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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75,000-124,999 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 Westminster, Colo.

Taking top honors in its category, Westminster, Colo., can count 25 completed IT projects in the last 12 months among its achievements, all of which demonstrate alignment with the goals of the seven-member city council. The technology team is playing a key role in the creation of a fiber network backbone in the downtown area, which will serve as the foundation for future smart city efforts. Among other enterprise efforts of late are a move to cloud email with Microsoft 365 and the purchase of a business analytics tool (Microsoft Power BI), which it’s putting to use in several areas. 

Recent transparency-focused initiatives include a new open data site, linking to key city information, as well as IT-focused performance dashboards, with key metrics on things like staffing, attrition, budget and cybersecurity. Visitors can drill down on the type and number of blocked intrusion attempts, for example, as well as view stats on blocked malware and the percentage of employees who have completed cybersecurity training. Westminster boasts a comprehensive cybersecurity program with 14 components, including adherence to NIST standards and a cyberinsurance policy it’s looking to upgrade. One dedicated staff person and a recently hired apprentice are in charge of cybersecurity efforts for the city, which serves a population of about 110,000.

2nd City of Lee’s Summit, Mo.

Lee’s Summit, which resides in the Kansas City, Mo., metropolitan area, stepped up its regional collaboration this past year. It joined an interconnected radio system for emergency services and tapped into a separate collaboration in order to fund lidar-based gathering of elevation data. It’s working on a fiber-sharing agreement with the state and is in the process of discussing regional cloud services as well. 

In the past year, the city launched a new website, designed from the ground up with the perspective of the citizen — not the city — in mind. The city also consolidated its social, newsletter and digital media communications into a single team, launched a 311 mobile app and created a skill for Amazon Alexa so residents can ask their digital assistants what’s happening in Lee’s Summit. 

The city also made it easier for residents to follow council meetings, adding closed captioning to the live broadcasts of the meetings and creating a “council debrief” that highlights major talking points. 

Internally, Lee’s Summit has been covering a lot of ground. It hooked up three departments with iPads so they could complete more work in the field, and invested in training to help departments use their own data. Additionally, the city formed a data governance committee, appointed data custodians for each department, then went through and got rid of duplicate data and generally made data easier to find and use.

2nd City of Lynchburg, Va. 

Lynchburg, a city of around 80,000, received a second-place ranking by delivering on the promise of data, GIS and collaboration. Officials brought technology to bear on poverty, making geospatial and other research data available to a local college professor to generate maps that would aid in action planning. When a dam was in danger of failing recently, the city used GIS to map homes and businesses at risk and show road closures, publishing maps online and on social media within 12 hours of an emergency declaration. 

A Waze partnership via its Connected Citizens Partners program has enabled a live feed of lane and road closures. The city GIS office has used Esri’s Target Hazard solution to rank properties based on potential fire and natural disaster risk; and GIS data is also helping shape Lynchburg’s work on next-gen 911. 

The city updated its Open Data Portal with an intuitive interface and improved search feature, expanding available information into 16 groupings including demographics and utilities. Residents can utilize My City Services, an interactive portal that lets them find available services based on location. Elsewhere, they can check the status of projects submitted to the Planning Department. 

A collaboration between the city, longtime partner Lynchburg City Schools, and Lumos Networks has strengthened a fiber-optic network connecting more than 80 city and school locations. It’s managed by the city, but aspects of support, expansion and maintenance are handled by Lumos. Some core switches are located at schools, enabling the district to create local area networks to support its needs, and the city has rights to eight strands of fiber wherever Lumos builds.

3rd City of Boulder, Colo.

Boulder continues to make improvements to its open data program, placing a number of real-time metrics on its Boulder Measures dashboard. Its goals are to publish 100 data sets by the end of 2018, increase the number of departments represented and increase the number of data sets that publish automatically.

