Digital Cities 2018: Winners Stretch Far Beyond IT Basics

This year's winners in the Center for Digital Government’s Digital Cities Survey are finding creative ways to solve government problems with technology, pushing the envelope of what is possible in the public sector.

by , / November 2, 2018
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Up to 75,000 Population Category

Hover over points on the map above to learn more about each winner. Red indicates 1st place winners, yellow indicates 2nd place winners, green indicates 3rd place winners, and blue indicates winners that placed 4th through 10th.

1st City of Coral Gables, Fla.

A city of more than 50,000 just south of Miami, Coral Gables took first place in its population category this year, demonstrating the city’s ability to use technology to improve residents’ quality of life. In light of this objective, the city recently launched its Smart City Hub, which makes a wide range of data available to the public in one online location. The Hub encompasses a wealth of open data and public records, including Internet of Things sensor data and dashboards, GIS applications, transparency portals, and an applications store. There is also a Crime Intelligence Center, which provides residents with information such as analyses on crime data, GIS, and AI video, as well as a CrimeView feature and cloud data systems.

Also of note, Coral Gables was one of 35 cities selected in the beginning of this year to participate in the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge. With innovation funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the city has begun work on a pilot implementation of a smart energy microgrid system to keep the power on in public safety buildings during natural disasters. The city is about to implement a prototype system in partnership with researchers from the University of Miami.

However, this won’t be the first natural-disaster-resistant system that the city has created. When Hurricane Irma struck Florida in late 2017, Coral Gables’ new resilient communications system was put to the test. Not only did it stay active throughout the hurricane, keeping first responders and constituents connected in a time of crisis, the city also won the IEEE Standards Association’s 2017 World Standards Day contest for its efforts.

2nd City of Tamarac, Fla.

2018 marks Tamarac, Fla.’s fifth consecutive appearance in the annual ranking of Digital Cities. Building on years of investment in technology, Tamarac is paying for a comprehensive study of how it can do more — in everything from automating lights in sport facilities, street lamps and offices; to measuring the use of its public facilities; to centralizing climate control systems; and automating meter readings and bus schedule updates. As new facilities are built, the city connects as many devices to the network as it can, such as fire alert systems, HVAC systems, SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) systems, exhaust control systems, generators and fuel tanks.

Much of Tamarac’s modernization has been geared toward community engagement and transparency, and that continued this year as the city partnered with cloud software company OpenGov on an interactive Web portal from which residents can access financial information. Tamarac redesigned its website to support mobile access and launched a companion mobile app, Tamarac To Go; instituted an Open City Hall app from Peak Democracy, which helps staff post questions and gather feedback from residents; made several GIS maps available online, for things like floor plans, commission districts, parks and zoning; made GIS public data available online and launched a new online lien search tool. The city is working on a new public records request portal, and over 16,000 of the city’s approximately 65,000 residents have signed up to receive online communication.

The city is producing more video and is conducting a survey to determine what customers want from city communications. Tamarac is in the process of converting its paper forms to electronic ones via a SeamlessDocs Web app, gave 106 hybrid laptops/tablets to city staff for accessing the network remotely, and for cybersecurity implemented role-based access control (RBAC) and undertook a comprehensive overhaul of security permissions.

Tamarac is working on an online bidding process and set a goal to turn some of its public spaces into smart parks that are fully automated, safe, digitally powered, energy efficient and unmanned, with automated lights and sprinklers, Wi-Fi, video surveillance and kiosks.

3rd Village of Pinehurst, N.C.

The rural North Carolina village of Pinehurst has been growing relatively quickly, its population increasing about 8 percent in as many years according to the U.S. Census Bureau. To deal with that growth — using input from residents — the village has turned to technology. IT staff have set up a website to give information to residents about long-term planning and gather their feedback, one of several transparency and citizen interaction tools they use. Pinehurst also has a mobile app where citizens can submit service requests.

The staff have also pushed forward on cybersecurity this year. Aside from strong fundamental practices, the village has also implemented new email protections such as link rewriting, as well as end-user security awareness training and monthly phishing tests. The village also recently joined the MS-ISAC security consortium.

The village has embraced performance management as well, using software to track key performance indicators for every department and working to make the updating of progress on KPIs as seamless as possible. There are “red flag” levels associated with those KPIs that are triggered when they reach a specified threshold. In the next year, the village plans on publishing those dashboards online.

The village is also working on a GIS strategic plan that will weave geospatial data into its overall planning process.

4th City of DeSoto, Texas

DeSoto, Texas, has a well-established customer relationship management program, GORequest from GOGovApps, and uses it to track issues in the community, create reports for city administration and improve services for citizens. After an issue closes, the requestor is automatically notified via email and asked for feedback, which is used to improve service. This citizen feedback is also used in reporting performance measures, to establish trends, to support budget purposes and in customer service training. 

The Dallas suburb of 52,870 residents prioritizes transparency. The city budget is published on the transparency website, as are reports and charts to help interpret the numbers, a searchable check register, a downloadable check register including payroll, debt transparency information, pension information, and investment policy and tax rates. 

