Small towns weigh cloud computing
Hampshire COG offers data management option
Todd Ford is executive director of the Hampshire Council of Governments. Purchase photo reprints »
Hadley Town Hall. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — As they modernize computing systems, small towns face sticker shock. A new program led by the Hampshire Council of Governments may offer relief.
The council is working with Hadley and Chesterfield for a year to test and use a new service, Hampshire Cloud.
In time, this could provide up-to-date computing programs for all aspects of municipal governance.
“It’s a service they have been asking for,” Frank Mertes, the council’s municipal service and finance director, said of area town governments.
Todd Ford, the council’s executive director, said Hampshire Cloud should lower costs for communities and give them access to computer applications that big cities routinely use, but which are seen as too pricey for small towns.
In time, Hampshire Cloud may bring state-of-the-art computing to every town in the region, Ford said.
David Nixon, Hadley’s town administrator, said Thursday the COG’s pitch to join a pilot project came as Hadley was again pondering how best to handle its crucial data. The prospect of gaining access to specialized software through someone else’s remote server — the definition of “cloud” computing — is attractive, Nixon said.
The pilot project is backed by an $80,000 state Community Innovation Challenge grant. The council is working with a consultant, Paragus IT Solutions of Hadley.
For towns, perhaps the biggest question is how summon the courage, and confidence, to pull off a big change in how they manage vital information, such as tax bills, assessment records and town finances.
Ford, the council’s chief, notes that many small towns are still working without computer networks. Essential data may be tucked away in individual laptop and desktop computers that are not linked and not reguarly backed up.
That leaves data vulnerable to loss, or theft. “The security for that is not good,” Ford said. “It’s a critical topic for towns. They are exposed. We think there’s a better way to do it.”
The project will outline steps towns can take to “migrate” their data to a remote server. The COG project expects to work with the new Springfield Data Center that has received state support.
Ford said it will also work with software vendors so that it can offer a licensing plan to towns in the region, giving them one-stop shopping for the sorts of programs needed to manage municipal affairs.
He estimates that tens of thousands of dollars are now spent each year by Valley towns on software contracts.
No prices have been set for the service. But by design, towns would not have to allocate money to buy their own servers, pay for their maintenance or replace them, and then obtain a diverse group of software packages.
With Hampshire Cloud, the council is betting it can provide a better answer for towns at a lower overall cost. One way cloud computing lowers costs is by simplifying the kinds of machines town employees need. With cloud computing, the software lives on the remote server, not the desktop computer.
Nixon, Hadley’s administrator, said the project may enable the town to manipulate data more efficiently and more cheaply. Hadley will decide how to handle its IT system after judging the merits of the Hampshire Cloud project, he said.
“We’re seeing what we can do to beef up our IT,” Nixon said. “It’s very difficult to keep current.”
Ford acknowledged that with precious information at stake, the council will have to work to win over town officials, even if they stand to save money. “There’s a lot of hand-holding that, appropriately, has to happen.”
The Hampshire Council of Governments also secured a $63,750 CIC grant for a program that continues to reduce the danger of arson by young people. It is working with the Northwestern district attorney’s office to run the Northwestern Juvenile Fire Intervention, Response and Education (NoFIRES) program.
The project works with young people up to the age of 16 who have set fires. It seeks to prevent fires and thus protect young people, their families and the community.
The new money will enable the program, which received its first state grant last year, to add the communities of Holyoke, Petersham, Phillipston and Royalston.