From the Village: South Orange is moving to the cloud

Posted on March 29, 2013 at 11:40 AM

Check out the update I co-wrote with Trustee Howard Levison on new technology solutions the Village is rolling out, including a new website, Google Apps, new emergency notifications systems, upgraded IT infrastructure and more!

By Village President Alex Torpey and Trustee Howard Levison

Well, we aren't physically moving to the cloud (although we are moving, more on the Village Hall renovation coming soon), but there are a number of new IT solutions being implemented to take advantage of cloud technology that are worth sharing with everyone.

Website

Although when southorange.org was last updated (in 2006/2007), it was far ahead of it's time in functionality (and still is for many town websites believe it or not) it no longer is. The website, although hosting a true wealth of information, is poorly organized, built on very out-dated technology, not visually appealing or user-friendly for administrative or user purposes, and doesn't allow easy access to important information that people need.

On October of 2012, the Board of Trustees approved a contract with a fantastic web design company based out of Maplewood called MetaRhythm. After exploring all of the options - pre-packaged government-focused website tools (which tend to be too standardized), open-source Content Management systems like Wordpress (which tend to have significant long-term in-house maintenance costs) a workgroup consisting of President Torpey, Trustee Levison, the Village's IT Manager and the Village Administrator recommended MetaRhythm to the Board.  The working group, after studying many companies and options, concluded that MetaRhythm offered exactly what the Village needed - a nimble, RoR (Ruby on Rails), adaptable and completely scalable website solution that will put our website back ahead of the curve. Blog-like functionality to ensure that the latest information is easy to find and shareable, a completely new visual-based layout, and strong reliance on dynamic auto-fill search technology (Similar to Google, when you start typing and it begins to show you suggestions) are just a few of the many great new features that will be available, in addition to a totally new layout and easier organization. We expect the website to complete early this spring, and the design process is already underway, with help and valuable input from residents on the Public Information and Marketing Committee.

Emergency Notifications

The Village is transitioning off of it’s old emergency notification (Generally known as reverse 9-1-1) to an exciting product offered by EverBridge; one of the fastest-growing and most cutting-edge notification systems on the market. Competitively priced (actually cheaper than our current solution) EverBridge provides a much more robust (and smartphone/tablet accessible) administrative interface, cutting down the time needed to send out notifications by nearly 75%, while providing the Village more options of how to package information, and even collect information - there is a survey tool built into the software that can collect geo-coded data.  In other words, when you get an OEM phone call, it may ask you questions such as, “Is your power out?” and ask you to press corresponding keys which will be reported back to the Village in real-time, vastly improving our ability to react to and manage emergency situations. EverBridge also offers are a number of other exciting features, and we are currently undergoing the migration process to this new system.

Google Apps

Late last year, the Board of Trustees also agreed to move our out-dated in-house Microsoft Exchange email system into the cloud by switching our email service to Google, a transition that is just being completed as this blog post is being written. Google apps will provide a more cost-effective solution as it will markedly decrease the amount of staff time spent on email maintenance in the long-run, as well as providing increased redundancy (village email currently goes down when power is lost, and for example went down for several days during the most critical points of Hurricane Sandy) and better mobile and remote application usage, increasing our network security, as well as providing access to other applications like Google Docs and Google Calendar, which will provide Village officials with a more efficient workflow, saving even more staff time (and money).

Social media

The Village recently re-launched its official Twitter account, middle of 2012, and it proved remarkably useful during Hurricane Sandy. The number of followers doubled to now more than 1,000 as a result of Hurricane Sandy, allowing many residents used the free Twitter service to get text alerts from the Village right on their mobile phones. Using Twitter during the storm brought hundreds of people to the website, where we had the most up to date information about what was happening.

Working with the Public Information and Marketing Committee, the Village has also launched the official South Orange Village Facebook page, and is researching best practices as far as creating the proper types of communication and social media policies surrounding their use - not only complying with state open public record/meeting laws, but actually helping to set new standards for transparency and records retention.

IT Infrastructure

All of our major municipal buildings are now interconnected either by high speed fiber optic

cables and soon, high speed wireless point-to-point connections. All components have redundant failover capabilities, as well as generator power in more and more buildings every day to ensure that information can flow freely, especially when we need it most, and we have a number of grants out currently to help reduce the cost of installing those backup power systems.

Wireless Wi-Fi Access points are being created for internal usage of handheld devices

and security cameras around the Village in the future. In the future, we may even be able to offer free public Wi-Fi accessibility anywhere in town. Currently there is free wireless internet access in the library, Baird Center, Village Hall and the pool.

We are also now completing the installation of a new central server/network facility which is fully redundant, provides a home for internal applications on “Blade” servers running VMware (virtual)  software with 30 terabytes of attached storage and will serve as the gateway to the internet. Hosted VoIP will be used for phone service to transition staff from Village Hall to the temporary facilities.

There are also a number of additional initiatives that will be rolled out on the near term

including replacing the Police Department’s CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) and RMS (Records Management System) that will provide structural modernization and management tools affording a new level of information support that has a “force multiplier” effect to the efficiency of police administration and operations.

These are just a few of the exciting technology initiatives happening in South Orange. If you are interested to learn more please contact atorpey@southorange.org, there are always internship and volunteer opportunities to help explore and implement these initiatives, as well as project-specific volunteering opportunitties through the Public Information and marketing Committee.

Don’t forget to follow South Orange on Twitter: http://twitter.com/SouthOrangeNJ and like our page on Facebook: http://facebook.com/SouthOrangeVillage.