Product Review—CitizonLine Configures Your Community's Digital Future

by Andy Oram
February 18, 2000

When my CitizonLine demo copy finally got here this month, I was eager to rip off the shrink-wrap. My city council had been talking for months about joining the information age, and they want to offer a huge range of community and government services. In the middle of buying systems, negotiating with cable companies, and setting budgets for sysadmins, we figured we could really use an all-in-one package that gets us hooked in right. That's the purpose of CitizonLine: bringing an entire community onto the Internet, with local resources and support for public and government activities.

Serving ones' constituents electronically is going to be a major thrust during the next several decades of this century. I think CitizonLine will help a lot of communities determine their needs and get started. But I have to report that you can't depend on it to solve all your digital democracy needs. Read on to hear about my trial run.

Requirements

CitizonLine called for pretty hefty resources. The box told me right away that the 486 with 16 megs in the secretary's office wasn't powerful enough, and suggested we upgrade to a server farm of Athlons running Windows NT or of Sun UltraSparcs with a proxy firewall doing DNS-based load sharing. I settled for a medium package, one low-end Pentium that serves Web pages from all the offices in Town Hall and routes their email.

Luckily, CitizonLine proved sophisticated enough to integrate resourcing with all its other functionality. It wouldn't even start up until we had a long-range plan for making our online service financially self-supporting. A lot of competing products are lax in that area, and they end up getting tossed in the trash after the first year or two.

And don't miss the "Upgrade to fiber" box, which is shown on the configuration screen but easy to forget. Check this, and CitizonLine will automatically negotiate new high-speed connections for major city facilities the next time it receives a request for new tariffs or services from your telecom or cable provider.

Set-up

CitizonLine loaded easily out of the box, but some of the configuration options were pretty confusing. I was careful to accumulate hard information beforehand so I could deal with questions like the number of T1 and T3 lines serving our local ISPs. But how do you answer config prompts like, "Technical and educational level of local population?" You'd better get your whole region's school boards and teachers unions lined up behind the project before you enter this option! And I've heard that, once this option is set, it's a bitch to change. Some colleagues said they've struggled with it for 15 years.

Knowledge base

The first thing we worried about when loading CitizonLine, of course, was having our Web pages defaced by malicious intruders. Our fears were heightened when we thought crackers had broken into the Web site of the local paper and loaded pictures of the mayor cavorting nude with the pension fund administrator. But then we found that the site was legit: the mayor was cavorting nude with the pension fund administrator.

We finally fixed that problem, but forcing the local paper to go out of business just increased the pressure on the city to provide information to residents. Security turned out to be the least of the demands on our staff. We found we had no idea how many bizarre little practices are kept up by offices scattered around the building, and now that our server has been announced, all our citizens are clamoring for these to be made available through a form-based interface that's easy enough for the most technically clueless passerby. That leads me to my next issue…

Interface

CitizonLine is very flexible in this area. You can use email, scripts attached to Web forms, touchscreens loaded in town hall offices and libraries, even TV remote-control devices. Since its your civic responsibility to allow access by the disabled (and you may even be required to do so legally), try to provide as much variety in interfaces as you can. A flexible system without bells and whistles can also help you avoid crashing the cheap (often donated) systems that offer public access from libraries, schools, shelters, churches, and so forth.

But make sure you choose an interface that can evolve along with external change. It's pretty annoying, for instance, to provide a complete studio and training facility for public access programming and then have your cable company tell you it's closing its office and moving its operations fifteen miles away!

Revenue

Potentially, one of the most useful modules in CitizonLine is the one that manages the taxation of Internet access and services, because some countries don't do that for you. Calibrating these options right is a tough job, though. Too much in one direction, and all your businesses leave town; too much in the other direction, and you may have to close all your libraries and sell all your snowplows. All in all, I recommend you hold off on this option and ask your national governments for disbursements to offset the loss of local taxes.

Customer Support

This is one of the product's weakest areas. We found that any problems we had were so pervasive and interrelated that they couldn't be solved by applying pat formulas. After you install, expect to develop any support you need organically within your community.

Bottom line

CitizonLine is a good product, but it can't protect you from all the mistakes newbies make when trying to create an information infrastructure. The best thing about CitizonLine is that the company listens to its customers. So as we learn more about new operations, like providing services that would interest low-income families, CitizonLine will become better and better. If you're pretty confident about your planning and organizational abilities, and if your community is raring to go, I suggest you buy CitizonLine. Otherwise, you may be better off waiting for a later version.


Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly & Associates. This article represents his views only.