This year, the library extended its offerings of digital services programs aimed to attract citizens and increase their involvement in technology. Patrons can check out a GoPro Hero5 camera kit and shoot still photos or videos, then come and edit them at the Sound + Vision Digital Creation Multimedia Station; attend a 3-D printing class and then use the 3-D printer; learn with the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) kit for Nintendo labo; use a virtual reality headset; or make an appointment for Tech Help, where they can get assistance on personal devices from experts.

5th City of North Port, Fla.

In fifth place in its population category this year, up from ninth last year, North Port, Fla., prioritizes transparency, engagement and efficiency, and has made many recent gains in each area. This year, the city began publishing a weekly podcast with quick hits on city happenings, accessible via Amazon Alexa devices, as well as other podcast platforms. In hurricane country, North Port has effectively leveraged Facebook as a communications tool, noting that 28 posts related to Hurricane Irma in 2017 reached nearly 500,000 users. A cloud-first policy is also positioning North Port as more disaster resilient, as it has pursued remotely hosted solutions for many core systems, including ERP, email, websites and others related to human resources. Redundant connections for the Emergency Operations Center are now in place, while cable-based connections have been upgraded to fiber. 

To further its transparency initiatives, city commission meetings now stream live on YouTube, and many upgrades to city websites are currently in the works. One new online project on the horizon is a portal for public records requests being developed in conjunction with the City Clerk’s Office. GovQA will track requests for citizens and make it easier for city staff to manage them from a single location. GIS infrastructure has also been upgraded, enabling better mapping capabilities that support city priorities like the protection of the gopher tortoise. Among North Port’s other recent improvements are the addition of the SeeClickFix citizen concern tracking application, a “Recycle Coach” mobile app and upgraded document management capabilities.

5th City of Shawnee, Kan.

Shawnee, Kan., finished fifth in the up to 75,000 category. Located in the Kansas City metro area, Shawnee has instituted a good deal of work often found in larger jurisdictions. The business Shawnee citizens can conduct with government online has grown as the city has added things like burn permits and apps for building inspections and right-of-way permits. The city's new CivicWeb portal also provides a comprehensive set of online tools, allowing users to make public records requests, stay abreast of city meetings and even view how elected officials have voted. Data-driven governance is also taking hold, specifically as it applies to the fire department. With GIS technology, Shawnee used fire response times to decide where to locate a new station, which will be built in 2019. A separate but related infrastructure effort sees the city expanding its fiber network by eight miles, supplying the forthcoming station with broadband while also moving Shawnee closer to its goal of establishing citywide fiber connectivity. 

Shawnee is also one of an increasing number of jurisdictions to embrace SeeClickFix, a platform for tracking citizen requests and concerns. SeeClickFix has a double purpose of providing transparent government while creating data about the efficiency of municipal services. Shawnee, like many cities, is also investing in mental health professionals with an eye toward reducing costs associated with individuals moving through its public safety system. The idea is that mental health professionals can help would-be repeat offenders get services they need early on so as not to be a drain on first responders and other agencies. Finally, new funding transparency mechanisms have been put in place so citizens can easily access info about how their tax dollars are spent, down to the department level.

6th Village of Schaumburg, Ill.

Paying for city services and fees in Schaumburg will soon feel as familiar as filling an online Amazon cart. The village is putting the final touches on its online payment portal, one of several Web-based improvements in progress. Recent improvements to the city’s 311 system allow residents to text a message any time of the day. A city representative will respond via text or route the message to the applicable city department. Residents can also chat with the city through its website. 

A video security camera project, which will include 26 cameras around city facilities, is partially complete. The footage will be stored for 90 days. A data analytics dashboard receives real-time information related to traffic, police activity, and rental property. Traffic monitoring technology has also been installed at key intersections, monitoring vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian traffic flow, and adjusting signals accordingly. More cameras mounted at more intersections are planned to allow better monitoring of traffic during inclement weather or other emergencies. 

Schaumburg purchased cyberinsurance this year to cover the replacement costs of hardware and other infrastructure losses incurred during a cyberattack. The city is also a member of several cybersecurity organizations such as Anomali ThreatStream, to better understand threats and how to avoid them.

7th City of Lebanon, Mo.

To date, Lebanon, Mo.’s approach to digital government has not relied on the shiniest new tech, but rather a measured strategy to meet the needs of citizens. While Lebanon maintains standard IT undertakings, such as an updated website and mobile app, the city has also been focusing its efforts on expanding Internet access to residents and partner organizations. Recently, the city partnered with Laclede County to provide network connectivity, a move that resulted in savings, safety improvements and more efficient inmate logistics. Similarly, an ongoing project with Verizon will see small cell antennas deployed throughout the city, a welcome addition to its mesh network, which occupies five strategic locations for visitors. These efforts tie into the overarching goal of making the city’s workforce more responsive and mobile. In addition to a claims system that tracks and automatically responds to resident reports, mobile tablets offer the ability for staff to work from the field and more quickly track and address issues. 

