand and focus groups, cost $399,000. The second phase, which will begin this month, cost $850,000 to complete the website, along with a ShareSF app prototype, according to Zamora.

The department is currently looking for partnerships with foundations and the private sector to complete the rest of the project.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. This story was originally published by Emergency Management magazine.

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