Open Municipal Data, Part 2 – Going Mobile

Over the last several years, many businesses re-invented themselves to deliver the “Amazon experience”: a mobile phone app that enables transactions any time and from anywhere. Could a government benefit by doing the same?

That question was asked and answered years ago by the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS was spending a fortune answering taxpayers’ phone calls[1] and had to save money. The goal was to let taxpayers get information without taking up employees’ time, and the vehicle was a mobile app called IRS2Go.

When IRS2Go launched in 2011, a lot of people downloaded and loved the app. Oddly, some who loved the app never actually used it. They simply appreciated the IRS’ offering free technology to make their lives easier. The IRS instituted a cost-control measure and wound up with both savings and a tremendous public relations coup.

Include All Your Residents

A municipal mobile app enables something fundamentally more important than cost savings and good PR. While it’s understood that mobile apps appeal to a generation who are most comfortable with those devices, it’s less apparent that other demographic groups are also better served. Some seniors never found reasons to purchase or use personal computers. Some households are budget-limited. However, almost everyone today has and can use a smartphone.

Figure 3 Not everyone uses a computer, but almost everyone has a cell phone

An IBM research project on the use of mobile apps in government[2] pointed out that citizens who don’t own computers feel underrepresented when a government offers online interaction. Offering your residents a connection via the ever-present smartphone gives access to a broader demographic cross-section of your constituents.

While online portals can be accessed from smartphones, a better solution is a mobile app specifically designed for the smaller screen. Citizens can report hazards, file and check OPRA requests (or avoid them by getting the information without filing an OPRA request) and check statuses from anywhere, and they can do it without requiring time from a municipal employee. A well-designed app can further streamline processes by taking advantage of built-in device features like cameras and mapping technology.

               Figure 4 – SDL Citizen Mobile App

In Summary

Using technology to connect citizens and governments is often assumed to be an expensive proposition with limited payback beyond the obvious morale or public relations boost.

Some municipal leaders don’t know they already own the technology needed to offer access, or assume that deployment requires custom software and lengthy integration projects. If you’re a municipal manager or administrator, an answer to mitigating public-access concerns, resource cost management and citizen outreach might just be waiting for you to give it the OK.

[1], It Costs Taxpayers $41 Per Phone Call to IRS (, 2018)

[2] Sukumar Ganapati, Using Mobile Apps in Government (Washington, DC, IBM Center for The Business of Government, 2015)

Open Municipal Data, Part 1 – Ease OPRA, Optimize Budgets

Letting citizens access municipal data sounds like a bad idea, but many of New Jersey’s municipalities have done it and realized a tremendous payoff for everyone involved: municipalities realize cost savings and increased revenue. Residents appreciate the convenience as well as other advantages. Most importantly, what sounds like a long-term project is often much more straightforward than you and your IT team think it is.

Managing Public Record requests

Last June’s NJMMA conference reminded us that OPRA is more of a concern than ever. The bulk of OPRA requestors (real estate agents, homeowners and contractors) would prefer instant, 24/7 online access from the comforts of home. When they gather public information themselves through a portal, staff can concentrate on less mundane work and avoid the “7-day liability clock” associated with OPRA.

One SDL Portal deployment resulted in:

  • A decrease (of more than 40%) in the number of weekly OPRA requests
  • A 30 – 40% decrease in foot traffic at municipal hall
  • A similar decrease in phone calls, many of which were permit status inquiries

For Residents with Privacy Concerns

Residents may applaud the portal’s convenience but balk when they realize property data is public. Many don’t know much about OPRA or public information. Once they do, they’ll appreciate the fact that portal information can be redacted.

Example: when real estate agents need to analyze property prices in a neighborhood, they don’t care about homeowners’ names. But if they file OPRA requests to get the numbers they also get the names. If your town opens a portal and decides to redact them, those names are less public than if your portal hadn’t been launched.

