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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125,000-249,999 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 Bellevue, Wash.

Bellevue, the third-largest city in the metropolitan Seattle area, rocketed from fourth place last year to first by using data, enabling online functionality and realizing plans. Its open data program has added information around fire risk mapping, collisions and building permits. The city also provides Wi-Fi and hot spot mapping. Next year, the Information Technology Department (ITD) will build on a 2017 data analytics pilot to create an enterprise data solution. Last year’s soft launch of the online Public Records Center is also moving out of pilot with a more public-facing debut expected this fall.

During the next year to 18 months, the city of nearly 150,000 plans to migrate its website, which had a search engine upgrade this year to open source, to better exploit functionality. Officials also plan to stand up a new customer relationship management solution.

ITD’s updated Enterprise Technology Strategic Plan, a best practice, brings tech goals in line with city council priorities. The city’s use of My Building Permit as a one-stop shop Web portal for building permits and related activities is part of a larger success story as 15 area jurisdictions, including King County, now use the site. Bellevue is also a founding member of the eCityGov Alliance, a public nonprofit that provides regional online municipal services including hiring, recruiting, permitting and mapping.

Bellevue has built on existing data and surveys to further assess its performance management practice and culture. ITD is now working with internal partners to pilot a Data-as-a-Service program around improved data access and insight. It’s slated for wider use in 2019. The Bellevue Smart planning initiative has sparked partnerships centered on smart mobility, including an electric mobility solution that would connect south King County areas with limited commute options. Officials have requested a federal grant for the concept.

2nd City of Cape Coral, Fla.

Cape Coral continues to expand its open government and transparency abilities and has beefed up its open data collections to 64 data sets, including sites to track public records requests, search meeting minutes, election filings and other information. The city is also working with the Sunlight Foundation and GovX to leverage open data by implementing a data and performance metric tracking system and better engage with residents. 

The Cape Connect 311 app allows residents to report issues as well as photos. Another app, Etrakit, provides mobile access for permit applications and business licenses. Ping4alerts! allows public information officers to send geo-specific alerts for events in a particular area.  

Cape Coral is installing a smart streetlight system, along with other Internet of Things devices to support public Wi-Fi, license plate readers, security cameras and other functions. Artificial intelligence, combined with video feeds from the security cameras, will make the video data easily searchable. A drone project is being used to create a database of city-owned trees, which is made available to the public.

3rd City of Winston-Salem, N.C.

This year, North Carolina’s fifth-most populous city, Winston-Salem, leveraged technology to help deliver information to citizens and improve city services. The city was selected to participate in Bloomberg’s What Works Cities initiative in 2017. The city focused on “Fostering Livable Neighborhoods” by leveraging data to better allocate city resources and combat issues like blight. It has used its open data policy to form an Open Data Governance Committee, which is headed by the CIO and is in charge of overseeing Winston-Salem’s Open Data Program. The crux of this program will be the launch of the city’s first open data portal, which is currently still in the development phase. The main feature of the new city website, which is currently in alpha form, the portal’s first data set will be from the city’s Livable Neighborhoods initiative.

Winston-Salem launched an online sign-up tool for citizens who wish to get involved and speak at meetings. Citizens sign up ahead of meetings, and the mayor can call on each of them by name to invite them to speak. This tool allows everyone the chance to be heard and the city can track in detail what issues are most important to residents. It can be used to generate reports on topics discussed, such as how many people want to speak about them and how often they come up.

Winston-Salem also made strides in the cybersecurity arena. The CIO’s recommendation to form a Security Task Force met with unanimous approval. The group plans and authorizes everything from spending to best practices related to enterprise security. One thing the task force did was expand the city’s cybersecurity insurance coverage — it now covers cyber extortion; emergency management; network interruption; and security and privacy.

4th City of Alexandria, Va.

Alexandria, Va., is developing a new municipal fiber-optic network, which will form the bedrock for plans to build future smart city technologies, IoT, autonomous vehicles and anything else it needs in the years ahead.

The network is still in progress, but it started with connecting Alexandria’s two data center facilities with dedicated fiber. The new network is expected to be faster, more secure, better able to accommodate intelligent transportation services and an answer to one of the city’s biggest external challenges: the strain on public school infrastructure from a growing population (160,000 and counting). The municipal fiber-optic network will connect schools, libraries and support economic growth down the road.

Alexandria has partnered with Arlington County on a shared Smart911 website that allows residents to make their medical information more accessible to first responders; created a task force to work with business representatives on a Mobile Device Management program to make mobile tools and services more accessible and collaborative; created a “challenge team” of stakeholders to train city employees on Microsoft Office 365; revamped various processes for people to report streetlight outages, order mulch and get contracts approved; and launched the first phase of a new stormwater utility program, including a way to estimate fees, apply for credit and forward fee data to treasury for billing. This program earned Alexandria the Public Technology Institute’s 2018 Sustainability Award.

