L.A. Story

Political leaders envision more technology in the city's future.

by / May 1, 2006
If the U.S. economy is changing, Los Angeles may be at the epicenter of the shift.

Spread over more than 465 square miles, the city's mix of technology- and entertainment-focused industries puts it on the forefront of creating new uses for IT and information. At the same time, Los Angeles faces a huge task in protecting, supporting and educating one of the nation's most economically and culturally diverse populations.

In this Government Technology special report, we explore how the second-largest U.S.municipality expects to use technology to exploit economic opportunities and help solve some vexing socioeconomic challenges.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Council President Eric Garcetti represent a new generation of technology literate city leaders.

Villaraigosa served as speaker of the California State Assembly and as Los Angeles City Council member before his election as mayor in 2005. As a distinguished fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California (USC), he helped write After Sprawl, a policy blueprint for addressing issues facing many urban centers.

Garcetti -- a Rhodes scholar who taught public policy, diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College and USC prior to his election to the City Council in 2001 -- was named City Council president at the start of his second council term in 2005.

On the following pages, Villaraigosa and Garcetti offer their views on technology's current role in city governance and its importance for the future. Working with city CIO Thera Bradshaw, they are supporting a wide range of IT initiatives designed to make Los Angeles a better and safer place to live -- including projects to tame the area's legendary traffic congestion, bolster the relatively lean Los Angeles Police force and deploy affordable wireless Internet access citywide.

In addition, we present a collection of vignettes that give a taste of the area's current progress and where it may be headed. We look at the city's 311 system, which was launched in 2002 and continues to gain capabilities; an informal agreement among the city, Los Angeles County and Los Angeles Unified School District to combine technology purchasing, which could save the region millions of dollars; a Web-based system that allows parents to track grades and attendance for K-12 students; and a pilot project that connects residents of outlying areas to downtown City Council meetings via video teleconferencing technology.

Antonio Villaraigosa
Los Angeles mayor sees innovation reducing traffic, strengthening public safety and eliminating the digital divide.

You've proposed taking over the Los Angeles Unified School District -- what role can technology play in reforming the city's education system?
Villaraigosa: First, technology can help support academic achievement by improving teaching and learning. Technology tools must be integrated into teaching daily practices. Second, technology streamlines administrative processes with improved systems supporting instructional planning, grades and classroom management. Third, technology supports education by enabling teachers and parents to use existing information and data in proactive ways while improving instruction. Technology must complement and enhance the overall teacher/student experience, and improve the effectiveness of teaching, communication and participation with parents.

What industries are key to the city's future, and what can Los Angeles do to attract them?
Villaraigosa: International trade, the entertainment industry, tourism, bio-medical and environmental technology are all key to our city's future. Business tax reform measures and a high-quality education system send the message that Los Angeles is business friendly, and that we'll do everything possible to retain and attract businesses that grow our local economy.

We are also investing in our work force, directing the city's work source centers and work force development policies to train Angelenos for highly skilled, highly paid jobs in competitive business sectors. We're also increasing housing opportunities -- the affordable housing trust fund is fully funded for the first time in the city's history. Also, the city has a variety of business development incentive programs for certain qualified businesses, such as Industrial Development Bonds.

What are the city's foremost public safety challenges? How can technology help address them?
Villaraigosa: Los Angeles has fewer police officers per capita than most large cities in the nation. My top priority in the coming years is to identify the resources and qualified candidates necessary to expand the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

I believe that technology can assist us in making the limited police officers we have more efficient. For example, using technology to keep officers on the street rather than in the station doing paperwork allows us to maximize our existing personnel.

The use of digital video cameras has also allowed us to derive greater benefit from our existing officers in Los Angeles. This technology has already been used successfully in MacArthur Park and Hollywood to help deter crime and increase prosecution rates. We are now expanding the use of cameras to housing projects, such as Jordan Downs, and to commercial areas in downtown.

The city is also exploring other technologies to assist our first responders -- the Fire Department is looking to implement GPS devices to track equipment and vehicles to ensure we always deploy the closest units to minimize response times. We are working with the Police Department to upgrade their mobile data terminals to provide officers with access to additional databases that assist them in investigations and communications.

Technology has been valuable in our homeland security efforts. Through Operation Archangel, the LAPD built a database that's cataloging all the details --blueprints, contact info, evacuation plans, etc. -- for each of the city's critical assets. First responders will then have access to this information in the event of an emergency.

As Sept. 11 demonstrated, radio interoperability is another crucial area where technology can be of great assistance. The entire Los Angeles region is currently participating in a study to determine how we can best unify our multiple radio systems, and we'll undoubtedly rely on the assistance of several technology companies to make this goal a reality.

