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COVID Fast-Tracked Tech Modernization in Pittsburgh. Here’s How

The technology modernization strategy adopted by Pittsburgh nearly two years ago helped to guide the city as it was faced with unprecedented operational challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

by / November 5, 2020
Shutterstock/AevanStock

The COVID-19 disruptions across Pittsburgh city operations sped up technology upgrades, following a philosophy of “human-centered” solutions that help workers better perform their jobs. 

Since 2019, Pittsburgh had been working with Dell Technologies on a process to upgrade devices and technology to help meet peoples’ needs and work, said Santiago Garces, CIO and director of the city of Pittsburgh's Department of Innovation and Performance. 
 
“We were already on this path, when all of a sudden, March hit and the pandemic started, and in a very short amount of time we had to provision people, especially those that were working from an office, to be able to work remotely from home,” Garces explained. “And then the definition of how people accomplish their work changed rapidly.” 
 
Going back to when Garces began working with Pittsburgh in Jan. 2019, many of the devices and software suites were not always aligned with the workers' jobs and missions. Staff began working to identify existing gaps and create a path toward modernization.
 
“When COVID hit we benefitted from the fact that we had a lot of the foundation to make that transformation. We just had to basically strap a rocket to our belt and just go much faster than we felt comfortable,” he added.
 
As an example, the city quickly acquired about 200 new laptops to be made available for essential workers, like command officers in the police department, to work more remotely in the event a police station had to be closed due to a COVID-19 infection. 
 
Also, the 311 staff, which had generally been confined to a call center, needed technology which allowed residents to access call-takers in their homes. 
 
“Because they are now using voice-over-IP ... we were lucky in having the right devices and the right technology,” said Garces. 
 
And even though Pittsburgh had an emergency plan to ensure a continuity of operations, that plan was mostly structured around city workers continuing to fill their jobs from city offices. COVID forced hundreds of workers to shift their workstations to home, prompting an unprecedented series of technological and other changes led by Garces’ office.
 
“We used that as a starting point. But then we actually ended up using data, and using other factors, to try to adapt the plan, kind of as we went quickly,” he added. “We didn’t have enough resources, in the first few days of the pandemic, while we were waiting for some of the devices to ship. So we had to adapt the plan pretty quickly.” 
 
“Really, it’s about outcomes, and how technology can support those outcome, and not just about technology experiments,” said Rob Silverberg, chief strategy and innovation officer for state and local government at Dell Technologies, speaking last week on a panel at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo. 
 
This philosophy was at the center of Pittsburgh’s partnership with Dell, said Garces, adding “They aligned very much on the idea that, 'We’re not just buying computers … We were trying to figure out ways that we can empower people to do work the way that made the most sense for them.'” 
 
And it’s this overall vision that put in place the course for the vast set of changes brought to city operations by the pandemic.
 
“Little by little, we were kind of surgical in the approach of figuring out what pieces needed to be put in place,” said Garces. “But it was using the template that we had already been working on since 2019, leveraging those partnerships and leveraging that goodwill.” 

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Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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