Digital Counties Survey 2018: Winners Prioritize Culture, Collaboration and Automation

This year's winners use tech to improve government, even when the odds are stacked against them.

by , / July 11, 2018
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Up to 150,000 Population Category

Click 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 Nevada County, Calif.

One of 10 Sierra Nevada agencies that were ground zero to the state’s formative Gold Rush, Nevada County, Calif., built on IT accomplishments to reclaim the No. 1 spot in the smallest population category for the second time in three years. Guided by a supportive Board of Supervisors that has set clear technology investment policy, a strategic plan focused on service and an enterprise technology reserve fund, the county of nearly 100,000 has expanded and refreshed online and tech offerings.

County supervisors prioritized innovation in their 2018 value statements, forming an innovation team led by the chief information officer. The county also held a Citizen’s Academy to educate residents on their government. It launched a new regional law enforcement activity map last month, and has created a new public communications position aimed at identifying ways to improve information pushed out to the public through social media and the Internet. The agency is in early stages on an enterprise-level contract management system and has implemented a new in-vehicle video system that fosters collaboration between its district attorney and sheriff’s office.

Nevada County's CivicPlus-powered public website went live in August 2017 with responsive design that eliminated the need for a separate mobile site. The MyNeighborhood app on the website offers parcel, land and property data with new layers documenting marijuana ordinance and roadway information; and the county’s Open Data Portal offers residents a better way to search 18 layers of GIS data. AskNevadaCounty, another app accessible through the website, uses Accela’s customer relationship management (CRM) system to sort questions in eight categories, submit service requests and get answers from six city departments. Plus, new kiosks facilitate residents’ access to probation, sheriff’s and building departments, enabling functions including probationer self-service and building plan submission.

2nd Albemarle County, Va.

Although it slipped from first to second place this year, Albemarle County, Va., (population 108,000) continues its success in transparency and efficiency for citizens. The county uses GIS-enabled apps to let the public view open building permits and important county records like building applications and parcel activity. Residents are also encouraged to give feedback on the county budget and stay up to date with e-newsletters, email and community meetings. The county Board of Supervisors authorized the establishment of a broadband authority to meet the area's growing Internet needs, and the authority has gotten a $430,000 grant to expand broadband and improve wireless coverage for first responders in rural Albemarle.

Albemarle considers cybersecurity an important concern. The county partners with the University of Virginia and the city of Charlottesville to discuss cybersecurity issues, and meets with other universities, school districts and localities statewide to publish the Cybersecurity Partnership for Virginia Cities and Counties report (funded by the National Science Foundation).

This region shares just one emergency communications center, and this year, the county successfully rolled out two records management systems for four public safety agencies to replace incompatible legacy systems. IT teams partnered to launch New World Systems for the police department and Image Trends for fire and rescue, as well as computer-aided dispatch system updates.

3rd Allegan County, Mich.

Third place is a familiar ranking for Allegan County, Mich., which finished in the same spot for counties of up to 150,000 residents last year. Despite this success, county leadership notes, however, that within its ongoing vision it needs to be “continuing to evaluate the technology itself to find efficiencies that will ultimately help offset increasing costs.” If there’s a simpler way to sum up the heart of gov tech efforts, we haven’t heard it. It all speaks to Allegan’s practicality. This is an efficient county that is, for example, prolonging the life of its PCs and laptops by using virtual desktops, thereby still enabling quick and responsive computing. Allegan has also redirected money saved there to cybersecurity.

Meanwhile, the county continues to use analytics and look at trends to tailor its website to customer needs, also using data to build new online services and improve upon existing ones. Data is also helping the county with law enforcement and emergency services deployment, for which it is using GIS and computer-aided dispatch mapping to enhance preparedness, noting emergency management events “rely on data sharing, real-time mapping and data system integrations.” This is especially important with an aging nuclear power plant nearby. The county is also engaged in smaller improvements such as replacing its online court calendar system and deploying digital signage that displays docket information in its courthouse lobby. It’s also improving its online veteran services site and its parks reservation system. Moving forward, digital inclusion is also a priority. The past two years, the county has worked with the Connect Michigan Public Services Commission to complete a broadband assessment. That info is now being used by local city leaders to guide projects aimed at increasing broadband access within their communities.

4th Mono County, Calif.

Mono County, Calif., is home to 13,981 residents, and while it may be small in terms of its population, it has big plans for the future. Mono County, which tied for fourth place in its population category, is currently working with the California Department of Transportation to explore using the Highway 395 corridor and the fiber-optic network that runs alongside it as a testing site for smart transportation technologies. The county is envisioning using Highway 395 as a testbed for autonomous vehicles and other emerging technologies, given its two-hour proximity to Tesla’s Gigafactory in Reno, Nev.

In addition to its smart transportation aspirations, Mono County has several Web initiatives as well. The Transparent Mono County website portal is expected to roll out this month and consolidate its open and transparent applications into one location, which will also feature the capabilities to allow users to retrieve information in three clicks or fewer. The county’s website also has an area for contractors and vendors to bid on its projects using a platform where they can enter their business profile, respond to open RFPs and receive notification of new projects.

