Articles

Top Digital Cities Announced for 2009

These city governments are using digital technologies to better serve their citizens and streamline operations.

by / November 3, 2009

"We're getting about 99.9 percent accuracy on the readings and it's helped us quite a bit." Corpus Christi CIO Michael Armstrong (pictured) regarding the city's electronic gas- and water-meter reading system.

Each year the Center for Digital Government takes a survey of U.S. cities to evaluate how municipalities are integrating information technology into operations to better serve their citizens. This year marks the ninth annual Digital Cities Survey and also a year full of challenges for city governments. From pit bulls to tighter budgets, local governments have had many obstacles to overcome this year. Cities have had to become more innovative and creative with the way funds are used and how technology is incorporated to improve government services. The survey was open to all U.S. cities with a population of 30,000 or more.

Trends and Statistics

Local governments are doing more to increase their Web presence and are reaching out to a wider range of citizens. They are also becoming aware of the need to reduce their carbon footprints. These statistics represent growth in self-service, transparency and sustainability over the past year:

Online Self-service

  • 82 percent of respondents have webcasts -- streamed audio and video, live and archived
  • 74 percent have RSS feeds (up 21 percent over last year)

Citizen Participation and Transparency

  • 87 percent have city government body meeting minutes available online, archived and searchable
  • 73 percent conduct online surveys or polls
  • 57 percent have podcasts (a 26 percent increase over last year)
  • 67 percent have blogs (a 37 percent increase over last year)
  • 62 percent have microblogs (such as Twitter)
  • 64 percent use social networks (such as Facebook and MySpace)

Environment Sustainability

  • 85 percent have done data center consolidation and virtualization
  • 45 percent have established metrics and installed instruments to measure energy efficiencies
  • 66 percent use e-waste recycling efforts and earth-friendly disposal

Corpus Christi, Texas (First place in the 250,000 or more population category)

In an interview with Government Technology, Michael Armstrong, CIO of Corpus Christi, Texas, said he and his municipal information systems (MIS) team had a very busy and exciting year. Along with completing 156 projects (an activity that requires at least 40 hours of MIS staff time), answering over 440,000 calls to the call center with a wait time of approximately 15 seconds and responding to 18,000 service requests, the MIS department also monitored the Corpus Christi Web site which received more than 1.2 million visits.

A notable service is the automated water and gas meter-reader. According to Armstrong, the system was "pit-bull-driven," after a meter-reader was mauled by a pit-bull in the back yard of a home while trying to read a utility meter. The new system electronically reads approximately 115,000 water and gas meters twice daily and the billing agency then generates an online billing statement. "That project is going really well. We're getting about 99.9 percent accuracy on the readings and it's helped us quite a bit," Armstrong said.

Looking to the future, Armstrong says a big project they will be working on is installing video surveillance in all police patrol cars. "We've been involved with our Police Department for about a year now planning this project and it will be very helpful to us, but it comes with some very large infrastructure implications. A ton of video takes a ton of storage," Armstrong said. "We're also looking at bringing in much more rational data and document management. We have tremendous applications in place and collect tremendous amount of data. But all the reporting comes out of those individual silos so we can't do

anything horizontally across those systems." They are now working with an open source program using an application called "Alfresco" that will help with basic document and content management.

Armstrong says they are also looking at software as a service. In just a couple weeks, they will be moving many critical applications over to a hosted environment in Atlanta. This will help save over $100,000 a year as well as free up space in the data center.

Santa Monica, California (First place in the 75,000 - 124,999 population category)

Jory Wolf, CIO of Santa Monica, Calif., said one of the biggest initiatives the city has implemented in recent years is a traffic signal synchronization system to help with the city's crippling traffic problem through the build-out of a fiber-optic network. "This provides for our ability to control the timing of the signals," Wolf said. "What this does is allows the Big Blue Buses and other L.A. rapid transit vehicles to move through those rapid corridors by our holding the lights green. This means the headway from one point to the next is much faster and also that the buses aren't stopping and idling, therefore creating a much smaller carbon footprint."

In addition to the synchronization of the traffic lights, the city of Santa Monica is working on a wireless parking project that will help alleviate some of the congestion down by the Santa Monica pier. "Citizens are able to use mobile devices to check if there is parking available using an application which updates information in real-time," Wolf said. "We partnered with Google to make little maplette on our Web site which updates parking information in all of our parking structures and beach lots every five seconds." People are also able to check how much time is left on their parking meter and make payments wirelessly using their mobile devices.

Santa Monica has long been at the forefront of using the Web for implementing access to online information and self-service applications, but it is now extending its use of the latest social networking technologies to Twitter, Facebook and multiple blogs.

Flower Mound, Texas (First place in the 30,000 - 74,999 population category)

Dustin Malcom, Director of Information Technology for Flower Mound, Texas, said that the town -- like Santa Monica -- has recently undertaken the implementation of a fiber-optic network. "Ordinarily, constructing a fiber network is a long, expensive process that is typically out of reach for most small IT budgets," Malcom said in an e-mail exchange. "But the town of Flower Mound was able to leverage existing franchise agreements and construct a robust fiber optic network to all town-owned facilities. Not only did this greatly improve network performance, but it also reduced operating costs by nearly $150,000 a year by replacing leased, copper services."

Flower Mound is also working to expand its Web presence by reaching out to citizens who may not use typical public relations avenues. "The town operates numerous Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/FlowerMound) pages, several Twitter blogs, a YouTube channel, a Flickr page and a Nixle site," Malcom said.

Over the next year, the town of Flower Mound plans to focus IT efforts on energy-saving initiatives such as virtualization and cooling optimization. "These changes should help reduce our energy consumption as well as improve control of heat generation in our primary server room," Malcom said. "While controlling energy waste is a never-ending project, we will be making major headway into that arena by implementing multiple virtualization servers and applying common-sense approaches to keeping our server room cool, such as limiting access to the server room by expanding remote access, channeling airflow and dividing servers into different areas based upon heat generation," continued Malcom.

For a full list of the Digital Cities Survey 2009 Winners, visit the Digital Communities Web site. Survey underwriters were AT&T, CDW-G, Microsoft and OnBase.