On October 3rd, I had the great pleasure of moderating an educational panel at the Vermont League of Cities & Towns Town Fair 2013. The purpose of the panel was to educate municipal leaders from the four corners of the state on how they can leverage digital tools to build community resilience and improve overall prosperity, as well as to encourage them to reach deep within the larger community to better ensure more residents have access to information.

I was joined by three other members of the Vermont Digital Economy Project team: Caitlin Lovegrove, Network Outreach Coordinator, Vermont Digital Economy Project, who explained how downtown Wi-Fi zones benefit communities on several levels; Tess Gauthier, Vermont Digital Economy Project Coordinator, Snelling Center for Government, who spoke to the municipal website community process and website best practices, including elements for disaster preparedness; and Michael Wood-Lewis, CEO and Co-Founder of Front Porch Forum, who gave several examples of how Front Porch Forum helps neighbors connect and builds a greater sense of community.

In the recent past, we have posted articles that explain how each of these three services benefit communities, organizations, and individuals in good times and in bad — including these articles on Wi-Fi, municipal websites, and Front Porch Forum (FPF). However, the discussion in Killington brought even further into focus the proactive steps Vermont towns can take in good times (or during “blue skies”), so that the foundation and habits are there to be leveraged and to pull the community together for immediate action when things go awry (or during “gray skies”).

In response to a question about how each of these digital tools can be leveraged in blue skies and gray skies, Michael Wood-Lewis, with unexpected help from a town official who happened to be at the panel discussion, told the Tropical Storm Irene experience of Moretown, a community that got FPF through the e-Vermont project. Adoption of FPF was slow but steady in the year leading up to Tropical Storm Irene. Once the storm hit, however, scores of residents signed up right away. FPF became the most prevalent tool that town officials and neighbors used to communicate with one another. Minutes from the town’s daily emergency response meetings were literally printed right from FPF and posted throughout town. The full story about Moretown’s Tropical Storm Irene experience is available here. As an example of the power of FPF in blue skies, Michael told the story of another community that leveraged FPF to create, fund, stock, and staff a community food shelf that recently celebrated its third anniversary.

Tess Gauthier described how, far too often, municipal websites get created solely with the input of a web designer and one town official and the site can turn into a static collection of town documents with an outdated calendar. Any website is only as relevant as its content. Her recent analysis of website traffic in one Vermont town revealed that around 90% of the hits on that site came from outside of Vermont – from places like New York City and Boston – and that the average person was spending less than 10 seconds on the website. Because of outdated information architecture of municipal website, there is a huge missed opportunity for capturing visitors to provide a range of information. This indicates a strong need for the town to update the architecture of municipal websites as well as enrich pages with links and information about the area as a whole, versus strictly using municipal sites as a repository for past meeting minutes, policies, ordinances, forms, etc. This is also an example of how leveraging digital tools can help to create economic development in a community.

In terms of gray skies, the website templates developed for municipalities through the project will include several features specifically designed for emergency management. Features include a notification banner that can be activated in an emergency, which becomes predominantly displayed in red on the homepage, as well as built-in functionality that allows website administrators to upload content through a mobile device or email and the ability to post an update.

For downtown Wi-Fi zones, Caitlin Lovegrove explained the myriad of community benefits in both good times and not-so-good times. Free public Wi-Fi gives school children and others a way to access the internet for homework and other purposes. For businesses located within or near the Wi-Fi zone, the service draws additional people into the downtown, including travelers who might otherwise never have stopped in town. The landing page for the Wi-Fi zone can promote local businesses and events even outside of the zone, and therefore bring other economic benefits. Most of the zones are being located in areas of natural congregation after Tropical Storm Irene, so it is expected that in the event of another emergency, the network can be leveraged by large groups of people. There is also an opportunity to use the landing page to communicate emergency response information.

It’s clear that the 90 minute discussion at Town Fair 2013 and this article do not even scratch the surface on how leveraging digital tools can assist Vermont communities in blue skies and in gray skies. However, I’m certain that we’ve shared enough to pique the interest of many more towns to adopt these and other digital tools. In the coming months, we will certainly share tool kits with best practices.