4th Montgomery County, Va.

Montgomery County, Va., population 98,509, managed to hold onto its fourth-place spot for a third year in a row, this year tying with Mono County, Calif. The county continued its focus on cybersecurity with the completion of two cybersecurity assessments, one by the Virginia National Guard’s Data Processing Unit and the other with a private entity. Recommendations from those assessments will be implemented in a three-phase cybersecurity plan, the first phase of which has already been completed. The county also this year hired a full-time network engineer/security analyst to oversee software and system patches and address vulnerability concerns.

The county has opened a couple of new buildings, including a state-of-the-art dispatching facility for the newly established New River Valley Emergency Communications Regional Authority (911 Authority). The 911 Authority centralizes dispatch functions for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, Virginia Tech Police Department, and the police departments for the towns of Blacksburg and Christiansburg. The Authority has plans to implement next-generation 911 capabilities, including text messaging, into its dispatch services in the future. The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office also got 30,000 square feet of office space in a new Public Safety Building, and the Animal Care and Adoption Center opened its new facility to the public in April 2017. Animal adoptions have increased thanks to the improved environment in the new facility, as well as the implementation of a cloud-based animal care management site and a pet finder site. The county’s dedication to social media paid off last summer during a dog food supply shortage — a “code red” Facebook post saw 1,500 pounds of food donated within two days. A second "code red" for kitten food a month later reached nearly 17,000 people and was so effective that some area stores were sold out.

5th Napa County, Calif.

Napa County has been through a lot in the past six months. Its population of 142,456 went through a month-long wildfire in October, where devastation eventually spread across multiple Northern California counties. Staying in fifth place for the second year, Napa County is working toward a citizen-centric approach for IT with constituent safety at the forefront. With the wildfire came shocking realizations about weaknesses in emergency operations. The Emergency Operations Center purchased additional GIS technology to gain more knowledge on pertinent geographical data. IT is also working with Health and Human Services to create a data warehouse to connect data analytics capabilities to different programs in Napa. The existing 911 system will also eventually be replaced, extending service to American Canyon and Yountville in the process. During the fire when people weren’t being notified of what was going on, officials knew change was needed. IT is in the process of purchasing InformaCast, a notification system, to provide enhanced staff notification during emergency events. Currently in place is a NIXLE channel used to communicate emergency alerts, recovery information and act as a key source for community messaging and connectivity. NIXLE is also used to send text alerts on road closures, evacuation orders, shelter information and recovery details.

And despite the focus on getting better prepared for emergencies, traditional IT also got some upgrades. The county website was redesigned and moved to a modern content management system, creating more efficient access to GIS data. Throughout the year, IT leadership will continue beefing up security practices to better safeguard county data, regardless of its location.

5th Roanoke County, Va.

Roanoke County, Va., retained its fifth-place spot this year, continuing to build on its impressive array of open data and citizen engagement efforts with a new app that provides its 93,655 residents with information about the new federal Mountain Valley Pipeline that will run through the county. Through the Mountain Valley Pipeline Viewer application, residents can use an interactive map to view layers of information about the project, including various routes, mile-post markers, workspace areas and tax parcels.

Roanoke County gathered some of the information for the Pipeline Viewer app through the efforts of its newly formed Drone Team, which did a flyover of the project site to map the area. Created under the auspices of the county Fire and Rescue Department in order to help evaluate fire areas and find lost hikers, the Drone Team has quickly proven that it has many more potential applications than were originally envisioned for it. The county is planning on using the team to conduct inspections and create orthomosaics, 3-D meshes and more that will assist in future projects.

The security breach that affected the city of Atlanta at the beginning of 2018 was enough of a wake-up call for Roanoke County to decide that it needed to take a serious look at its own cybersecurity posture. While the county received a good score on a vulnerability assessment conducted by the Virginia National Guard, just above a four on a five-point scale, it discovered that it needed to improve its security training for employees and is already making plans to do so.

6th Franklin County, Va.

In Franklin County, Va., supporting residents and government operations has most notably centered on public safety. These efforts include ongoing improvements to the fire and rescue radio system, and a 911 dispatch fail-over plan with neighboring Patrick County. Additionally Franklin County is leveraging mapping and data to assess response times and make improvements to how public safety crews are deployed. Mapping critical infrastructure, like gas lines, has also been an ongoing effort to keep the county’s 56,000 residents and public safety teams safe during emergency situations.

When it comes to Internet connectivity, Franklin County is taking a proactive approach to broadband through public-private partnerships. The county is currently assessing where technology and service is most lacking and using that information to prompt conversations with service providers about how to fill gaps and design an inclusive coverage plan.

Cybersecurity continues to be a work in progress in the county. Awareness training and cybersecurity insurance are part of the plan, but the county’s detailed strategy continues to evolve as its needs are identified and change. Like many other counties, Franklin is not doing this work unhampered. The state continues to add requirements while funding recedes, and changes to the tax base have prompted discussions about where to go next. A rapidly aging population is compounding the issue of revenue and taxable income. In spite of these challenges, the county is looking to redevelop a business park to move the needle and create more opportunity for tax revenue to make its way into county coffers.

6th York County, Va.