Figure 1 – To allay residents’ fears, portal information can be redacted

Advantages beyond OPRA

Municipalities who activated portals to ease OPRA burdens found other advantages by switching on other functions. Pet licenses can be processed and paid entirely online; citizens can apply for permits, schedule inspections, register concerns and more, all at their own convenience and minimizing the hours of staff time they occupy.

While online PDF forms are a step in the right direction, portal-hosted forms:

  • prevent mandatory fields from being skipped, saving several back-and-forth cycles before forms can be processed
  • enforce data types (i.e. you can’t enter “1/12/2019” in the “Last Name” field)
  • tie directly to workflow… pothole reports and permit applications can go to the right departments without someone having to read, process and forward them.
  • Let the user choose how to be notified (text, email, in-app notification) when a status changes

Figure 2 is an example; Morristown, NJ’s citizens can report issues and help themselves whether Town Hall is open or closed, without occupying staff-hours, and without waiting for someone to read and respond to a PDF form.

Figure 2 – SDL Portal (shared by permission of Morristown, NJ)

For Your Information Technology Team

Your IT team might assume the worst when this discussion comes up. In this case, “the worst” includes standing up a new web server, integrating and synchronizing separate data sets, etc. Fortunately, none of that is the case.

As an example, the various SDL system components (including the Portal) are already tied to a single data set. Changes are reflected throughout the system, with no external synchronization needed. Everything is built into the system and tied to the same data. In fact, if your town has upgraded its website to SDL Sites, all the Portal functionality is pre-integrated and even easier to launch.

Cost vs. Benefits

For SDL clients, the incremental cost of portal deployment is about zero (SDL Portal is included with an Enterprise license). But there are other fiscal impacts: when a revenue-generating process is easy, people are more likely to comply.

This became clear in March, 2018 when New Jersey eliminated some maintenance and minor work permit requirements. Follow-up interviews showed that citizens and contractors had never objected to the costs of the fees. They resented the hassle involved in paying them. The result was the elimination of a process that generated significant revenue for many communities. Even when the resolution is less drastic, some residents often see a difficult payment process as justification for non-compliance and therefore non-payment.


Portal deployments can drive positive impacts on municipal income, on your residents’ perception of government, and on your staff’s ability to keep up. It can be a scary-sounding proposition, but a little investigation often shows that there are both greater benefits and fewer disadvantages than you might have thought.

Part 2 of this post (Open Municipal Data: Part 2 – Going Mobile) explores how you can let your residents interface with government the same way they interface with everyone else… namely, with a mobile phone app.

Software: Ready-to-Use vs. Custom-Made

More than a few years ago, I started what was to become a lifetime career in technology. My first job as an engineer was in aerospace avionics, where a senior colleague told me a story from his own early career working on the original F-14 Tomcat fighter jet.

After months of hard work, his team reviewed a prototype design with some experienced Navy pilots who hoped to fly the aircraft. Five minutes into the presentation, the pilots asked about a particular feature.

There was an awkward silence from the presenter. After a few seconds, he said, “Umm… nobody told us this was a requirement.” One of the pilots shot back, “Why would they? Everybody knows that’s a requirement.”

This summarizes the problem with custom software. A software team can be software experts, but they can never be experts at the end users’ jobs. This is especially true when designing municipal management software for our home state of New Jersey, where each of our 565 local governments has its own way of doing everything.

The “Framework Problem”

To understand why custom software development seems to always take longer than planned, you should understand how software is developed. First comes the framework on which functionality will be built. To use a construction project analogy, the framework is the foundation on which a building will eventually stand.

Once the framework is developed (which can take weeks or months), it’s time to develop the functionality itself. When a prototype is running developers sit down with users for “alpha testing” or “User Acceptance Testing”.

Here’s the big problem… very often, a custom software project gets to this point without anyone realizing that a critical required feature is missing. What seems obvious to users may not be obvious to developers. During testing, an experienced user might ask about a missing critical feature. If everyone is lucky, it can be fixed with a few new lines of code.

