There are thousands of cities in the U.S., but not all can be considered digital cities. In fact, only 57 cities in the nation were named as winners in the 2014 Digital Cities Survey, which acknowledges cities that recognize the value of technology, empower their tech leaders and use new ideas to make life better for everyone who lives there.
This year, Los Angeles, Calif.; Winston-Salem, N.C.; Avondale, Ariz.; and Dublin, Ohio, are considered outstanding Digital Cities, as they each placed first in their respective population categories.
In this 14th annual survey, the Center for Digital Government, the research arm of Government Technology's parent company, e.Republic Inc., reviewed responses from hundreds of cities nationwide to find those who aligned their technologies with city goals, saved tax dollars through newfound efficiencies, boosted transparency and privacy, and innovated through unique and exciting projects.
Placing first in the population 250,000 or greater category was Los Angeles, which demonstrated excellence across a wide range of projects over the last several years. Judges were impressed by the city’s expenditure portal, 311 service platform, strides to bridge the digital divide by providing refurbished computers to the public, deployment of utility portals, use of open data architecture, and integration of a Cyber Intrusion Command Center to keep the city’s data safe.
The city’s open data efforts were built using Socrata and modeled after those of New York City, said Chief Technology Officer Steve Reneker, adding that these efforts are a great replacement for what would have traditionally been public record requests followed by tedious office work.
Cybersecurity efforts in the city are maturing, too, Reneker said. The Cyber Intrusion Command Center is now one year old; here, the city monitors its Internet traffic and analyzes it in real time, Reneker explained, while comparing those patterns with national trends and regional partners. The data allows the city to spot discrepancies that might indicate malicious attacks, and adjust their defenses across the city accordingly.
The city is now looking to deploy more solutions across the city, like operational intelligence platform Splunk, Reneker said. “We are focused more on breaking down the barriers that prevent us from being successful,” he said. “For example, my agency used to require approvals for any technology purchase, and it delayed people getting their solution by an additional two to three weeks. We eliminated that.”
It’s an honor to be recognized as one of the top Digital Cities in the nation, Reneker said, and it’s a reflection of their hard work.
Topping the 125,000 - 249,999 population category is the city of Winston-Salem, N.C., which especially impressed judges in terms of work on citizen engagement, use of cloud services, a strong app system, mobile pavement tracking system, internal and external use of social media, and continued support of WinstonNet, a community program aimed at closing the digital divide.
CIO Dennis Newman explained that the city has deeply integrated transparency into its operations and culture -- if ever there is data that can be released to the public, the city tries to do so.
“We have a real-time application that provides current information on crimes committed, updated regularly,” Newman said. “We have a performance application that’s updated quarterly that provides internal city performance data, and then we’ve really integrated components of our general ledger so that there is open financial information available that gives a lot of details on our expenditures, all the way down to include individual vendor transactions. Those are just a few highlights.”
The city’s mobile pavement tracking system was developed in-house, and allows the city an efficient and effective way to track the health of its streets. Using a GIS-based, GPS-enabled mobile application, city workers grade street health as part of a system that prioritizes paving projects. The system allows the city to seamlessly update its street data while workers travel about the city.
Overall, the city has been successful because it consistently invests in foundational technologies that maximize opportunities, Newman said. “We have done a good job of investing and implementing core infrastructure, strong skill sets, that provide the level of services and enable us to take advantage of technologies when the opportunity arises."
For instance, he said, the city adopted virtual servers and desktops for great cost savings, but only because it had first invested in technologies that positioned the city to identify and seize those opportunities.
Avondale, Ariz., which took first in the 75,000 – 124,999 population category, impressed judges with its city branding, thoughtful strategic plan, cybersecurity action plan and citizen engagement.
CIO Rob Lloyd explained that forging the city’s brand was a long and difficult process that involved engaging the public through social media and holding dozens of meetings – but it was important, so officials wanted to get it right.
“What we were trying to do is come up with our city’s identity and not just a logo, but we wanted to engage every part of the community and say, 'Who are we? And who do we want to be?'" Lloyd explained. "The city settled on imagery and colors that reflected both regional themes like the Phoenix International Raceway, and identity through the selection of the key words, “aspire, achieve and accelerate.”
Engaging through social media was an eye-opener, Lloyd said, because they got more information there than from their meetings.
And the city's Cybersecurity Action Plan, he noted, is a suitable reflection of the changing cybersecurity landscape. “The cybersecurity reality is that it’s like crime – it’s going to happen, and now the step that cities and states and others have to take is to reduce your profile and mitigate as much risk as you can,” he said. “So we want to move past the old perimeter security and reactive malware updates model – and those definitely still have their place – but it can’t be your answer anymore.”
The city’s information sharing alliance will be crucial going forward, Lloyd added – a joint procurement to get contractual tools and services in place "so you’re not scrambling to hire experts if something does happen," he said, "so we did a joint procurement with four other cities in Maricopa County and put that in place for general use by any jurisdiction.”
The city’s fundamental success stems from its governance model, which Lloyd explained is built around participation and joint effort. "We’ve worked hard to come up with a model that’s a step beyond the traditional strategic planning, which is basically an assessment of IT," he said, "and everyone always says, ‘You need more resources, you need more people, you need more technology, and that’s really insufficient. What our governance model is built around is actually getting things done."
The process of developing the city’s governance model is thorough, Lloyd explained. The city established strategy statements based on each organization’s expressed IT needs. Then they got feedback from directors, city managers and city council to identify where the city’s IT resources could best be applied. “If you execute well at a high level," he said, "then you have a lot of organizational trust and you can accomplish a lot of things.”
The city of Dublin, Ohio, topped the population category of up to 75,000, impressing judges with its extensive social media presence, community engagement tools, a promising start in the world of open data, strong collaboration between departments and with local jurisdictions, as well as a systematic approach to GIS use.
Assistant City Manager Michelle Crandall said the organization’s focus in a few key areas has allowed them to succeed. “We want to provide employees with the technology that they need to do their jobs efficiently and effectively, along with providing the support and the training they need to use the technology to its fullest extent,” she said. “The second area we focus on is really providing our residents and corporate residents the information and online tools they want and they expect to find from the city. They have high expectations and are very technology-savvy.”
Executive support has also been a huge enabler for the city and staff couldn’t have succeeded without it, she said. “We have a talented IT staff, but also a really forward-thinking city manager and city council that really understand and financially support the city’s technology,” she said.
The city’s value from GIS comes not just from existing applications, but also in the city’s constant pursuit of new ones. With each new system that's put in place, the city asks itself if there might also be a useful GIS application that could be derived, Crandall said.
“Right now we have a really strong GIS-based work order system. We have a lot of community-facing GIS mapping capabilities,” she said. “One of the more creative things we’ve done in past years with GIS is that our community plan, which usually it’s a static document, we’ve made it interactive by putting it online and making it GIS-based.”
Collaboration also has proven a useful tool for the city, she said, and one it intends to build upon. “We just opened a joint dispatching center with the adjoining community and two of our townships, so four jurisdictions total, and we’ll probably be adding additional jurisdictions in the coming years.”
The city last applied to the Digital Cities Survey in 2010 and earned fifth place, so Crandall said that when their IT team learned they earned first place for 2014, it was both exciting and rewarding.
Read page two of our story for a breakdown and analysis of each winner in the 2014 Digital Cities Survey.