For a county in the smallest population category, York County, Va., has a surprising number of leading technology efforts underway. Many endeavors underline a strategy of upgrading and streamlining systems to operate as efficiently as possible. Examples include consolidating data centers and a new financial management system. York County’s commitment to transparency is demonstrated by a public portal now in development that will offer timely financial information, including tax and real-estate data, on a public dashboard. Engagement tools in regular use include online surveys, a resident notification service, video streaming and an active Facebook presence that has increased its followers by more than 200 percent over the past year and a half. When it comes to public safety, the county sheriff’s department is using drone technology to enhance crime-fighting efforts and lobbying to allow the use of drone-captured data in judicial proceedings. High marks also go to York County for its cybersecurity practices, which it has built upon significantly in recent months. An additional layer of intrusion detection now safeguards police bodycam video on its way to the cloud, as well as the county’s open Wi-Fi network. In-depth traffic analysis helps keep tabs on user activity and ongoing awareness training is continually enhanced to meet evolving threats.

7th Skagit County, Wash.

Located north of Seattle, Skagit County, Wash., faces a host of issues despite the state’s overall healthy economy. Technology is expected to play a key role in improving the county’s public health concerns, for example, with the deployment of a software tool that will evaluate the effectiveness of county health initiatives. New mapping and analytics software will also help the county prevent drug overdoses and deaths. Skagit is mounting a major community engagement initiative that will make meetings more productive and draw in underrepresented groups, and technology will make the county’s engagement more interactive. For example, the government expects to have an online survey tool that will allow commissioners to see how well they are engaging the community, and how they can improve engagement and measure feedback around such issues as new infrastructure for ferry service. The county has also modernized service operations with the Information Technology Infrastructure Library service models, and is the first county to implement a “one-stop” property search that integrates data from separate internal systems to provide a common view of information on its public website.

8th Summit County, Utah

With a population of just under 40,000, Summit County comes in eighth place in its population category for its work in public safety and emergency preparedness, among other initiatives. In reviewing its disaster recovery plan in 2016, the county found they it did have not the computer power to set up a hot site during a disaster. The county purchased the necessary equipment and installed it in late 2017. It included three Dell R630 servers running VMware VSphere 6.5 and a Dell Compellent SC4020 Storage Array with 30 TB of usable disk space. This was a small build, but major for a smaller county and significant, as the county can now run all its applications and storage on it if the main systems were to go down. The setup is a mirror image to the current one and can be flipped and installed in a few hours.

One of Summit County Council’s top strategic goals is to improve the transportation system by reducing traffic congestion. The Bike Share mobile app was a pilot started in 2017 in the hopes of reducing traffic in the summer. It allows residents to register by website or smartphone and pay for rentals, and the “electric bike share” was a huge success. The public signs up easily via smartphone and the website provides statistics on the usage of bikes.

9th Chatham County, N.C.

Chatham County, N.C., is a newcomer to the rankings, finishing 9th  for jurisdictions in its population category. Located in the Piedmont area of the state, just west of Raleigh, Chatham County adopted a new comprehensive plan in late 2017. The county notes that “until that plan was adopted the efforts of Chatham County tech efforts have been pretty traditional.” In the months since it has been put in place, however, the tech team has been rebranded "Chatham IT" and now includes representatives from all county agencies that service other departments. This helps to align tech efforts with ongoing work to improve the overall county government while also continuing traditional IT support. Technologists in Chatham have worked hard to make themselves more visible so that their work is included in all ideas and vendor efforts.

In terms of public-facing work, the comprehensive plan has been published online in its entirety to foster transparency and accountability. While discussions have been had around providing more open data, work has not progressed past the discussion phase. The county website, however, is being reworked with a citizen-centric vision that has already led to the additions of a permitting portal and e-notices. Chatham is also working to collaborate with local municipalities to help bring broadband to unserved and underserved areas, with one specific effort taking the form of grant applications for funding. Throughout the survey, however, what is perhaps most striking about Chatham is its potential for the future. Tech and innovation work at the moment is a bit modest, but with the comprehensive plan now in place, a commitment is being made to incorporating it into more efforts moving forward.

10th Gloucester County, Va.

A sparsely populated coastal region, Gloucester County, Va., cites developing wireless broadband throughout the area as one of its top priorities, an effort that recently resulted in a new public-private agreement with Cox Communications. And in January 2018, broadband was made available for 96 residential and 20 commercial properties in the northern half of the small county, home to a total of fewer than 37,000 citizens.

County meetings are streamed live to residents via the Granicus platform, while other avenues to encourage citizen engagement include text-to-voice Readspeaker via the county website, which also makes more information around budgets and compensation available. In additional engagement efforts, Gloucester County is active on social media, communicating with constituents on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn. This year the county also updated its website, streamlining services to citizens and making content ADA compliant.

Gloucester County is in the process of syncing currently siloed databases and systems, an effort that could lead to the development of dashboards, data-consolidation and error-proofing. They are also working toward implementing a central ERP system to create efficiencies across the agency. In the interest of creating strong cybersecurity with a small footprint, the county has moved several key applications to software-as-a-service and other hosted environments.

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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.