To expand Wi-Fi access, Alexandria has installed over 135 access points across 21 city sites, with immediate plans to add almost 100 more. The city also conducted an overhaul of its official website, alexandriava.gov.

Alexandria drafted new policies for data protection, established a tiered network to separate highly privileged users, instituted two-factor authentication and has added several other cybersecurity functions, protocols and best practices. The city also added a chief information security officer and drafted a multi-year strategic plan specifically for the ITS department, involving surveys, assessment of the department’s primary functions and interviews with department stakeholders.

5th City of Fort Collins, Colo.

Fort Collins, which tied with Norfolk, Va., for fifth place in its population category, has made citizen engagement its main digital theme. Last year, Fort Collins launched an online platform designed specifically to help with engagement. OurCity provides residents with online tools for giving feedback to the city, including discussion forums, surveys and polls, and an ideas bulletin board. Already the platform has been used by 12 projects to develop discussions about ideas and topics, and more than 30,000 people have visited it while nearly 3,000 have registered as participants. Also, to solicit citizen input, the city used a collaborative process to build its budget called Budgeting for Outcomes (BFO). BFO used mobile budget booths; online surveys and budget simulations; and priority ranking sheets in order to get communitywide input on the biannual budget. 

In another effort to reach citizens, the city is in the early stages of a broadband initiative that will provide fiber and Internet connectivity to every resident and business in Fort Collins. Following years of research and analysis and three public votes, a $150 million bond was approved to fund the project. Over the last nine-plus months, the city released RFPs for services and equipment necessary to build the network. Contracts were signed in July and the first paying customers are expected to be on the network by August 2019.

5th City of Norfolk, Va.

Norfolk, Va., created its open data policy in 2017 and launched its data portal in March this year, giving residents free 24/7 access to information such as the Norfolk Cares call center, permits and streetlights. The portal has 16 data sets, with more to be added in the future. What’s more, the city’s Open Data team is working with the Sunlight Foundation on a Tactical Data Engagement. The foundation is guiding Norfolk in identifying an issue that can be solved with data: resilience and flooding. Another transparency highlight, Balancing Act, gives residents a chance to give input on city budgetary decisions like increasing taxes or decreasing services.

Norfolk plans to upgrade its decade-old 311 tracking system this year to integrate the city’s workload management data. This will include launching a service portal that will upload and track residents’ issues; it will also be available as a mobile app. Norfolk has also striven to provide residents with more access to online services by building on its free public Wi-Fi network. That effort began in city libraries and expanded to free Wi-Fi in public spaces. There is also a MiFi program in public libraries, which permits residents to check out MiFi cards to access Wi-Fi.

6th City of Hampton, Va.

The Hampton City Council has pushed technology to enhance city services and that has translated into increasingly automated interactions with the public, simplifying the customer experience; increasing the availability of Internet access to residents and using technology to increase overall city efficiency. 

One area of technological enhancement has been law enforcement, where patrol cars have been equipped with cellphones to let officers check social media, view images from cameras, use publicly available tools to find relatives of suspects, get tips via apps and take and share photos. The city also deployed a real-time crime center with the ability to view public cameras, including traffic cameras, and track suspects in real time. 

Crime data has been available online for years, but technological upgrades have allowed the data to be mapped and manipulated by citizens. Police received a $2 million budget increase from 2016 to 2018 and technology is a large part of that. The city also continues to lead in innovation and transparency and the multimedia feature, For the Record, increases citizen engagement by providing interactive access to public meetings regarding budgets for crime and safety. 

6th City of Pasadena, Calif.

The city of Pasadena has made the use of data a top priority and has heavily utilized the IT department to execute its plans. The city had one of the first open data sites in southern California and continues to become more transparent, especially around budgeting and city council activities. Pasadena also looks for innovative ways to use data, like leveraging it for performance measurement. In addition, it proactively shares its data with Caltech (The California Institute of Technology) for use in data analytics courses. In return, the city has been able to use the results to gain insights into its operational areas. 

To serve citizens better, Pasadena has an active social media program (28,000 Twitter followers and daily posts to serve a population of more than 142,000) and has launched a universal online payment gateway pilot. The city is also testing Alexa as a voice assistant service for its residents. In terms of connectivity, the city runs a 25-mile fiber backbone and has leveraged the network to bring free public Wi-Fi to city parks.

7th City of Baton Rouge, La.

