Digital Cities 2019: Winners Gear Up for a New Decade

The winners of this year’s Digital Cities Survey from the Center for Digital Government are those making smart investments in technologies from infrastructure and citizen engagement to data storage and cybersecurity.

by , / November 14, 2019
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1st City of San Diego, Calif.

After coming in second place last year, San Diego takes the top spot among large cities in 2019. The southernmost big city in California is in the midst of several sweeping innovations that promise to save money, benefit residents and generally advance the cause of data-driven government. Among these are some truly massive collaboration projects — the city is in the midst of setting up a Joint Powers Authority with the county, nearby cities, 18 native tribes, federal agencies and two branches of the military to support SanGIS. This will serve as a data portal for delivering GIS services and procuring aerial imagery as well as lidar data. Then there’s the Security Alliance Information Lab, which also pulls in federal, local and private-sector partners to improve cyberincident response — on top of advances San Diego has made on endpoint protection, email filtering and defense against password-based attacks. A new enterprise asset management system has helped staff achieve their goal of paving 1,000 miles of roadway more than a year early, while the ongoing project to set up a blanket of sensors during streetlight replacement has reached nearly 3,000 out of an eventual 4,000 nodes. These will deliver data on vehicle and pedestrian counts, parking availability and the weather. Behind all this is a system that truly engages the public. The city regularly surveys residents to ensure that their desires are reflected in strategic goals, and it offers interactive tools on the budget, community development, performance metrics, the placement of smart city sensors and more so that it can gather feedback. In coming months, look for San Diego to continue deploying 5G with Verizon as its IT department offers tools to hasten small cell permitting.

2nd City of San Jose, Calif.

Partnerships, performance and pilots were among the strategies that catapulted the so-called “capital of Silicon Valley” and the state’s third most populous city from a sixth-place tie last year to second place. San Jose has set itself the goal of becoming North America’s most innovative city by 2020. It also lays claim to being America’s leanest big city, with 6,800 employees serving just over 1 million people. 

One way this happens is through public-private partnerships. San Jose has contracted with AT&T, Verizon and Mobilitie to expand small cell sites and broadband reach — monetizing the carriers’ high-volume deployments by committing them to fund digital equity. In February, the city announced the San Jose Digital Inclusion Fund, which will marshal an estimated $24.1 million in revenue over 10 years from small-cell and fiber contracts to bridge its digital divide.

Other partnerships include extending FirstNet to all city first responders; deploying free Wi-Fi in 14 more city parks; working with Santa Clara County and the city/county of San Francisco on cybersecurity; and, through Terragraph, a partnership with Facebook Connectivity Lab, replacing the city’s legacy community Wi-Fi network during this year and next.

The city began adopting Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) in 2017 and 2018 to track projects and transformations; and will do so more broadly in 2019 and 2020. The OKRs are connected to the City Manager’s Enterprise Priorities for enhanced monitoring of progress and needs.

Among other engagements, the German auto firms Daimler and Bosch have committed to piloting an automated ride-hailing service in the city this year. San Jose won an American Planning Association Smart City Merit Award in April for working with startup UrbanLogiq to improve traffic flow with data-driven decision-making. The city also offered the use of cybersecurity resources to other municipalities, through an ongoing RFP, and four of its Bay Area neighbors have accepted.

3rd City and County of Denver, Colo.

Continuing to absorb major population increases without equivalent growth to its funding, the city and county of Denver turns to technology to help realize needed efficiencies in several areas. Coming into this year’s survey with a strong foundation in place, Denver demonstrates that it’s in tune with city priorities, applying technology to realize progress. Investments in affordable housing are complemented by a custom-built app that transparently reports housing availability and progress toward stated goals. Challenges around short-term rentals prompted a first-of-its-kind registration system to help address community concerns. More than 200 services are now available online, with recent additions including more permitting options that save staff time and drastically cut wait time for citizens. Automation efforts within the 311 system have also caused response times to plummet, from more than 100 seconds to less than 30. In yet another example of using tech to be as efficient as possible, Denver is auditing all of its websites, adding translation services, improving accessibility and enhancing content. One success story is the Denver Animal Shelter (, whose site went from 694 to 83 pages.

Denver’s privacy and data work continues, following an executive order last year. Eight policies have since been developed, and an Information Governance Committee was created. A newly hired chief data officer supported by an eight-member data team, is working to spread ethical data practices across the city and develop a data warehouse as a central repository that can also support transparency goals. Smart city work will also get a boost from a recent RFP for “smart city program management,” which brought more than 200 responses. All solutions are open source, supporting the city’s goal to make sure its good work can be replicated elsewhere.

4th City of Los Angeles, Calif.

Los Angeles made another strong showing in this year’s survey, continuing its leading work in digital inclusion, mobility and cybersecurity. The nation’s second most populous city cites tackling homelessness as its top priority for the coming year, an initiative in which the Information Technology Agency (ITA) is playing a critical role. As part of $1.2 billion from a ballot measure toward homelessness and housing, ITA aids in citywide communication on the issue, including a predictive analytics tool that identifies those Angelenos most at risk before they become homeless so the city can provide preventative services. ITA also heads digital inclusion efforts for those who are struggling financially or are in need of training in new digital schools, and assists with real-time homeless services like coordination of response at the street level.

