Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Ghosts of the Past

Another Outlook reminder popped up on my screen this morning. Wasn't mine; Apparently Katie and Chris got married a few years ago. I have no connection with these people except through my predecessor who passed away earlier this year. It's an awkward sort of thing to be reminded of someone else's life especially one that you had no part of.

I keep that data around because every so often there's something we need from it. So I continue to get a little reminder now and again of his life.

This isn't a new thing - +Chris Dancy has spoken quite a bit about what happens after our physical presence shuffles off but our digital persona continues to live on. My dad passed away just over 2 years ago and his digital, postal, and financial identities still interact with me on a regular basis. These interactions sometimes press upon you like a haunting. It's something like those social media interactions that feel more like an assault than a social exchange. You're not prepared for it as they come out of the blue.

The lesson I take from all of this is to take a more mindful approach to what I do digitally. From code comments to Facebook posts, the data you produce can improve life for those you leave behind or tear them down. It's not just a legacy, it's the YOU that you create to interact with everyone for a very long time.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Give The Data To The People

Because I'm one of those last-minute sort of people I was hurriedly trying to figure out if my property taxes had been paid. Really Oct 15th is, like, tomorrow so this is really ahead of the game for me. Naturally the first place to look is my financial institution since my mortgage is setup with escrow. Easy, right?

Nope. After instant messaging with a representative (Great service by the way Kari. Thanks!) the only way for me to check my escrow balance is via my statements. I know that they have that information in their systems. It's not a difficult thing to find. They could send an email notification when the escrow got paid...that'd be cool. How about an app that would notify me when escrow items were paid? I'd use it.

Even after being assured by the rep that my taxes had been paid I still wanted to verify (trust but verify - rule of thumb for all vendor interactions). How could I do this without going to a branch and asking for the proper screen to be brought up? Then my memory finally caught up....my County's website.

Brown County here in MN has a pretty good GIS and Property website. It's evolved quite a bit through the years and there's a great tie-in with their property records system. Looked up my property and, boom, no taxes due. Easy peasy. 

Such a simple thing. The data's sitting there in the database along with all the other property data. No earth-shattering innovations but it saved me time and saved an employee's time to interact with me for something that wasn't all that important. I'm just being thorough and it's not their job to help me with my trust issues.

The data's there. Give it to the people and you'll make their lives easier and you might just make them happy (or as happy as anyone can be with government maybe).

Monday, October 12, 2015

Startups: Wanna Change the World? Think Local Gov.

After a few years' hiatus I've returned to local government. It's better than I remember it being and there's so much I love about it. What do I love most? The potential for technology (done right) to make a massive impact on my own community. I get to make a difference every single day.

What do I like least? Calls from vendors. A constant, soul-sapping, mind-numbing, dizzying barrage of calls from people who have a solution to so many problems we never had. But I digress...

I was reading a tweet +Matt Beran threw out there this morning about using Slack to make a wiki for documentation. A pretty nifty way to document and it uses some cool tools that don't cost a lot to get into. 

So I put a little thought into how I'd use Slack in my new job and got just a little bit excited. The little attorney voice in my head asked, "but what about retention?" Dang, there's the catch. To get retention and discovery we'd need to have paid accounts. Obviously there's no opposition to paying for a good tool but it can be a large barrier to entry for us. Where many companies could start with a free account and grow acceptance until it hit a critical mass that's not at always possible in local government. We're required to be discoverable and archived in so many things we do...by law.

That's the problem with many popular platforms. The features required for local levels of government are always priced at enterprise level. There's not a whole lot of cities, municipalities, townships, counties, schools, etc that don't have budget problems. Funds are tight almost everywhere plus we're often talking about organizations that are 250 employees or fewer with IT staff of one or two if any at all. Requirements make them need the 1000 employee version features but the technical maturity level is more like an organization at 30 or fewer employees.

If your startup wants to have a massive impact on local government start designing your products and pricing with them in mind. Create them the way you'd like to see government run - open, accessible, documented. Then find a way to make them easily adopted by shops that are cash-strapped and understaffed since that tends to describe almost every local government shop. If you can prove the value and demonstrate the effectiveness you'll find success in getting elected officials to find room in budget for your product.

Yes, Slack has a separate TOS for government agencies. Yes, we could use the service for free (it'd be a real challenge when that first FOIA request was received or needed to preserve info for historical purposes). Yes, it's foolish to complain about free stuff. I'm just saying, with a little strategy and vision, your startup really could change the world AND make money instead of just changing the business world.

Local government is an interesting thing. You typically don't think about it until you pay your taxes or a service impacts you: police, fire, building inspections, mowing the park, whatever. When a service affects you, though, it can be huge. It's the governmental sector that tends to have the most interaction and closest relationship with citizens. It's also the sector that has the most potential for change.