Small Town Goes High Tech

Conyers, Ga., population 8,000, is outdoing many states and large cities with its aggressive plans to move government services online.

The town, located outside Atlanta, will begin accepting permit requests online early next year, with plans to accept online payments of property taxes and speeding tickets by the end of the year.

Conyers launched the online initiative in late 1998 to make it easier for its residents to interact with city offices.

Many of its residents work in nearby Atlanta, "so doing business the normal way, 8 [a.m.] to 5 [p.m.], is not necessarily best for our citizens," said Stacy Jones, director of tourism and public affairs for the city.

City officials looked for ways they could take existing applications and put them online to be easily accessible to residents. "Was there any reason they had to come to the office to pay their taxes?" Jones said. "The system itself is automated, so why can't the citizen access it?"

The city began working with systems integrator VC3 Inc. in late 1998 to identify potential applications and technical requirements.

VC3 specializes in helping small towns develop electronic services. The company, founded in 1994, originally targeted corporate accounts, offering a mix of Internet, intranet and help-desk applications and related services. But VC3 shifted its focus to local governments after landing Conyers as a customer in 1998, when it saw the market potential.

"Traditionally, that market has not been able to get those services cost-effectively," said VC3 president David Dunn. Smaller towns, which usually cannot afford to hire a large information technology staff, often end up piecing together support services by drawing on vendors that support specific applications. "So most end up with disjointed networks," Dunn said.

The challenge in developing "virtual government" solutions comes from having to build interfaces among different computer systems. VC3 has developed "middleware" technology that acts as a go-between for such networks, based on Extensible Markup Language. XML, an increasingly popular industry standard, defines a format for transmitting data from one system to another. VC3 essentially has created its own "government XML," Dunn said.

Conyers spent the past year upgrading its computer systems, which dovetailed nicely with the need to make its systems Year 2000-compliant, Jones said. The city is bringing applications online in phases as upgrades occur.

The first online service began in October, when its Help Desk opened for business. This World Wide Web application enables residents to request information or services over the Internet rather than by phone.

People entering a request receive a Web address they can access to track the progress of their case. And city officials can assess how well they are responding to requests by collecting data over time, Jones said.

As part of the second phase, the city is supporting Web-enabled permit requests, real-time posting of city council agendas and meeting minutes, and real-time viewing of job openings in local government.

In the third phase, in late 2000, Conyers will begin support online payments.

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