Tag Archives: WordPress

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

Cops vs. blogging?

Image credit: dbdbrobot via Flickr

Image credit: dbdbrobot via Flickr

Omaha.com ran a recent article about Lincoln (Nebraska)’s blogging police chief, Tom Casady. Read about his subject matter, but pay particular attention to what he and another city official had to say about blogging:

Casady and [Round Lake, Ill. Mayor Bill] Gentes agreed that being personable and genuine is key to a successful blog. Gentes also said he tries to inject his sense of humor into his posts.

Gentes said he doesn’t buy some officials’ claims that they don’t blog because they aren’t comfortable with the technology.

“It’s simple to use,” he said. “You just have to be willing to write and write almost every day.”

However useful blogging may be to law enforcement — to educate and inform the public on a regular basis, about things they may not find out in the media — the writing can be the main sticking point. Most people both in and out of law enforcement seem to fall into two camps: those who enjoy and/or are talented at writing, and those who would rather do just about anything else. William Zinsser‘s book On Writing Well notes:

Take an adult chemist or physicist or engineer and ask him or her to write a report, and you’ll see something close to panic. “No! Don’t make us write!” they say…. They were told at an early age by an English teacher that they don’t have “a gift for words.”

Are you a good communicator?

Chiefs and other command staff can sometimes fall back on the department’s public information officer when they want to add the writing-intensive social media to their community outreach efforts. In many departments, however, public information falls to the chief. So should a chief blog, even if s/he doesn’t want to?

It depends. The “personable and genuine” element of any social-media effort–blogging or tweeting or commenting–is its cornerstone. However, chiefs who enjoy communicating with people should focus on that aspect of blogging. As Zinsser says, “Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.”

Thinking on paper

True, writing in itself requires a certain discipline. Blog entries require a certain finesse to appeal to an Internet audience: they must be fairly short, well-organized (leading from Point A to Point B, and with headers to guide the way), and clear (no wandering off on tangents). Best of all is to write a rough draft, then go back and revise/cut as necessary.

But most police chiefs are busy people and lack the time to learn how to move from translating their natural thoughts and style, to refining a written piece. Those who see value in blogging, then, may want to consider partnering with someone else: the PIO, an officer, or even a secretary or clerk skilled at dictation. They may share the responsibility with the PIO, or even develop a “group blog” concept with other city or department officials.

Learning how to blog

This can provide the time necessary to learn how to write in the way blogging requires. Besides reading books like Zinsser’s, an excellent way to learn how to blog effectively is to find those you enjoy (we list several in our blogroll)–and figure out what it is about those blogs that makes you enjoy them so much.

Blogging technology has become almost as easy as word processing thanks to hosting services like WordPress and Blogger. Blogging itself, meanwhile, need not be professionally done. In fact, blog readers prefer the less formally written approach; “slick” writing is not to be trusted. By all means make sure your spelling and grammar function properly–poorly written work looks unprofessional–but the best blogs come from the heart and the head.

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Choosing a theme…

wordpress_logoThis was probably the most difficult part of my process to this point. How did I want to present the information the police department was going to put out.

I knew a standard “blog” format was not going to work. There just wasn’t going to be enough information flowing out to support that format. What I consider a standard “blog” format is like this site. A column with articles and a column or two on the side with links, quick static information and such. The keyword is columns.

Magazine formats were probably the way to go but which one? There are numerous ones out there that look sharp. There were a couple of stumbling blocks however.

  • Ease of setup – It had to be easy to set up
  • Ease of maintenance – It had to be easy to maintain. Man hours needed to be at the absolute minimum
  • Ease of posting – This was crucial since I was going to ultimately rely on non-tech types to post their own information on the site

The other “hitch” came when it came to purchasing the theme. Municipalities generally operate on a purchase order type system. Internally, we would process the paperwork or request and generate the purchase order. The PO would then be sent to the vendor who would send the product out. Once the product was received with an invoice, the PO would then be paid and the vendor would receive his/her check.

The problem is, most vendors in this field are guys who work at “real jobs” during the day and design themes in the evening. Some may have actual business licenses. Few, have filed W9 forms with the government and have an assigned TAX ID number (besides their SSN). These things are required, at least for my purchasing department to produce a purchase order.

