November 8, 2009 By Kayt Sukel
When the H1N1 "swine" flu epidemic broke loose in late April 2009, Americans clamored for information about the disease and its potential impact in their communities. Many local governments turned to their own Web sites and other means of digital communication to disseminate information.
But simply placing a notice on a Web page or sending an e-mail isn't always sufficient. How can local governments be sure to provide the information citizens want and need in a timely fashion? And more importantly, as there may be overlap among different government departments and agencies, how can local governments be sure their citizenry can find the information they seek without difficulty?
Oakland County, Mich., a community of 1.2 million residents in the state's southeastern corner, confronted these challenges head-on by implementing a new digital communication platform. The county is going even further by letting its municipalities use the service for free.
The county uses a digital subscription service provided by GovDelivery. It plugs directly into an existing Web site and lets citizens sign up to receive notification via e-mail, RSS feed or text message when Web pages in specific categories are updated.
For example, if a citizen were interested in being notified about swine flu, he could go to a general subscription sign-up page on a county's or municipality's Web site. There he can select from more than 40 categories, including a high-level category called Health Division, or underlying categories like Flu Information, Flu Shots or Pandemic Flu Preparedness. Whenever a Web page tagged with that category is updated - no matter what department, agency or level of government is providing that revised information - the citizen is immediately notified by e-mail with a link to the updated page.
"Before, one might have to sign up for a general or marketing e-mail alert that may not provide information they are really interested in seeing," said Zach Stabenow, executive vice president and co-founder of GovDelivery. "But GovDelivery allows a county or city to be very specific. As a citizen, maybe I just want to sign up and receive an e-mail alert when the county commissioner's meeting minutes are posted. And now I can do that - get real-time information from my local government straight to my e-mail box and choose what that information is."
Phil Bertolini, deputy county executive and CIO of Oakland County, said allowing citizens to choose the information they want to follow is critical when dealing with a large government Web site.
"We have 25,000 pages of content on our site with 170 different content managers managing data on a daily basis," Bertolini said. "We work hard to remain up-to-date and dynamic." Because of those active, often daily content updates, the county appreciates an automatic process that does not burden its information managers with more work than they already have.
The new technology also helps save taxpayers some money.
"The communication benefit is invaluable. But the other benefit of using this kind of communication platform is that it reduces costs for the local governments," Stabenow said. "The printing and postage involved with delivering information through traditional channels can really add up."
Oakland County started using the platform in June 2008. The county decided to offer GovDelivery to its municipalities this year. In his state of the county address in February, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson discussed the benefits of GovDelivery and offered the service to all municipalities free of charge. Although some might find the announcement surprising, Bertolini said the county's leadership is committed to helping its communities obtain the right technologies.
"We've often provided new technologies to our communities at no extra cost," Bertolini said. "After all,