Boulder has taken other steps to better engage constituents, such as redesigning the city’s website to make it more user-friendly, and launching a new platform known as Be Bold Boulder, which makes getting involved in local government easier. The online town hall feature received about 6,400 visits during its first three months. Other technical improvements planned include the development of a broadband backbone in the next three years and implementing a cloud-first strategy for infrastructure in the next two years.

Boulder has demonstrated leadership through its numerous collaborations and partnerships. The transportation department is working with the University of Colorado to explore an autonomous vehicle pilot project. IT is considering a Startup in Residence program to help grow affordable housing options and opportunities. And Boulder will continue to be a lead city in the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance. Boulder is also one of the first 32 Resilient Cities, a movement by the Rockefeller Foundation to help cities around the world stand up to forces like climate change or social and economic challenges. With the help of its chief resilience officer, Boulder has completed a Resilience Strategy document.

4th City of Roanoke, Va.

When it comes to leveraging IT, Roanoke is focused on strategy and social media, two important themes that have helped the municipality of just under 100,000 residents punch above its weight as a digital city. To better serve its departments, the city’s Department of Technology has shifted from a five-year strategic plan to one that is updated annually. It uses the Lean Six Sigma methodology to evaluate business processes for the best way forward as far as efficiency is concerned. The result is better investments in systems that deliver results, such as the expanding functionality of its permitting system to boost economic development.

Roanoke has an aggressive social media program with more than 60 separate accounts, including a city Facebook page that has over 82,000 followers. This kind of engagement and citizen-centric focus has translated into a series of data-sharing projects, including one with Waze, the popular traffic app. There are also public GIS maps and a city performance app that gives citizens information on what the city is doing to respond to their queries, questions and complaints.

In other areas, the city is expanding its broadband connectivity to support local education and public libraries. It’s also installing more resilient infrastructure and increasing the use of data analytics to measure overall performance and assist city police with crime analysis.

5th City of Pueblo, Colo.

In Pueblo, Colo., technology has many facets, though much of the newest tech centers on its application within public safety. From a push to bolster communications tools and share data to its move away from legacy 911 systems and toward the use of drones, the city and local partners have drilled down on the essentials of law enforcement in the digital age. The new VoIP 911 system allows residents to not only establish a more reliable connection from their mobile devices, but also allows them to text dispatchers in the event they are unable to make a voice call. Fleet tracking and in-car modems across the city’s mobile assets — transit included — have allowed for better, more secure connections from the field, while enabling real-time GIS tracking. A new parking and citation system, complete with license plate recognition, has streamlined parking enforcement. IT officials are also in the first phases of a push to modernize the police computer ecosystem.

Beyond the public safety realm, the city has also invested substantial effort in transparency and government efficiency. A new ERP system, launched in 2017, has offered city staff granular control over budgeting and reporting, while at the same time allowing leadership to make data-driven decisions. Similarly, the city launched its financial transparency and data sharing portal in May 2018 and continues to share information with local, state and federal partners and residents. Plans to include pertinent police and fire data are in the works. The legalization of marijuana in the state has forced the city to respond with a comprehensive permitting and licensing process within its ERP system. The single point of access through the ERP allows officials and businesses to streamline this process and more carefully manage these businesses.

When it comes to protecting city and resident data, Pueblo makes a concerted effort. The “zero trust” initiative is part of an annual training regimen hosted by the city cybersecurity insurer. The police department has moved to two-factor authentication across all mobile devices.

5th City of Sugar Land, Texas

This past year for Sugar Land, Texas, has been one of building out and extending existing projects as they apply to tech and innovation work. For example, last year the Houston-area city established a 311 contact number. This year, it launched a 311 Contact Center facility and also pushed the platform online, broadening the ways that citizens can report potholes and other infrastructure needs.

