How free Web tools save one small-town agency from new Nixle fees

CashMere months after Cops 2.0 began, a promising new service opened for business. Nixle, a one-way messaging service, meant that police who were still social media-shy could use Twitter, text messaging and other tools to send many different kinds of messages to their citizens — all for free.

That’s changed. Last week, Nixle announced that it would start charging its member agencies for use. The decision caught many departments off guard. Some are canceling their service. Others are paying in the short term, but looking for options.

At least one has found a solution, and it, too, is free. That this agency was one of Nixle’s first users is no small thing. Long-time readers of this blog may remember Tyrone, GA Police Chief Brandon Perkins from his glowing Nixle review (which continues to be one of the highest-traffic posts on this site). Now, Chief Perkins is here to tell us how free software is helping him stay in touch with his citizens.

My agency, a 16 officer department just south of Atlanta, was the first in the State of Georgia and the 16th in the United States to join Nixle back in April 2009.

The move brought immediate positive press coverage to the agency and an influx of highly positive comments from our citizens. We wrote policy and trained our field supervisors in its use so that emergency messages could be sent 24/7 – a move that got us even more recognition. Agencies from across the country were calling me to find out how the service worked, how we were training our officers, and requesting copies of my policy.

It was an amazing concept and, as a budget conscious administrator, I was extremely thankful that it was offered at no cost to first responder agencies. I have to admit that I was skeptical because no self respecting business man would offer anything for free to the government, but we and thousands of other agencies were assured that we would not be charged for this service – Nixle was funded by a sister company that charged for their services in the private sector.

The honeymoon lasted just shy of two years.

From free to fee

All of Nixle’s member agencies received an email last week explaining that they would begin charging for most of their services effective April 29, 2011. The cost would be $1495 for the first year – a “loyalty discount” – and then a minimum fee of $3000 per year after that depending on population.

I was on the phone with their corporate offices within five minutes of reading the email and, apparently, I wasn’t alone. The representative that I talked to advised me that they had received calls from several unhappy agencies.

As a consolation, they were going to continue to provide all members with the ability to send emergency text alerts for free. Thanks, but no thanks. I can see the writing on the wall and I’m simply not going to wait for the other shoe to drop.

So what is an agency with a limited budget and a loyal following on a very stable and popular communication system to do when the provider they relied on and helped to build (yes, I went there) goes to a fee based business model? Three words: Open. Source. Software.

WordPress to the rescue

Simply put, my agency already had a website that was built on the free WordPress platform. All I had to do was install two new plugins (they were free, too) and we had our own nearly automatic mass communications system. The cost? About $10 a year for the domain name and about $90 per year for a hosting account (in our case, we share a hosting plan with the city).

I got the message from Nixle last Thursday, installed and tested the plugins on Friday, and communicated Nixle’s intention to begin charging us and our lack of funding or desire to pay for this service to my citizens (using Nixle’s system, of course) on Saturday.

The plugins that I used were SMS Text Message and Subscribe2. (You can also find these by doing a search in the ‘Install Plugin’ area in the Admin section of Word Press.)

How the plugins work for communication

As of Wednesday, we had over 200 members on our new system and growing. I’ve received several emails from my citizens thanking me for being fiscally responsible and for continuing in our commitment to providing them with real-time information via our new locally managed system – I’m a bigger winner than Charlie Sheen!

Unlike Nixle, my solution will not allow us to simultaneously send an email and text alert to a subscriber’s cell phone. Instead, an email is automatically sent to all subscribers when we post to our blog and we have to go to the SMS module within the Admin area of our site to send text messages.

Admittedly, this is not the “cleanest” process, but we will only be sending texts for major emergencies which are rare in my community and the text message interface is extremely user-friendly. All other messages – equivalent to Nixle’s “Community” level messages – will be submitted as a blog post and our citizens will get an email alert containing the text of the post and a link to it on our blog.

We have used Nixle to consistently send an average of 4 to 5 (mostly non-emergency related) messages per month to our subscriber base of nearly 700 members over the past two years and I am confident that our new system, although it hasn’t been around long enough to prove itself, will do a fine job for us and our loyal subscribers.

For those who may be interested in pursuing this route, Word Press is a very stable and user-friendly platform, so the learning curve for your staff should be minimal. I am currently the only member of my agency who has any responsibility with our website and I spend less than an hour per week maintaining it. A cron job performs an automatic backup of my database and sends it to my email each afternoon and adding a post or page to the site is as easy as sending an email. In fact, Word Press can be setup so that you can actually post via email!

The bottom line is this: Nixle provides an amazing set of services that any agency would be proud to offer its citizens, but there are other ways to get the job done without raising your millage rate. The internet is full of open source software and applications that can be combined to accomplish nearly any task you can think of. In some cases, it might even be financially feasible to pay a software developer to write a system to fit your needs – the upfront cost might be high, but once you own it it’s yours!

I am available to discuss our system and to provide guidance to any emergency response agency who may be interested. I can be reached at bperkins@tyrone.org or you can get all of my contact information and see our system in action at www.tyronepd.org.