How will the city use technology and technology-related policies to ease traffic congestion?
Villaraigosa: Los Angeles is among the world's leaders in reducing traffic congestion, improving air quality and providing better transit service through advanced technology systems.

The core technology developed and deployed by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) is the Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control (ATSAC) system. Under ATSAC, traffic conditions on city streets are monitored remotely from a central command center by city staff, and are tracked by loop detectors buried under city streets.

The first generation ATSAC system enables traffic engineers to optimize traffic flow and capacity on city streets by synchronizing traffic signals. In addition, engineers can manually and remotely change signal timing based on traffic conditions observed via camera. First-generation ATSAC increases street capacity by 12 percent.

The second-generation Adaptive Traffic Control System (ATCS) increases capacity on city streets by an additional 3 percent, for a total increase of 15 percent. The ATCS automatically changes signal timing as traffic conditions change by time of day, weather or accidents.

In addition, the LADOT partners with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) -- the county's largest transit operator -- to operate the MTA's Rapid Bus program, as well as the new Orange Line busway service. Using the city's ATSAC infrastructure, MTA buses are tracked geographically on city streets.

Buses approaching city intersections are given either extra green time to allow them to pass through without stopping, or red lights are cycled more quickly to reduce the wait time at intersections. Coupled with other design features -- such as limited stops, low floor buses, and on the Orange Line, fare pre-payment -- travel speed is 25 percent faster than conventional local buses. Citywide deployment of both first- and second-generation ATSAC will be completed over the next three and a half years.

Los Angeles also encourages telecommuting, flexible work schedules, compressed workweeks and carpooling to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality.

CIO Thera Bradshaw said you're committed to deploying wireless Internet access throughout the city -- why is this technology important? What is your vision for implementing it?
Villaraigosa: We live in a mobile and global world. We depend on technology in the office, out of the office, on the go and in transit. Probably the largest challenge for us is being able to connect -- any place, any time -- with our business office. It's a challenge for us because we're working in an environment that is, for the most part, wired. It's an evolution that has been occurring over the past several years to go to an unwired world and a totally electronic world, as opposed to paper.

We're not there yet. We're still operating in both of these platforms.

I believe Los Angeles, within the next few years, should ensure that high-speed Internet access is available and affordable for anyone who wants it anywhere in the city. I believe it is possible to implement strategies to accomplish that mission in ways that will support my goal of making city government more efficient and accessible by providing mobile workers with ready access to databases in the office from anywhere in the community. This includes applications for public safety and emergency response, utility and infrastructure operations, building inspections, and reduced telecommunication costs.

These strategies also support my goal in helping close the digital divide -- filling in gaps in access with affordable broadband services. While cable modem and DSL services are now widely available, there are still business districts and neighborhoods that can't get service or can't afford available services. Looking at a comprehensive program including access, equipment, focused content, and training and support will also help close the digital divide.

Lastly, it's possible to implement strategies that will also support my goal of accelerating economic development -- supporting the economic development of the region by attracting business visitors and tourists, and helping local businesses compete.

City-sponsored wireless initiatives have been criticized as unfair competition by telecommunications providers. How will the city balance these concerns with the need to provide broad, low-cost Internet access?
Villaraigosa: Through public/private partnerships. I think with a project of this magnitude -- that is far-reaching enough to touch every resident and business throughout Los Angeles -- there is benefit for both government and private sector.

One of the best ways for a city the size of Los Angeles to achieve our goal in the next five years is to work with institutions in the private sector that share our vision and want to work in partnership with the city.

Broadband in local communities is about economic development. It's about tourism. It's about having conventions in your city because people are mobile and global. Through the assets and the resources we have in the city, and partnering with various industry companies, we'll have all public facilities unwired in three years and the entire city unwired within five years. Both government and the private sector can work together to achieve this goal and it will be beneficial for all partners.

What types of technologies do you find personally important in your daily tasks? Villaraigosa: Information and communications are the international currency of the 21st century. As I mentioned earlier, we're operating in a mobile and global world. With Internet access plus e-mail, instant messaging, wireless data transfer, cell phones, PDAs, and an array of other gadgets and services, everyone expects instantaneous communications and reliable information.

My administration utilizes a number of internal management systems to keep up with the enormous volume of information and requests that we work with daily serving the residents and businesses of Los Angeles. We utilize technology for managing service requests, e-mail for both internal and external communications, and a variety of tracking systems that streamline our operations.

How do term limits for city government officials impact the planning, deployment and continuity of long-term technology projects?
Villaraigosa: They certainly can pose challenges for us. Large-scale IT initiatives often are multiyear projects that span over multiple administrations. We've implemented executive oversight committees for large IT initiatives to ensure that consistent policy and budget management exists throughout the life of a project.