But not everyone is so lucky. Frequently, an alpha tester finds a critical missing feature that requires a fundamental change to the framework as well as all the software built on that now-obsolete framework. If it’s October and you discover that you need a framework change, the software you planned to use next January might not be available until August.

The “Support Problem”

At some point, every software user needs a little guidance. When municipal employees need it, they usually need it in a hurry. That’s not possible with custom-built software.

Even if your software was developed using the best possible design discipline, where every nuance is sufficiently documented, support team personnel can never become “experts”. There are no frequently asked questions, knowledge bases nor top-of-the-head answers. Support people wind up slogging through masses of technical documentation, looking for clues. That’s if they’re lucky; custom software documentation is often skimpy, to put it mildly. It’s not uncommon for technical support answers to take days, and some can take a week or more for satisfactory resolution.

The “Evolution Problem”

Here’s a quick question for anyone who’s worked in a municipal government department for five years or more: do you perform your job the same way today that you did five years ago? The answer here is exclusively, “no”.

Municipal governments evolve constantly due to changes at the state level, to resource and staffing issues, to changing expectations from residents and councils, and a hundred other factors. This is a problem when you’re depending on custom software.

If you’re paying “custom software” prices, it’s because you needed a unique software architecture. If yours is truly a custom architecture, some of the fundamental functionality is “hard-coded” into it. That’s why process changes can lead to unpredictably expensive software modification projects. Nobody ever built a solid governmental career by presenting unanticipated four- and five-figure expenditures for approval.

The Solution

The key to stable, cost-effective software is an architecture designed to address any combination of requirements rather than a particular set of requirements. An architecture like this offers significant advantages to buyers and users alike:

  • While development is more expensive, those costs are amortized over several years and many clients, and the end user’s price per function is lower.
  • Clients are never “alpha testers”. The platform can evolve and be used in new ways, but this never requires large-scale architecture changes. User-requested tweaks occur in minutes or hours instead of weeks or months.
  • Support teams can be trained on a single platform and learn the details of the modular applications built on it. Support people build up expertise and share it with teammates, so questions can be answered in minutes instead of hours or days.
  • The larger architecture investment enables lower costs, faster deployment and more stable products when peripheral apps (e.g. mobile apps, web-based portal applications) are added to the platform. All apps can use the same data set; there’s no integration cost because there’s almost no integration. In the case of the SDL platform, these useful apps are included for free when a town deploys SDL Desktop.
  • Custom projects are often quoted with lead times of several months, and deployment cycles of up to a year and a half. The flexible SDL platform has been fully deployed (from a fresh start to productive usage) in a single week.
  • Finally, when process requirements suddenly change for a government team, the software can change just as quickly. When a licensing process is moved from one department to another, or when multiple users suddenly dream up a process change that makes their jobs more efficient, the software can change (sometimes in one day) without unexpected change notices and invoices.

One Last Analogy

Many of us use word processing software every day. We each configure it to our liking and choose features and workflows that make us most efficient, but many of us use the exact same application; it’s been proven, tested, debugged and has evolved over the years.

It’s theoretically possible to commission a custom-built word-processing program, but none of us will ever do that. We’d be waiting for months, we’d pay a stratospheric price to get something that’s impossible to change or support and we’d have no more functionality than we would have otherwise.

The same principles apply to municipal management software. No matter how unique your needs, a stable, cost-effective, supportable platform can be yours without resorting to custom solutions.

SDL Citizen – A Mobile App for Your Residents

Municipalities across the country are trying to deploy mobile technology for resident feedback and convenience. Did you know that this functionality (with a user-friendly interface) has been available to SDL clients for quite some time?

SDL clients who launch the SDL Citizen mobile app (free for users and included with most SDL municipal software packages) let their residents communicate with government the same way they communicate with merchants, friends and family. The video below shows how an SDL Citizen user reports a pothole in seconds… without having to type or text anything.

Even better, your SDL system can process that information however you want; it can automate notifications to appropriate departments, or route them to staff who will make assignments.

Better still, your SDL software can automatically notify everyone involved whenever something changes. And when citizens can help themselves, your staff can concentrate on more valuable matters.