Creative Commons License photo credit: JMRosenfeld

16 thoughts on “How free Web tools save one small-town agency from new Nixle fees

  1. Angela

    As an IT consultant and a resident of Tyrone, I am SO impressed that MY Chief of Police knows the what open source software, SMS messages, and cron jobs are!! WOW!

    Great job, Chief Perkins. Keep up the good work and continue to find new and innovative ways to serve your community through technology.

    You are a wonderful example to not only other police agencies, but to any fixed-budget entity that should be finding innovative ways to server their customers.

  2. Philip Devlin

    Well done Chief Perkins. As a Tyrone citizen and subscriber to both the Nixle and now your (still) free alternative I have to applaud your out of the box thinking, initially for utilizing Nixle and now for seeing the alternative. Your proactive communication has certainly raised both my families awareness of local issues as well as my respect for your department.

    Kind regards,

    Philip Devlin

  3. Nick Selby

    This is great – so happy to see agencies willing to go it alone, find free, great solutions and take the effort to leverage them. Don’t stop – there are password protected options on WordPress for you to use for your internal communications. And free mailing list options on services like Gmail and Yahoo! and LinkedIn to create a free and easy-to-manage intelligence list. This way, you can share Intel with agencies throughout your region, connect dots, and increase inter-agency cooperation. Congratulations, Chief, on breaking free. And thanks for writing about it.
    Nick Selby´s last [type] ..“Give Me Your Hunches”

  4. Christa M. Miller

    There is apparently a new development… I have heard from a reliable source (though I have not verified with Nixle itself) that the company needs some beta-test agencies, meaning that they will still get free service… IF they agree to use fresh services and provide feedback about how it works for them.

    I don’t know how many agencies this applies to, but obviously it presents its own set of issues. Whether an agency agrees will likely depend on the level of “beta” it feels its citizens will put up with for the sake of making the service better for others.
    Christa M. Miller´s last [type] ..Social media customer service- How responsive is too responsive

  5. Scott White

    This was expected. When I was with Portsmouth Police we started using Nixle back in 2008 I believe. It was met with mixed feelings by the command staff but was embraced by the citizens who were “connected”.

    I anticipated this free to fee change at at the time I left had already written several beta plugins to take WordPress and make it into our own Nixle like system.

    My abrupt departure from PPD in Dec 09 stopped all production on the plugins and the department has since all but stopped this kind of communication.

    They do still use the website, and are using it reasonably effectively but there is no “quick txt” communication being disseminated from the agency. Sad. Expected. But sad.

    I understand a company needed to monetize their product. What I don’t like is the method they use to get to that point. I think its underhanded.
    Scott White´s last [type] ..25 Years Ago I Was Crossing the Line of Death

  6. Christa Miller Post author

    I agree, Scott. At best, mishandled PR — my understanding is that Nixle changed hands back in August, in part because the investors were unhappy. That was the time the company should have started communicating with its customers about the coming change. I am sure the reason they didn’t was because they believed they’d lose customers in droves… but I’m also sure there were ways around that — different pricing levels for differently sized agencies, for one; transparency, for another. Now they’re losing customers and goodwill. (Wouldn’t it have been so much better if the customers they kept, stuck around because they wanted to and appreciated the company rather than because they felt they had no choice?)

  7. Christa Miller Post author

    Angela, sorry, somehow this ended up in my spam filter! Sorry about the delay in finding it, and thank you so much for the comment — I will pass it along to Chief Perkins. :)

  8. Scott White

    Absolutely Christa. It’s just poor handling of the entire situation.

    Perception is reality. I quit following anything Nixle related when I left my agency. I had no idea they traded hands. Not that it matters really.

    I anticipated a pricing plan. The engine behind Nixle is far to expensive to maintain simply on sponsorship money without some return on the sponsors dollar.

    While I have no ill will toward Nixle, there are far too many methods out there of getting the word out without paying a third party.

    I was using SMS with my own script off our website for 2 years prior to Nixle coming on scene. The only difference is I didn’t control the “zoning” or mapping like Nixle does. Mine was simply a blast message.
    Scott White´s last [type] ..25 Years Ago I Was Crossing the Line of Death

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  10. Erin Lapp

    Wow im impressed with Chief Perkins..Nixle handled the situation very poorly and began charging their customers to make a little extra cash. Chief Perkins though took this opportunity to provide his community with a similiar service and save money. Good Looking out on his part.

  11. Ken Dole

    Does anyone know whether the DOJ or any State Attorney Generals are investigating Nixle for this bait and switch of theirs?

  12. Christa Miller Post author

    Sorry Ken — I have not heard anything, but even at that, I don’t think it would technically qualify as “bait and switch.” Agencies can opt out if they desire, for one thing, and the service was free for quite awhile before Nixle’s leadership and business strategy changed — which is done daily in American business. Whether Nixle survives will be determined by the market, I think…

  13. Christa Miller Post author

    You are correct — although arguably, I think this experience highlights how the whims of service providers affect our communication. Whether by going to a paid service or changing privacy settings, police should be growing toward a tech-savvier way of figuring out what will best fit their (and the public’s) needs at any given time.

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