IT efforts in Lebanon are not without their challenges, however. The fact that the IT department is not funded by revenue generation means it must rely on tax dollars to operate. Further, priorities often shift with changes to the city council lineup every two years. This makes constant collaboration with other departments and leadership essential for the IT department to be as effective as possible. 

When it comes to data-driven decision-making, the clearest example is that of the police department, which uses software to visualize crime within geo-fences and adjust their patrolling routine accordingly. The city has two Federal Aviation Administration Part 107 drone pilots on hand to assist with public safety missions and public works inspections. In the near term, the city hopes to adopt interactive digital kiosks for the residents to pay bills and connect with the city while out and about.

8th City of Salem, Va.

As a small city of just over 25,000 people, Salem, Va., which moved from 10th to eighth place in its population category this year, leverages partnerships with neighboring jurisdictions to bolster its IT efforts. In collaboration with two other cities, Salem received a public safety answering point (PSAP) grant to create a regional next-generation 911 system, improving response capabilities and efficiencies for emergency services. The public safety project is anticipated to be completed in the next 12 months. By joining a regional broadband authority and letting that group use space in one of the city’s data centers, Salem in return gets free municipal fiber to connect with other partner cities for public safety and disaster recovery. Salem cites cybersecurity as its greatest challenge, and in response is working to shore up its cyberdefenses, including implementing new training protocols for staff and joining MS-ISAC for 24/7 threat monitoring following attempted breaches by foreign governments. 

In the last year, Salem has rolled out a new transparency site that includes open checkbook and budget dashboards so residents have better insight into city spending. Going forward, officials want to add information on crime, public safety, parks and recreation facilities, and more, as well as a custom tool to allow citizens to see where their specific tax money is spent. Also looking ahead, Salem is looking into developing an Amazon skills app, “ask Salem City,” for citizens to find answers to questions about trash pickup, upcoming events and more. As for emerging tech, the city is exploring the development of an Internet of Things testbed, as well as the possible use of drones for infrastructure inspections, pothole reporting and more.

9th City of Weston, Fla.

In 2018, Weston, Fla., published its first Technology Strategic Plan, which plays a big part in the core goals of the city and its 2028 Strategic Value and Business Plan. IT plays a large role in supporting business objectives and promoting good customer service to its constituents. These objectives, via the Technology Strategic Plan, aim to offer a positive return on investment by improving efficiency and therefore reducing expenditures; improving accessibility and decreasing complexity of services and resources; increasing transparency; and mitigating risk by improving cybersecurity and privacy measures. 

The Technology Strategic Plan calls for a self-service data portal through the city website to improve service and transparency. Within the past year, the city has implemented open government initiatives, including a master data framework, using Esri’s Local Government Information Model, to connect with other city data systems and facilitate big data business intelligence tools and open, e-government services. The city has utilized Microsoft Power BI as a visualization and reporting tool on integrated data sets. The city enhanced its public website and content management system, improving usability, accessibility and content delivery.

10th City of Punta Gorda, Fla.

This coastal city of nearly 20,000 in southwestern Florida, the only incorporated municipality in Charlotte County, won plaudits this year for its IT governance practices and a robust social media presence. Punta Gorda uses analytics to track spend in IT, which is completely centralized. It measures IT performance against objectives in its strategic plan and performs regular project review and oversight; its IT advisory committee also meets quarterly to review benchmarks.

The city connects with residents via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Nextdoor; and a content management tool mirrors informational posts to the city website on Facebook. Officials also link to city council meeting videos promptly afterward, post weekly departmental status reports, post daily fire department incident logs and offer a police outreach site for residents.

The municipality continues to build on an enterprise GIS software license from Esri, and will add a geospatial aspect to its disaster recovery plan to improve cleanup, reporting and plan renovation. Officials also have hired a GIS analyst, the first new IT division position in several years, to help transition GIS use from a distributed to an enterprise model. The city also collaborates with the county on fiber, running its software-defined network over a collapsed ring fiber structure that’s part city-owned dark fiber, part shared county fiber.

One initiative underway in 2017, an open checkbook portal with more detailed budget information from enterprise resource planning financials, is now close to deployment. It’s part of an increased focus on the aggregation and analysis of data that officials hope will enable enterprise-level decisions and drive the new GIS platform.

10th City of Williamsburg, Va.

Home to one of the nation’s better-known living history museums — Colonial Williamsburg — the city of around 14,000 is known for its extensive and innovative use of technology for services and operations. Williamsburg was an early adopter of data dashboards and with the implementation of a modernized ERP system, it expects to increase the amount of data available for measuring performance and financial functions. 

The city has installed a citizen engagement platform and has begun to explore early stage artificial intelligence to boost citizen services. For example, the city is beta testing a recycling notification service that is driven by AI. Williamsburg has also become the second city in the country to launch Citibot, a scalable AI platform that allows the city to communicate with citizens through text messages. When citizens text the city with a problem, the request is automatically routed to its customer relationship management (CRM) system. The AI platform has made city hall a 24-hour operation that can respond to citizen problems and concerns around the clock.

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Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.