If you use SDL Desktop in your government, the chances are that you’re a short (and nearly cost-free) step from more efficient government and offering your residents an efficient line of communication to it. To find out whether you have everything you need to deploy SDL Citizen, please contact SDL Support at:

– or –

SDL Features You May not Know About

Very often, a municipal government winds up owning important data that’s not connected to the municipal management system. Sometimes it’s delivered by a consultant, or the state, or is the result of a one-off project that relied on contractors. In many cases, it would make sense if that data could be linked to existing data. However, folks usually assume that that would involve an expensive and lengthy custom project.

Over the years, SDL clients have asked about the data that they owned and wished could be tied into their SDL data. When there’s enough interest, or the idea just plain makes sense, SDL’s Desktop development team can often find a way to make things happen and give them to users as part of a maintenance release. The result of this is new functionality that you may find useful and already have available…if only you knew about it.

SDL Desktop has a number of built-in data import tools that exist because an SDL user asked for them. Some of these may be useful to you…but, more importantly, when you have a need that’s not already in the software, we’d like you to reach out and tell us about it. (While we take all software suggestions into consideration, we cannot guarantee that every idea will be seen in an update of the software; however, many of SDL Desktop’s current features started as requests from our users.) Some important, but lesser-known tools and features found in the SDL Desktop software include Importing Tax Map Data, Importing Parcel Pictures, Importing VCS Data and Property Notifications. 

Importing Tax Map Data

Many SDL clients have wondered whether they could import tax map data into the Desktop software. Parcel maps are not always accurate and deeds are often complex, so the tax map is often considered to be the right balance between accuracy and usability for homeowners, or others who want to easily identify property boundaries.

In order to file that link, users will need:

  1. Block/Lot/Qualifier info
  2. The number of the map sheet that includes the property
  3. A link (either a local link or a URL to maps hosted online)

If you’re using SDL Desktop, have tax map data and would like to import it, we would be happy to show you how.

Importing Parcel Pictures

Suppose you need to share or use specific property pictures not available via Google Maps… that’s not a problem with the Desktop software. If you have the photos (or are planning to get them), let us know and we can show you how to organize them so they can be used in your Desktop environment in a matter of minutes.

Importing VCS Data

The town you work for may be one of over 200 municipalities in New Jersey who have contracted Appraisal Systems, Inc. to assess property values. If that’s the case, you already own useful VCS data that can be pulled into your SDL Desktop software.

What is VCS data?

When properties are re-assessed, appraisers treat a municipality as a collection of neighborhoods, where each building in a neighborhood shares some characteristics with others. The idea is that changes in the relative values of properties are partly tied to the neighborhood. If a waterfront area becomes popular, property values on the water might appreciate more quickly than properties further inland, so it’s useful to define a waterfront neighborhood for purposes of assessment.

The VCS data set is the table that links each property’s address to its assessed values, but also to an entire neighborhood, offering a free data point to an SDL user in the tax assessor’s office.

When a tax assessor in Essex County asked if the data could be imported and tied to the SDL database, the SDL Desktop team came up with the VCS Data Import tool, a free upgrade for SDL users. While the data in the figure below is fictional, it shows a data set in the format delivered as part of Appraisal Systems, Inc.’s re-valuation process. If you have block/lot/qualifier information and VCS values (shown as “NHBD” in column E below), and you need it in your data set, give us a call. You might be using this in SDL Desktop sooner than you think.

Property Notifications

Whenever data is shared across a municipality, it makes sense that co-workers can share information with one another. This isn’t a new idea, but some Desktop users occasionally find themselves calling colleagues to say “You need to know that this property…” Some of them have asked whether we could help with that, so we added Property Notifications to the software.

The Property Notifications feature lets Desktop users share circumstantial information across departments. While the municipal team itself decides what kinds of notifications can be made available via a dropdown box, typical selections are “Historic District”, “Vicious Pet” (a good one when your colleagues are visiting properties every day), “Vacant Property”, “Sewer/Septic” and pretty much anything you think could help avoid problems in day-to-day business.