As far as new work, Sugar Land was heavily involved in the response as the Houston area grappled with the impact and aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. For IT projects, the city has been using GIS in support of related studies to augmenting other work with sound IT infrastructure. Sugar Land also annexed some spaces in the past year, which necessitated IT scaling out some of its existing infrastructure to accommodate the increased size of the jurisdiction. In terms of public-facing efforts, open data and transparency work is ongoing in the city, with story maps that include street address information ranking as a nice service for citizens. Similarly, helpful services include an online town hall and a real-time traffic map, which also features flood gauges. The city continues to expand its social media presence. This past year, Sugar Land garnered 71,845 followers on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and a new account on Nextdoor, an increase of roughly 40 percent. For its use of social media during Hurricane Harvey to get info to citizens, the city was awarded a statewide award from the Texas Association of Municipal Information Officers.

6th City of Independence, Mo.

The website for Missouri’s fourth-largest city was designed and developed in-house and provides quick access to the most popular services, trending news stories, employment opportunities, social media connections and an open government section. There are more than 70 different processes for citizens and business owners to pay for services. The city’s new Customer Information and Utility Billing System for electric, water and sewer customers replaced a 30-year-old legacy billing system.

Independence’s Cityworks enterprise asset and work management project has greatly improved operational efficiencies through technology. In the last year, the city migrated its business licensing operations from a legacy system into Cityworks. Also, as part of the Cityworks project, Independence consolidated all of its separate GIS databases, creating an enterprise GIS system. This lets the city see asset data in the same environment with building permits, business licensing and code enforcement cases. 

The city has expanded its open data presence by adding new data sets to the website for public use each quarter. Independence also enhanced its Wi-Fi infrastructure, enabling a more mobile workforce and offering additional public Wi-Fi access. 

The city partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies to become part of What Works Cities, evaluating Independence’s performance dashboard and open data portal and identifying many changes that could be made to improve their usefulness. Independence also has regular status-check meetings with the What Works Cities organization to spotlight other tasks that can improve the city’s transparency.

7th City of San Leandro, Calif.

Many of San Leandro’s goals involve information technology and include: advancing projects and programs to promote sustainable economic development; a smart cities/broadband goal; providing quality public safety service that encompasses using cameras for crime prevention; and an upgraded dispatch building. 

The city plans to optimize these goals using its fiber-optic network and develop a smart city that includes digital transformation, or a digital city government experience. That includes digital services; open data; smart buildings and facilities; connecting facilities; and using integrated management systems for climate control and HVAC energy. Additionally, the plan will cover intelligent traffic signal systems that adapt to real-time traffic conditions and the use of intelligent services like cameras, drones, robotics and data for public safety. 

The city developed an open data policy that commits the city to implementing practices that allow it to make available useful data in useful format; provide access to free, historical archives of data; and support innovative uses of the city’s publishable data by external agencies, the public, and other partners.

San Leandro’s cybersecurity accomplishments include replacing existing firewalls with redundant Cisco Firepower 2140 Next-Generation firewalls. The agreement calls for the full suite of Next-Gen security functionality and includes identical models, which can be configured for automatic and instantaneous failure to avoid service disruption.

8th City of Avondale, Ariz.

Avondale, Ariz., has been preparing for the future by investing in emergency response, data management, cybersecurity and other sustainability measures. The city installed 16,000 feet of fiber this year, connecting its main data center to a disaster recovery site and two other facilities with a 10GB link. It also extended a communications tower from 30 feet to 70 in order to accommodate growing infrastructure demands; brought an additional Internet service provider to its main campus facility as a backup, in preparation for moving more services to the cloud over the next few years; and upgraded and replaced Wi-Fi infrastructure, with plans for more access points and park upgrades next year.

Avondale made security and cybersecurity its top priorities in 2018. Besides sending all IT employees through a 12-week training course for managing cyberissues, the city’s IT department bought online awareness training and phishing tests for all city employees; started upgrading the city’s Wi-Fi network to differentiate between city and public users; and started a “micro-segmentation” project to separate Web traffic between individual applications and servers instead of just inside and outside the network, which will allow the city to block or approve individual users for specific parts of the network.