Do you think the city would benefit from a more powerful, centralized CIO position?
Villaraigosa: We need a citywide approach to how we plan, prioritize and implement technology in Los Angeles.

There are myriad technology solutions that can be implemented in the city to help solve business problems and improve service delivery. Technical obstacles or shortages of solutions are not the inhibitors for implementing these solutions, but rather limitations of time and money.

For that reason it is imperative that IT investment decisions are made wisely and with a citywide "big picture" perspective. Having a centralized CIO position would facilitate a more strategic and proactive approach as to how we implement IT.

The city invests approximately $215 million a year on technology with nearly 50 percent on salary and benefits. The greatest percentage spent on systems and infrastructure is for ongoing operations with only 15 percent on new technology. We need to re-look at how we are making investment decisions and how we're deploying systems to ensure that dollars are spent wisely, and that the city receives maximum return on investment.

Thera Bradshaw's leadership charting a more strategic citywide IT plan is key. She has my total support to achieve this goal.


Eric Garcetti
Los Angeles City Council president speaks his mind on muni-sponsored Wi-Fi and other issues.

Is the city's approach to technology changing?
Garcetti: I think our city's been structured to keep government out of your life. What's changed over the last year or two, is we're finally admitting that we're a city instead of a sprawling suburb. So we almost have to rebuild the infrastructure of a city -- both in physical and technological terms -- and embrace being a city.

What kind of infrastructure is needed?
Garcetti: It's not enough to say we're building an infrastructure. We have to know our strengths as a city. Technology exists for us to improve quality of life, and that needs to have actual, real-world manifestations. It has to have character.

In Los Angeles, that character is very much about being the creative capital of the world. We attract people from around the world who want to be actors, grips, directors, editors and music composers. What are we doing to match that with folks who are already here? So that young people growing up in Los Angeles know how to use a movie camera to film footage, go to a computer to edit it, and have access to a distribution system that is publicly owned to show it?

When looking at our cable franchising renewal, for instance, why continue a model of having a big studio that costs a million dollars a year for a few people to use for public access shows? Why not have community technology centers in city schools or community centers that would train kids how to make their own products that we would require the cable stations to support and show?

We need to understand our strengths and expectations, and then figure out technology as the piece that comes after. I would say our strengths are threefold: We're the creative, diversity and entrepreneurial capital of the world.

What are some of your goals for the city, and how can technology support them?
Garcetti: Transportation and traffic is by far the No. 1 issue across geographical, race and class lines in the city. We need to figure out a better way to get around physically.

Our real-time traffic information system is one of the best in the country. We're working hard this year on resynchronizing all of our traffic lights, which should improve traffic 7 percent to 10 percent by itself. That's a huge improvement for the amount of money involved.

LAX [Los Angeles International Airport] needs to be modernized, but people who live around the airport don't want any more pollution and air traffic. We own land in Palmdale where we could build a great airport that would essentially be a hub for the West Coast. But we need high-speed rail to move people in and out of there.

At the Port of Los Angeles, one-third of the pollution in the L.A. area comes from container ships idling on diesel fuel. They could plug in electrically like Navy ships do. We're trying to build the technological infrastructure for that through the city Department of Water and Power.

Housing and homelessness is another key issue. Technology really can help change the debate from "not in my back yard" to realizing that we have to plan for growth and accommodate it. How do we use technology to get people away from playing defense about what they're against and to picture what their neighborhoods could look like? Technology tools like GIS let us do workshops that let folks see their streets with many different possibilities -- so they could see that density might be something extremely attractive.

Public safety is the last piece. Police Chief William Bratton and the city government have brought crime down to 1956 levels. We've done that by pushing our people really hard. But you can only stretch that rubber band so far, so we're looking in the next couple of years at building our technology as a way of continuing to drive crime further down.

Our CompStat system, which Chief Bratton first used in New York, has been a great way of seeing what the human eye doesn't pick up. Our PODDS [Portable Officer Data Device System] automates the capture of incident information for officers in the field. Technology in police cars now scans license plates and automatically runs them while an officer is driving, which makes it easier for the LAPD to catch folks who have warrants out for their arrest.

Another thing I would overlay with all of that is using technology to help create open, accessible and caring government.

It doesn't take a lot to blow people's socks off when it comes to customer service in government, because expectations are so low. Whether that's through the 311 call system, or being able to call in to see what happened in a police incident and have that well tracked and not lost in the bureaucracy -- openness and accessibility is the core of all these things.

The city's 311 system has been around for a few years and is expanding. How do you use it?
Garcetti: My 14 City Council colleagues and I use 311 as our preferred constituent services method. Most of us drive around town, see a pothole, graffiti or garbage, and we call 311. We have that level of trust and faith in the system.