Notifications can be manually deactivated, but since no one wants to set reminders for things to do in the distant future, you can set an expiration date when you set up the notification.

Let us Know What you Think

So there you go… you now know of several useful features that you already have available to you (and at no extra cost), all because your colleagues asked if they were possible. We hope you find them useful. And remember, we understand that every day brings new challenges to your job. If you have an idea, and we can help you out with it, we’d love to hear from you.

If you need assistance with any of these features, be sure to contact our support team at (732) 357-1280 or

SDL Desktop – User Management Shortcuts

It can be a little nerve-wracking to be the administrator of a critical business system like the SDL Desktop. Managing user permissions can be a challenge when your user list and/or business processes change frequently.

If you are an SDL administrator, you may not know that we’ve given users a couple of shortcuts to help manage permissions more effectively and efficiently. Here’s a quick look at how to make mass changes to user permissions in just a few seconds. *Please note that the processes described here may sound more difficult than they are… once you’ve read through and made some of the changes described, you may never need to refer to this again.

It probably doesn’t need to be said, but with great power comes great responsibility… please use this carefully and wisely. If you have any doubts, please reach out to our support staff (732-357-1280 or and we will be happy to help you through the process.

Changing Permissions or Data Grid Access for Multiple Users



First, go to the System selection on the data grid, and scroll down to the Users selection at the bottom. Double-click on a user’s name in the data grid to bring up the User Account Editor dialog box. If the User Account Editor dialog box doesn’t appear, your account might not have administrative rights.




When the User Account Editor opens, you have the following options and functionality:

User Module Assignments

To see which modules are accessible by which users, simply click the drop-down menu (1) in the upper left of the dialog and select a module. You can select users one-by-one by ticking the check bit next to each name. To toggle the entire list, click the “Invert Users” link underneath the section.

Double-clicking on a user’s name brings up the user dialog box (just like when you’re working in the Administration account), from which you can modify basic account settings (e.g. Name, Title, Password, etc.) and tag a user as either active or inactive.

User Groups

To help you manage permissions of groups of people who aren’t necessarily in the same department (or don’t comprise an entire department) you can create, edit or delete User Groups in the dialog box in the bottom left corner (2) of the User Account Editor window.

After selecting a group of users, (whether one-by-one or by loading a User Group you’ve saved earlier), you can select a set of permissions or data grids by selecting the appropriate tab and either set them or remove them for all the users you’ve selected.

Just pick the tab, then the module (3) in which you are setting or deleting permissions. Finally, select one of the three buttons on the window (4). If you’re working in the Permissions tab, the three buttons are:

  • Add these permissions to these users – turn on the selected permissions without changing any other selections for these users.
  • Overwrite these permissions from these users – turn on the selected permissions, but turn off all other permissions for the module for selected users
  • Remove the permissions of the selected users – turn off the selected permissions without changing any other selections for these users

If you’re working in the Datagrids tab, the three buttons are:

  • Add these datagrids to these users – turn on the selected datagrids without changing any other selections for these users.
  • Remove these datagrids from these users – turn off the selected datagrids without changing any other selections for these users
  • Reset User datagrids with Selected – turn on only the selected datagrids for these users and turn off all others

Permission and Datagrid Groups

You can also save common combinations of user permissions and datagrids and recall them when needed. For example, every new employee in, say, the construction office may need the same set of permissions as every other, so instead of going through each permission setting, you can create a set of permissions, save that set, and apply it with a single mouse click whenever a new hire joins that team.

To create, edit or delete a group of permissions or datagrids, use the window in the top right corner (5) of the User Account Editor dialog.

Set by User

Finally, there may be a user in the system whose permissions and/or datagrid assignments are exactly what you want to assign to another user (or set of users). In that case, you can copy that user’s permissions and datagrid assignments by using the Set By User hyperlink (6) near the right-hand side of the User Account Editor dialog. Simply select a user from the Users list on the top left, then click the Set By User link. Finally, select the users to whom you want to copy those settings, click the “Add these datagrids to these users” (or “Reset User datagrids with Selected” if you want to enable only these permissions and/or datagrid assignments for these users) button and you’re finished.