For Baton Rouge, La., the move toward a centralized IT environment is backed up by a multi-year strategy. This effort, prompted by external challenges, will ultimately allow for more efficiency, pooled resources and using attrition to reach staffing goals. The city relies heavily on data for daily operations, including the use of GIS and drones for public works projects. Broadband has been an ongoing focus and the completion of a strategic expansion plan was the city’s first milestone in its efforts to strategically deploy infrastructure.

With support from the Sunlight Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities, Baton Rouge has charged ahead to create an open data program and the policies and procedures that surround it. In addition to the formal policy, adopted in December 2017, the “open by default” standard helps to ensure residents, organizations and the media are seeing valuable data. This effort is further supplemented by the city’s Data Governance Committee. The data team is also working to make Open Checkbook BR a valuable resource for people curious about city spending. Staff are also working to relaunch Open Budget BR, which was taken offline until the launch of a new ERP system is complete. That new system replaces disparate and outdated technologies that are more than 20 years old. In addition to the normal efficiencies delivered in the update, the city has also included a vendor self-service portal to allow companies working for the city to find real-time information about new opportunities, pending payments and more.

In the public safety arena, city IT staff are working with Baton Rouge Police Department and Information Services to develop a real-time crime center to help reduce crime in the jurisdiction. A push to update the city’s cybersecurity stance includes the development of its first cybersecurity policy — though officials admit that current staffing levels make the overall effort difficult to take on. A cyberinsurance policy is also being considered. In a similar vein, the city has moved to harden its IT infrastructure by moving it out of flood-prone areas. A new 911 computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system is also expected by April 2019.

8th City of Montgomery, Ala.

Alabama’s capital city of Montgomery is focused on maximizing its citizens’ experience with their government. The city’s open data portal generates transparency for community members, creating trust with residents and businesses. It also works internally to assist with data-driven decision-making, helping to identify efficiencies that can help save on costs. This is part of Montgomery’s smart cities efforts, which are focused on improving quality of life within the city and improving communication with citizens. For example, Montgomery worked with RoadBotics to track street conditions, the findings from which will help prioritize repairs. In another private-sector partnership, the city is making garbage trucks central to its IoT efforts and using real-time service tracking data to monitor issues that residents may be facing throughout the city. To increase city Internet speeds, Montgomery partnered with the county of Montgomery as well as Maxwell Air Force Base to provide up to 100GB speeds for its 25 members, with the goal of attracting businesses to the area by offering faster connections at lower prices.

Montgomery’s No. 1 priority is to hire and retain talent, and while the IT department has recently experienced a relatively high retirement rate, new employees now take part in job rotation, by undergoing stints on the GIS team or with Web development, for example, to help them understand the big picture of what’s happening across the city. 

9th City of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

Responding to shifting demographics, ninth-place Rancho Cucamonga adopted a master plan last year to provide high-speed fiber-based connectivity to residents and businesses in partnership with a local provider. The buildout will include the installation of video analytics technologies, automated license plate readers and smart irrigation devices, demonstrating the city’s commitment to quality-of-life planning that takes advantage of the capabilities of the Internet of Things.

An emphasis on data-driven government is evident in the initiative from the city manager to establish performance metrics for each department, which will be used to fuel budget decisions. Plans are also underway to feed key performance indicators (KPIs) into dashboards using data analytics tools. The city’s mobile app has also been revamped to gather better data on events reported by citizens. Similar effort is going toward citizen engagement and transparency efforts, with recent investments in new tools from Esri and Socrata aimed at advancing detailed financial reporting goals.

In the area of security, the city has upgraded its firewall and reconfigured its network for both device and identity-level security. Core business traffic on the network is separated from public and mobile network activity. A comprehensive cybersecurity training program boasts 90 percent completion for key staff, and IT employees stay current on skills with ongoing training and attendance at vendor educational events.

10th City of Corona, Calif.

After not making last year’s Digital Cities ranking, Corona showed its tech strength this year in open data and citizen-centric services. The city has created a data warehouse in the cloud, allowing for easier use of cross-departmental data, and that feeds an open dashboard as well as performance management and business intelligence software. It also enables a chatbot that helps answer citizens’ common questions. It credits the What Works Cities initiative, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Johns Hopkins University and Harvard University for helping in those efforts.

Corona also has a “Citizen Tax Receipt” project to show residents how their tax dollars are being spent, a construction projects story map, an open checkbook, a SeeClickFix app and a city app to communicate with residents. In the future it plans on integrating some of these systems — 311 and the chatbot, for example — so they work together. The city has also made good progress on the back end, moving about half of its servers to the cloud, improving its firewalls and anti-malware protection and working to upgrade its network architecture.

Corona’s ongoing work includes an IT department re-organization, phishing training, a 5G deployment plan and creation of a mobile app to help people apply for homeless services — to name just a few projects.

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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.