For non-cyber emergency preparedness, Avondale worked with several agencies including ISM Raceway, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, Phoenix Regional Fire Dispatch and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office to update communications equipment at the city’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), making this EOC a command center for major events, training exercises or emergencies.

IT has an integral role in two of the city’s strategic plan priorities: foster sustainable development and create a connected community. So far this has involved providing body cameras for police officers, improving the city’s budgeting and financial reporting software, launching an online public records system called NextRequest, upgrading A/V hardware and software in city council chambers and conference rooms, keeping a video archive of city council meetings, and installing $75,000 in upgrades to the city court’s video system to reduce how many defendants must be transported to court in person.

Beyond that, Avondale is assembling an IT Governance Steering Committee to oversee future technical developments, planning to add mobile payment options for city services, switched its police to e-citation ticketing, and had its GIS Department enlist a private contractor to develop a stormwater mobile app that allows field crews to share information and images of their work in real time.

9th City of Bloomington, Ind.

The city of Bloomington defines its civic technology presence as “small but mighty,” with an IT team dedicated to innovation and effective and efficient services. The Information and Technology Services (ITS) Department is leading a Gigabit Fiber Broadband Initiative that will connect all residents and businesses to gigabit fiber. CTC Columbia Telecommunications was hired as the consultant for the project, and the department and city hosted a public symposium that featured high-profile panelists including FCC National Broadband Plan Executive Director Blair Levin. The city is now in the final stage of negotiations, having released an RFI and narrowed the field of respondents down to four possible vendors. Final awarding of the contract is expected within two months. Additionally in the infrastructure space, the city is developing a Certified Technology Park/Trades District and Switchyard Park in the downtown area. Fiber and wireless systems are currently being installed.

Also notable this year was the launch of BloomingtonRevealed.com, a citywide data visualization effort. Created by the Office of Innovation, the Web portal uses visualization tools and citywide data to give residents a look at the homelessness and addiction issues facing the city, as well as its responses. Bloomington also launched an open data portal and open source performance dashboard. The former, known as B-Clear, was built on CKAN’s open source platform and currently houses 142 data sets, which the city hopes to grow to 200 by the end of the year. B-Clear is one of the locations from which the city’s performance dashboard draws the data for its metrics. Other sources include uReport, Bloomington’s Open311 system that is updated each night, and the city’s Google Forms data, obtained through the use of a Google application programming interface (API). Furthermore, since it is open source, all of the source code for the dashboard application is available on GitHub.

10th City of Columbia, Mo.

Since last year’s Digital Cities Survey, Columbia, Mo., has continued its efforts in the areas of transparency and citizen engagement. The city met its financial visibility goal by launching a website in September 2018 that provides interactive charts, graphs and other tools that citizens can use to access city finances, and the portal is updated weekly. While shrinking tax revenue means Columbia’s IT department has a smaller budget, the agency is strategically planning its spending five years out, aligning business needs with smart spending, and implementing technologies like VoIP, which reduced telecom costs by $120,000. And although that lower budget has contributed to relatively high employee turnover, the department is filling some gaps by hiring high school students from the local public school district to learn computer networking. The city hopes those interns will return for subsequent summers, potentially creating a new talent pipeline. To shore up internal cyberdefenses, any Columbia staff member who opens a phishing email must take a mandatory four-part online training, which has resulted in a small drop in such opens in the last year.

Columbia has also added hardware that will allow for software-defined networking, doubled its Internet bandwidth to 2GB and added more than 100 Wi-Fi access points throughout the city. In terms of public safety, IT worked to help complete the transfer of 911 services to the county, which will help integrate with all county agencies, enabling real-time data sharing. Columbia’s drone program is getting off the ground, and the initiative, headed by the fire department, will also be used to market new Parks and Recreation facilities. In addition, the city can use the drones for things like flyover landfill monitoring, which will reduce the costs of this traditionally outsourced project.

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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.