As was mentioned earlier, these processes might seem a bit involved because we’re putting a lot of control into a single dialog box. We hope that once you get used to using the new features, you’ll spend a lot less time making repetitive changes from System Administrator’s access.

As is almost always the case, this feature was added because an SDL Desktop user had a good idea, realized it would make her more efficient, and shared it with us. While we can’t promise we’ll implement every feature that’s requested of us, we try to make constant improvements based on what you need. If you have a suggestion, a question, or even just want to ask, “What if the software could…”, we’re always happy to hear from you.


Evaluating Your Potential Construction Revenue

Earlier this year, New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs (DCA) made some changes to the types of home improvement work that require permits. As a result, replacing siding or a roof on a single-family dwelling are now “ordinary maintenance”, and no longer require permits.


Construction Fee Analysis Tool

This is great news for contractors and homeowners, but it causes a dilemma for municipalities. Budgets that counted on revenue from those permits faced a shortfall. Several SDL clients wanted an easy way to run “what if” scenarios to see how fee schedule changes might make up the difference. Since the data they needed to use was already in their SDL systems, they asked SDL’s developers for a solution.

This led to the new Construction Fee Analysis Tool for SDL Desktop. Now any SDL Desktop user can learn in seconds:

  • the impact from lost permit revenues (in dollars and as a percentage of revenue)
  • how small changes in other fee schedule items could make up the loss.

SDL users were using the tool the day it was released, without database queries or even spreadsheets. As an example, we used some real-world data to see how the loss of fees would affect the town modeled in our figures. The result was serious… a 7% revenue decrease.

Then, using to tool to see which fees were collected most often, a couple of painless increases (from 8% to 13%) in other areas not only made up the shortfall, but brought projected revenue to 5% over targets.

A Cautionary Tale… and a Couple of Solutions

Fee changes are easy to make in test data, and harder when you’re wondering how residents will react. There’s an assumption that any fee increase will lead to an uproar. However, a recent article about the DCA decision made an interesting point. According to one construction company owner, “It’s not so much the cost of the permits… but the time.”

The fees were never the problem… the problem was the time spent (during working hours) calling or visiting town hall, applying for permits, getting status updates, notifying contractors, etc. Most of New Jersey’s local governments lost revenue this year… not because folks won’t pay, but because the process takes too much time. If this is the problem, what is the solution?

The solution is to modernize processes for citizens who are used to transacting business any time, from anywhere. SDL clients do this with the SDL Portal (a web-based municipal portal) and SDL Citizen mobile app.

The portal can transact the entire permit process (except for picking up the document) online. Other possibilities include license applications (e.g. mercantile, food truck, pet), Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests and online issue reporting (e.g. pothole complaints). The companion SDL Citizen mobile app (for iOS or Android) offers a simple phone-based interface for issue reporting, scheduling inspections, checking on permit statuses and more.

All this can be done at any time, from anywhere a data connection is available. That’s ideal for a working person who can’t visit or call during business hours; it’s also a relief for municipal employees who find that empowered citizens gladly eliminate a lot of the repetitive paperwork that takes up hours every week.

The Construction Fee Analysis Tool exists because we were asked to help fix a problem, and we did. However, we’d be less than conscientious if we didn’t point out that there are ways to avoid such problems. If you’re an SDL client, we’ve not only offered the solutions, we’ve delivered them… you probably already own everything you need to deploy your SDL Portal and SDL Citizen app, both of which are free for users. Please reach out to us if you want to know more.

Contact us to Take Advantage of the Analysis Tool

If you’d like to know more about using the tool, please contact our support staff at, or call (732) 357-1280.

If your municipality does not use SDL’s municipal management software, but you are still interested in Construction Fee Schedule Analysis, please contact, or call (800) 805-9695.