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Upgrades Fix Everett, Wash.’s Public Records System

Before pivoting to cloud-based tools, a patchwork of data storage locations made up the city’s records tracking process. Officials say the system left too much room for error when it came to fulfilling public records requests.

public records
Shutterstock/Alexander Supertramp
It’s not entirely clear if open records requests in the city of Everett, Wash., were always fully executed. Officials there made a good faith effort, but technical limitations — prior to 2017 system upgrades —made the process all too fallible.

In the previous system, files and records were often stashed into a number of digital cubby holes, sometimes requiring department staff to recall their existence and conduct the appropriate archival search — a process riddled with the possibility of errors and unintended omissions.

“It was really a logistics nightmare, in my opinion and, with a straight face, I don’t know how we could really say we were 100 percent compliant on some of those FOIA requests,” said Steven Hellyer, Everett IT director, using the shorthand for Freedom of Information Act, a blanket term for government public document requests.

Today, “there’s one portal that people have to go to, to do these FOIA requests,” said Hellyer. “That’s been very transformative, I believe, for us in our ability to comply.”

The city has implemented a variety of upgrades to make archiving easier, as well as migrating systems to Office 365, and integrating with Microsoft Azure and Commvault, which specializes in data and information management.

The changes and upgrades began about three years ago when the city began its move to a cloud-based IT structure.

“And so as we put together our road map, we identified some serious gaps,” said Hellyer.

Everett’s system at the time also had significant limitations when it came to email sizes, and backing up the city’s tech system was also a dated collection of tape libraries, said Kevin Walser, project manager for the Everett IT department.

“We had this old system. It wasn’t working very well. We had to manually back up, like, Sharepoint, Oracle… We had one of those HP tape libraries. It looks like a big speaker box, where you stick like 20 or so tapes in there. It took forever to back up,” Walser recalled. 

Backup procedures were stretching into the next business day because of the slow nature of writing data to tape, he explained.

The city then looked at a couple of different products, eventually selecting Commvault’s archiving features. 

“We wanted to try and keep things as simple as possible,” said Walser, citing the city’s relatively small IT staff of two dozen.

Today, the city just north of Seattle has been operating with some 200 employees working safely, remotely, on personal devices.

“We have all of our applications, on premise and cloud-based, available on our Azure application portal,” Hellyer said. “And we require multi-factor authentication in order to get into the portal.

“My concern is not as high, because we’ve put together a lot of the security architecture that we feel is necessary to protect us,” he added. “And again, when people access this portal for the city of Everett, they’re not actually pulling that information onto their personal computer, unless they manually download it.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the timing of system upgrades.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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