Thinking Big: 6 Innovative Ideas from Small Cities

How cities with populations under 100,000 are using tech to provide creative and forward-looking services.

by / January 11, 2016

Just because a city is small doesn’t mean it can’t be innovative. Here are six ways that cities with a population under 100,000 people are using technology to provide creative and forward-looking services both internally and for citizens. From transparency to connectivity to rethinking the customer experience, these local governments prove that size doesn’t matter.


How to Improve the Customer Experience: Manassas, Va.

In October 2014, Manassas, Va., population 42,000, launched an online map where residents enter their address and get a carousel of information like when city contractors will come by to pick up trash, recycling, leaves and yard waste. It’s a means of improving the customer experience by streamlining the process of determining when to do what, according to Manassas GIS Coordinator Margaret Montgomery. It’s also a big improvement over how the city used to do things. -- Ben Miller

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How to Be Transparent: Albany, Ore.

Through the suite of online tools made available by Albany, Ore., population 52,000, citizens can delve into how the city is allocating project funding and spending taxpayer money. City expenditures are updated daily at the close of business and available for the public within a few hours of the upload. After the city’s data was published online, formatting it in a more digestible, visual way became the focus of staff and a third-party vendor. -- Eyragon Eidam

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How to Innovate: Palo Alto, Calif.

In Palo Alto, Calif., population 67,000, City Hall live in the jurisdiction's first Civic Technology Center -- a hub for municipal innovation initiatives and city IT services that opened in April 2015. The vision for the center is to become a co-creation space. Here, companies and startups can pitch partnership ideas. Citizens can participate in hackathons and meetups. Staff can find tech support via an Apple-like “Genius Bar.” It’s all the amenities of a startup but packaged for government. -- Jason Shueh

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How to Do Connectivity: Shawnee, Kan.

Shawnee, Kan., population 64,000, is reaping the benefits of a fiber master plan that dates back more than a decade. Creative partnerships and modest annual investments provide the city with a broadband network that supports schools and businesses, enables potential upgrades to cutting-edge technologies, and allows opportunities for continued growth. -- Colin Wood

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How to Help Residents Locate Sustainable Housing: Bloomington, Ind.

Using grant money, Jacqui Bauer, sustainability coordienator for Bloomington, Ind., population 83,000, built a website that puts information in renters’ faces that they otherwise might not consider. See, Bauer had some insight into the students at Indiana University — a group of young, mobile people that makes up a huge portion of Bloomington’s population. She had survey results from the students and knew that they care a lot about how much their rent is going to be at any prospective house or apartment. But most of the time, they didn’t think much further than that. -- Ben Miller

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How to Make Open Data Meaningful for Citizens: Evanston, Ill.

Two texts. That’s all it takes to avoid potential stomach pains in Evanston, population 74,000. Or at least, that was the goal behind an endeavor that pairs the city’s restaurant inspection scores on Yelp with text message alerts for diners. When the SMS program launched early in 2015, it was a quiet release. In fact, Erika Storlie, Evanston’s deputy manager, described the undertaking as more of a four-month side project than anything else. -- Jason Shueh

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Jilly’s Cafe in Evanston, Ill., is one of the many local eateries where residents can text for food inspection scores. Jilly’s boasts a score of 98 of 100.