The 2015 Digital Cities Survey results are in. Dozens of cities were selected by a judging panel at the Center for Digital Government as the most strategic, efficient and innovative guardians of public-sector tech in the nation. The top-ranked cities will receive an award on Nov. 5 at the annual National League of Cities conference in recognition of their achievements.
The first place winners in four population categories are Philadelphia; Alexandria, Va.; Avondale, Ariz.; and Shawnee, Kan. Judges evaluated the survey submissions of each city by considering four elements: citizen engagement, policy, operations, and technology and data.
Given this common set of criteria, it's natural that the winners should have some qualities in common, but an unanticipated pattern arose among the winners: The best digital cities have developed a mature infrastructure that affords city leaders a chance to experiment with forward-thinking technology projects that are molded in the image of the average citizen's lifestyle.
Philadelphia is a prime example of a city that has the fundamentals down so well that its administrators feel comfortable trying new things. Philadelphia was recognized by judges for a new citizen-centric version of its website (now in alpha), open data and analytics initiatives that released more than 225 agency data sets since 2012, and a comprehensive innovation strategy that includes an innovation lab, innovation fund, innovation academy and digital inclusion portfolio.
The Mayor's Office of Education participated in a federal initiative called US2020 designed to solve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education challenges through the design of an eight-week course that brought 10 low-income and minority middle-school students into the world of technology. The students gained access to new resources and ideas, and the response from both the students and the city staff who mentored the students was unexpectedly positive, the city reported. The initial pilot complete, the city now plans to continue the project. Next time, however, the students from the last cohort will help design and possibly even teach the students who enter mentorship next time.
The city also ran a digital literacy program that combined technology with nutrition. Students blogged about their experience learning about healthy cooking, and participated in a curriculum that integrated photography, writing and Internet skills, all while promoting a healthier lifestyle. Philadelphia is one of the most obese cities in the nation, and black and Hispanic Philadelphians in particular have less access to fresh fruits and vegetables, according to the city (PDF).
Andrew Buss, the city's director of innovation management at the Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT), explained that it's only because the city has matured technologically that roles like his, roles dedicated to a structured approach to innovation, are permitted to exist. Cities are like people in that once they have their own bills paid and their own lives figured out, they often turn to philanthropy.
"We have really gone to step two in our maturity as an organization. US2020, the food and technology work, ... those are all things that, in my mind, we could only do if we took care of the very basic technology operations for the city," Buss said. "The idea has always been that as you reduce the number of legacy applications you have to support, do more server maintenance off site, things like that, that frees up resources and capital so you can start doing some other things. And I think on that other side, our focus has been and will continue to be how you really provide beneficial technology to the public."
If the city focuses too much on innovation, he said, the infrastructure will fall behind and they'll have to go back to a model where the city is once again occupied with maintenance, but for now, they have the luxury of trying new things.
Cities like to broadcast the image that all their projects and successes are calculated extensions of meticulous policy, but it doesn't always happen that way, Buss said, noting that the success of the city's US2020 project hadn't been anticipated by anyone.
"Realistically, what happens is you get some initiatives, and some of them are really cool and you get some other initiatives and they're kind of a pain in the ass, and they're just things you have to do," Buss explained. "And sometimes there's that in-between slice when you get something and you're not quite sure how it fits in, and it ends up being a pretty good initiative. The one I think of specifically around that was the US2020 STEM mentoring work."
In other cases, he said, successful initiatives were born from contests the city entered to obtain funding, but they didn't get it. So the project was stalled for several years before someone took an interest and brought it back to life. The city does a lot of planning, he said, but sometimes it's the circuitous routes that eventually yield the most impressive results.
Digital cities give back to their communities and they're also more in tune with how their citizens live. Being on social media, creating new avenues for service requests, and building mobile-friendly websites are considered good technology practices because they allow cities to understand what other technologies their citizens want.