I had narrowed the field down to three different themes. I knew I was going to use one of them, just didn’t know which one. I contact the three vendors via email. Since none of the themes were available for testing, I asked them if I could have the full version to set up and test, based on my word that we wouldn’t go “live” with the site until they were paid. They all agreed and sent me the appropriate files.

I ran through the testing on each theme. Updating articles, modifying the core files a little bit and basically going through a complete set up on each one.

Setting up a magazine theme is quite a bit more intensive that setting up a standard blog theme. Most blog themes you simply upload them, make a few quick changes to the content on the sidebars and you are up and running. I have changed the theme of this blog at least 5 times since I started writing it.

Magazine themes on the other hand use common functions of WordPress in uncommon ways. Categories, pages and articles all display in non-blog like fashion on the site.

To close this particular installment out, I will say that I settled on Brian Gardner’s Revolution Magazine theme. This theme is no longer available but he has many new themes available at http://www.revolutiontwo.com. I personally can not recommend his products high enough.

As an additional note, when I began talking with Brian about payment for the theme, he sent me an email donating it to the police department. No charge. Very gracious and professional man to deal with. Again, I personally can’t recommend him high enough.

The other vendor I dealt with was Nathan Rice. Same thing. Professional and very gracious young man with a lot of talent. He has designed many many themes, both premium and free for WordPress and the blogging community. The only reason his Proximity Theme didn’t get chosen for that application was because it was just a wee bit trickier to set up. Not bad. Quite easy for me. But the next guy that comes along… In fact, I liked the theme so much when Nathan offered a midnight Twitter sale (ask me about this); I jumped on the opportunity to purchase the theme for my personal use. You can see it in action (slightly tweaked from the original) at my Scott’s Morning Brew blog.    Note:  I have reverted back to a regular blog style theme on my personal site.

Choose your theme carefully.  You don’t want it to be a chore to get a new article up, but you want it to be flashy enough on the front end to draw visitor’s attention…  and hold it.

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When the equipment won’t work…

What do you do when the equipment your agency provides, will not support your goals for social outreach or the people ultimately in charge of the equipment do not want to run the software?

The short and long answer is… I have no idea.

BUT… I do know what I did. A bit risky. But in my case it worked. Or at least at this point it works. Subject to change at any given moment.

Disclaimer: I am using commercially available products. While I personally HIGHLY recommend these products, please do not interpret this as an endorsement of these products by my agency or my government body.

One of the most difficult things to do in my agency is to convince the leadership that something is available commercially and better than what we can provide.

It has nothing to do with their lack of technical knowledge or resistance to change. It’s an honest effort to fully utilize resources that we have available “in house”. Nothing wrong with that.

That being said, trying to explain to the uninitiated about SQL servers, running PHP 4.? vs 5.? and the associated connections is a bit tough. You get the glazed eye look after about 5 minutes, and usually what follows is, “put something together and bring it to us” and they move on to the next item of business.

What I did was bypass that step altogether.

This next part is NOT recommended unless you have a great relationship with the management of your agency. And I mean GREAT.

I went online to a hosting solution and registered two domain names that matched my agency’s current .org name. I registered a .us and .net domain. I then contracted with the provider for a hosting account. The scary part? I paid for it out of my pocket, planning to get reimbursed at a later date. IF they liked what they saw.

Then I went to work. I registered an identifiable moniker on several social networks like Twitter, Plurk, FriendFeed.

Then I installed WordPress on the domain and created an account at WordPress.com.

Now the fun started. I wanted a professional site, that didn’t look like a blog but had all the functionality of a blog. I toyed with the idea of installing Joomla and Drupal. I have used those platforms on many different sites and love them as Content Management Sites. The problem with them is the learning curve. Getting non-technical members of my agency to the level needed to maintain the site once I am transferred or retired would have been too much. Positions within my agency are very fluid and can change at a moment’s notice.

I chose WordPress because of the ease of adding an article and being able to limit the damage a “contributor” can do from the limited back end. So WordPress was my answer.

In the next article I will cover themes, how I chose the one I am using and why.

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