March 04, 2010
|IS Department Not Hacking It|
One might think that, as election season went into full swing, it would have been helpful if staff at the Guilford County Board of Elections could have posted things on the county's election website. Voters and candidates alike would no doubt have found it beneficial to know things like when the filing period to run for office opened and closed, which candidates had entered which races – as well as being able to access other public election records such as campaign finance reports.
In early January, when it was pointed out to Guilford County Board of Elections Director George Gilbert that Guilford County's election's website didn't have the filing period posted, he responded in an email to The Rhinoceros Times that the filing dates were Feb. 8 to Feb. 26, and he stated in the email, "We have not been able to update our website for a month or it would be there."
Aside from a few minor changes that election officials are able to make to the election page on their own, all changes to the page are handled by Guilford County's Information Services (IS) Department – which is the same department that just about every other government body and business in the country calls its information technology (IT) department.
In the past, election staff have routinely sent updates for the county's election website to Guilford County IT workers who made the requested changes. However, late last year, election staff suddenly got the word they could no longer make changes to their page in that way: All changes, they were told, had to be approved by Guilford County Information Services Director Barbara Weaver. Election staff were informed that the county was working on a total new look and feel for its entire website and – in order to make that transition less complex – it was best, they were told, if major changes weren't made before the switch took place.
The Guilford County Tax Department made the change to the new look and feel this week and, according to Weaver, most other pages of the county's site should follow suit shortly.
Gilbert said the posting problem had now been resolved. He said it was his understanding that redesigning the county's website was taking longer than was first anticipated.
He also said that, in the past, it's been the practice of his department to update his web page frequently in January and February to include information about filing dates, who's filed to run for office, campaign reports and various statistics. As it got deeper into election season, it became apparent to him, he said, that the updates needed to be made.
According to Gilbert, once it became clear that the process was dragging out too long, he called Weaver and explained the necessity of having the ability to update the election web page during election season. Gibson said Weaver was cooperative, and he added that now he's once again able to update his page.
Guilford County Deputy Election Director Charlie Collicutt said the information such as who filed to run for what office has still been available to the public during that time. For instance, he said, he emailed information in PDF files to those who requested it, but he added that was of course not as convenient for election staff or for citizens seeking information.
Weaver said the election information is now up and current.
"We just posted a whole slew," she said, referring to election filings and other information.
Weaver said a consultant has been working with the county to design the new website and she said the less change there is to the existing pages prior to moving to the new site, the better.
The IS Department and the consultant have been assessing the needs of the departments and constructing the new site over the last year and had hoped to have it up and running earlier this year. The project is costing about $60,000, according to Weaver.
Weaver said she's concerned that files posted prior to the transition might not appear on the new site once the conversion takes place.
"I fear we will miss something," she said.
The county's web page is expansive, with some department's pages containing a great deal of information, several web tools, and other resources for internet users, so Weaver said the transition must be made with caution.
Weaver added that the county had gotten "a lot of negative feedback" on the look and feel and the navigational tools of the county's existing website, and she said the new county site should have a more "logical design" as well as a consistent look and feel.
Guilford County's website has had other problems as well in the past. For four days last year in early July, anyone who went to the county's webpage got this scary message: "This web site at www.co.guilford.nc.us has been reported as an attack site and has been blocked based on your security preferences. Attack sites try to install programs that steal private information, use your computer to attack others, or damage your system."
The virus that hit the page is known as the chura virus and, according to county officials, the virus was inadvertently installed on the site by a county employee using a desktop computer owned by Guilford County. Weaver said at that time that it was unknown how the employee's computer became infected. She added that the county's antivirus software should have discovered the virus on the computer but, for some reason, it did not.
(That virus interestingly didn't redirect the viewer anywhere – it merely made a notation on a computer in China of how many hits there were to the county's website.)
It's problems like those, in addition to other considerations, that make Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes want to keep his own technology staff and keep his current website.
Barnes said that, while there will be a link from the county's new website to his Sheriff's Department site, he's going to keep his own information tech workers as well as his own website.
Two years ago, Barnes fought tooth and nail not to be forced into using the county's IS Department. He sent out memos and called meetings to explain why, and, in the end, it looks like he's won that battle. He said it's been a long time since anyone tried to put pressure on him to rely on the county's IS Department rather than maintain his own IT services. Much of the pressure for Barnes to use the county's IS Department came from former County Manager David McNeill, who exited Guilford County government over a year ago.
A March 4, 2008 memo from Barnes to McNeill stated: "My staff and I are very concerned about the recommendation made for our IT staff to consolidate with other county IS staff." (The italics belong to Barnes.)
The memo states essentially that Barnes doesn't trust the county's IS Department with his department's information.
According to the memo, "IS staff having Domain/Enterprise Administrators right have the ability to add themselves to our groups without our knowledge, which allows them opportunity to read Sheriff's Office files and emails."
The memo goes on to say that the Sheriff's Department's IT operations are critical to the welfare and safety of Guilford County – and Barnes doesn't seem to show much faith in the ability of the county's IS Department to provide the service he needs in a reliable and timely enough fashion to keep citizens safe.
The memo states: "Our staff require immediate response to problems to provide service to the community."
Barnes' memo added, "This means we have to maintain operation 24 hours per day, 365 days in the year. Time delays for service have to be kept at a minimum to maintain effective, efficient law enforcement operations."
Guilford County Emergency Services Director Alan Perdue said he has similar concerns since his department needs to get information out on a 24/7 basis. Perdue said that, when it comes to Emergency Services, life and death can be at stake, and it's critical that his office be able to alert the public through its website whether it be day, night or a county holiday.
Billie Martin Pierce, who heads up the Guilford Center – the county department that oversees mental health and substance abuse issues – also said her website would not be part of the new county site.
A memo from that department states that the Guilford Center shares concerns about the need for 24/7 service given the nature of mental health and substance abuse issues.
Pierce said that, about 10 years ago, her department was using the county's IS Department and it wasn't meeting her department's needs.
One memo from the Guilford Center includes a timeline of the situation and it states: "1999. The Guilford Center requested its own Information Technology (IT) system because the County's IT system was inadequate to perform the Center's business functions, primarily around billing and collections."