Avondale, Ariz., is being recognized for a branding effort that reinforces the city's identity, an open data and maps initiative that bridged the city to a community of more than 20 governments sharing information through the state's OpenBooks program, and a regional cybersecurity collaboration that helps keep the city's data and networks safe.
The reason the most technologically advanced cities are the ones that meet citizen needs best, said Avondale CIO Rob Lloyd, is because technology strengthens communication and feedback loops.
"If a citizen wants a service or wants to critique something and has a criticism or a suggestion, it gets to the IT department faster, gets to the city council and the budget process," he said, "so you're seeing that loop tighten up where the technology is matching communities more because technology is moving faster and is trying to meet those expectations as a baseline."
With a population under 80,000, Avondale doesn't have the pull of a larger city, Lloyd said, and that makes collaboration crucial. The city collaborated on its open data initiative, being one of the first to contribute to a state-led open data effort originally conceived as a punishment for cities that failed their audits. Open data isn't a punishment, Lloyd said, and opting into the program is saving the city money while also building a repository of data large enough to attract the attention of developers and entrepreneurs.
In 2014, the city collaborated with several cities on a multi-jurisdictional cybersecurity procurement. The arrangement saved the city money, granted all participants access to technologies they wouldn't have been able to use otherwise. The city securely shared its cybersecurity audit results and updated its policies to reconcile the shortcomings found in the audit. There's a lot of talk about cybersecurity models, Lloyd said, but responding according to an organization's unique shortcomings and collaborating regionally with more resourceful organizations is critical. In some cases, he said, they discover cybersecurity risks and vulnerabilities weeks before others know about them.
"It's the only thing we found that gives us a fighting chance," Lloyd said. "In the press, you don't see the risk getting any better. It's just more people are getting hurt, more people are getting violated, and we're just seeing that number grow and grow and grow, and we think that's model-based. Everyone is reacting in the same way that's unproductive. And so how can we do it as a whole look at cybersecurity as a service? How can we move that forward?"
Receiving recognition through the Digital Cities Survey is an indication that Avondale is performing well across all facets of the organization and evolving as a government, Lloyd said.
"The reason we like the Digital Cities award is because it isn't just technology focused," he explained. "For the last 10-plus years, it has recognized that the best technology efforts are the ones that are crossing all those lines. ... Everything that we do day to day is who we are. The products and technology used are aspirations. Those are things we're doing to try to be something better or different."
Shawnee was recognized for projects like its customer relationship platform (CRM), Shawnee Connect, a city-branded app and website that allows citizens to report problems, view maps of requests submitted by others, and work with other citizens on fixing problems. A GIS-powered street condition rating map allows citizens to monitor city infrastructure following the passage of new taxes to upgrade city parks, trails and drainage systems.
Infrastructure is crucial, said Mel Bunting, the city's director of Information Technology Services.
"It's very important to the overall well-being of not just the agency itself but to the community. I think it's vital," Bunting said. "We have to continually invest in those components or else our city becomes. ... Aging infrastructure is not a good position to be in."
Just as the city voted to upgrade things that are traditionally considered infrastructure, the city makes strides in digital technology, Bunting said, adding that technology has become part of infrastructure.
"Technology is in that conversation now," he said. "When we look at any discussions regarding initiatives that we as an organization undertake, technology is a component that has to be on that table."
Shawnee was also recognized for a program that equipped police with handheld driver's license scanners that automatically enter parking tickets into the city's systems rather than requiring the ticket to be written out and manually entered later. Those issued tickets are also given a faster method of paying their fines.
The city also completed a server virtualization project once composed of more than 75 enterprise servers and 250 physical computers. The upfront cost savings were joined by increased service uptime and an operational model that focuses on the user.
"From the city of Shawnee, it's just a great opportunity to be recognized," Bunting said. "It's a commitment to our community and I think this has just been a great commendation the city is very happy to receive."
Read page two of our story for a breakdown and analysis of each winner in the 2015 Digital Cities Survey.