The 311 system also is a great way of getting performance statistics back. We have an anti-graffiti program, in which we counted every single tag on every block of every street of every neighborhood in the district. We counted again a year later after enlisting citizen block captains to quickly tell the city when graffiti goes up so we can get it painted over. We're able to track by neighborhood where those calls come from and the number of calls, and compare that to other districts to see how we're doing.

How will the 311 system evolve?
Garcetti: It needs to evolve from "one call to city hall" to "one call does it all." Even though there are more than 1,000 different city issues that the 311 ambassadors can deal with, most of the issues are still being logged by the ambassadors, passed on to the proper department, and then back.

So it's a two-step process instead of seamless integration with our Street Services Bureau, for example. We need to make sure the IT in all our departments matches up with the 311 interface.

Why is it important for Los Angeles to deploy citywide wireless Internet connectivity?
Garcetti: Access to the Internet is becoming a basic utility of human life. We should look at wireless Internet access at least as a public partnership, if not even a public good. It's important for the market to fit into that, and for private providers to have an opportunity to compete. But I think there's a real argument for public good in terms of driving our economy and educating our youth.

We opened the first Wi-Fi park in Los Angeles in probably the lowest income area of the city -- an area I represent in East Hollywood. Through a partnership, it allows area kids to take laptops into a park, do their homework and have Internet access for free.

I'm all for the market building out in our airports and places where people can afford a $16 access fee for a 24-hour period. But for kids, if they can't get to a library -- which has been a great part of free access -- we have to be able to put that infrastructure in place. If there are private partners who would like to step up and show us a model where we can make sure folks with lower incomes have free or near-free access, we're open to that. But I think we're also open through our Department of Water and Power to looking at whether this can just be done as a public initiative.

We're pretty unique in the country. San Francisco, Philadelphia and others are looking at citywide build-out with the private sector. We actually have all the power poles and access points to look at having citywide Wi-Fi done through the city if we want to. We're beginning to assess the best way to move forward. In the meantime, we're aggressively pushing for growing some of our current pilot projects beyond Pershing Square, Van Nuys City Hall and the Wi-Fi park I mentioned.

What are the barriers to deploying these sorts of projects?
Garcetti: Most barriers with technology are psychological. The financial ones are serious, but they're second order.

We've initiated an open source initiative for city software, for instance, and we've seen it work in plenty of places. We've offered ourselves up -- my staff tests Open Office and other things -- and we live quite happily realizing how much cheaper it could be. But when you have to convince dozens of departments and IT people who are used to one way of getting it done that there might be some cost savings, that's a psychological barrier. Part of it is just finding the psychology of people brave enough to step forward and say, "This is our one shot to do it."

There are a lot of partnerships out there, and innovative tech thinkers who want cities to do more than what we're doing. So I don't find the financial barriers -- at least to pilot things -- very difficult.

One of the toughest technology challenges as a city government is that we don't have a centralized CIO who's responsible across all departments.

Creating a centralized CIO will require city leadership -- the Council and the mayor -- saying, "This is what we want." It's very difficult because there is, understandably, a lot of distrust from city departments. They know exactly what they need and want. Technology has to start with the person, and I think each department feels like they know their people better than anybody else. But if we think about the citizens we represent needing one technological interface, and wanting that to be more standardized, then we'll get our act together to serve them.

What's the concept behind the city's E-Day?
Garcetti: E-Day was inspired by an initiative in Denmark. The government saved 60 million euros by encouraging everyone to work paperlessly for one day. Every department had the right to refuse paper correspondence from any other department -- to insist that it came in electronic form.

We haven't gotten quite to that second step, but last April we pushed for everyone to spend a day being as electronic as possible. All City Council reports now are available to the public online. This is important for two reasons: One, it's a lot less paper being used; and two, those reports are accessible to anyone, anywhere. It empowers local citizens. It hopefully inspires people around the world who are looking at policy initiatives.

We're looking at making E-Day a tradition, and then building on that platform to see how we can become more electronic. So the "e" stands for both electronic and ecological.

How do term limits for city officials impact technology projects?
Garcetti: It's tougher under term limits, because the institutional memory isn't there. On the other hand, term limits brought in a whole new crop of people who are technologically interested and, I think, more technologically savvy.

Technology changes fast enough that if you can't get it done in eight years -- which is what we're allowed -- it's a brand new technology anyway. In the last two years, we started a blog that helps us communicate with our employees. Ask us four years ago what a blog was, and we wouldn't have known. Now we're looking at things like podcasts of City Council meetings. Ask us two years ago what a podcast was, and none of us would have known.

We're maybe a little less knowledgeable about what's going on inside each department, but I hope that naivet