The Southern California metropolis is prioritizing creating equity across the city workforce in terms of both gender and race and working to develop a portal that makes it easier to report incidents of harassment and discrimination. This is in keeping with the city’s report that their No. 1 priority in the next year is hiring and retaining IT personnel. ITA reports that 52 percent of their workforce will be eligible for retirement over the next two years, and to help compensate for that loss is continuing its paid college internship program and is working on a mobile worker program. To further negotiate the digital divide, ITA and the Mayor’s Office have collaborated on the Find Your Future program, which uses gamification and other tech to pair disconnected youth with local jobs that put them on the path toward careers.

L.A. also has a strong mobility-first initiative, and in the near future plans to develop data security, privacy and sharing guidelines. The L.A. Cyber Center now provides services to more than 600 organizations, and a new citywide social media policy brings together teams from across 42 departments in a unified citizen-facing front at @LACity on Twitter.

5th City of Phoenix, Ariz.

Phoenix, with 1.6 million residents, is the fifth most populous city in the country. While it doesn’t grab a lot of smart city headlines compared to America’s other large municipalities, the city has quietly become a digital government powerhouse. It starts with one of its core policies of giving all residents a seamless customer service experience. In response, the city, with the help of the IT department, has opened 20 new contact centers featuring the latest in CRM technology to intelligently route 2.2 million calls annually. Other types of customer-related initiatives include a new CAD system that delivers situational awareness for the city’s fire personnel and a customer-focused data analytics project for the case management system serving the city’s homeless.

Customer service upgrades using technology are just one part of the city’s overall digital strategy. In 2019, the city deployed over 300 5G small cells, positioning Phoenix to become one of the first 5G-enabled cities in the U.S. It has integrated its 99 official social media pages, so that the public has one point from which to view what city agencies and officials are posting. The city has spent $30 million to replace its phone and data network and has equipped 1,000 police officers with body cams, with another 1,000 expected to be added in the next five years.

In 2019, Phoenix hired its first chief information security officer and began work on the Network Security Operations Center, which will operate as an independent and isolated security office designed to protect, detect and defend the city against domestic and foreign network and cybersecurity threats.

Last year, Phoenix also hired its first chief data officer to steer innovative approaches to data and information management, particularly in the emerging fields of machine learning, artificial intelligence, data science and open data. This effort will include the implementation of formal data governance protocols and aligns data analytics strategies with the business needs of the individual departments using an enterprise-wide data model.

6th City of Mesa, Ariz.

In 2018, Mesa, Ariz., pushed to create a comprehensive Smart City Master Plan. It was just one of several examples of the city’s forward-looking priorities for local government that has resonated elsewhere. Another example is its focus on improving daily life, rather than simply rolling out tech-heavy applications, highlighting the city’s more thoughtful approach to digital deployments. The IT department has been heavily involved in smart city efforts and has created a “comprehensive application integration architecture” for the tools and services it deploys. This includes the incremental expansion of city-owned fiber infrastructure to better connect smart city tech.

When it comes to using data — whether collected by sensors or in the city’s financial department — transparency is a key component. The recent creation of the Data Engineering and Analytics Team shows Mesa's collective commitment to using data in the most effective way possible. The city’s data goes beyond financial ledgers; it also offers information about projects underway throughout the city. The Mesa Active Development Map allows users to review the progress of projects throughout the region. Data is also used to improve services, including the deployment of public safety resources. For example, the city used data from public safety calls to better assess which neighborhoods needed additional fire and police stations, with the goal of improving response times to emergencies. To better protect city data and resident privacy, the city’s chief information security officer has also assumed the role of chief privacy officer.

Where cyberdefenses are concerned, the city has taken a proactive approach to preparing for the worst. Staff receive mandatory awareness trainings and remote access is guarded by multi-factor authentication requirements. Additionally, phishing tests are conducted three times a year to keep employees aware of the potential dangers. Ongoing efforts are underway to continue to automate cybersecurity tools and monitoring. IT staff recently completed the first phase of an effort to inventory all IoT devices to assess the risks associated with connected devices on their network. To prepare a future IT workforce, the city is partnering with educational institutions, including shared services with the Mesa Public School system, and paid internships to students from Benedictine University.

7th City of Louisville, Ky.

Louisville, Ky., has long been a strong finisher in Digital Cities, and this year is no different. The city is powered by a far-reaching focus on helping citizens better connect with government through digital services. In addition, Louisville continues to impress with its ongoing embrace of emerging technologies in innovative and effective ways. Another continued strength for the Kentucky metro area of 1.2 million residents is digital equity. The city’s Department of Information Technology and its Office of Civic Innovation continue to demonstrate a commitment to addressing the digital divide, helping low-income populations get access to low-cost Internet, establishing Wi-Fi hot spots, and, perhaps most importantly, building out the area’s fiber-optic infrastructure in the aftermath of Google Fiber stopping services there.

This current period, however, is perhaps one of new beginnings for Louisville, as it begins to focus on Plan 2040, a guiding vision for the area that anticipates continued growth for the state’s largest population center. There are goals within that plan that heavily involve ongoing tech and innovation work, specifically continuing to expand high-speed Internet access, as well as making sure infrastructure — which includes fiber-optic infrastructure — is improved and expanded. This issue of building sustainable and future-facing high-speed infrastructure is one that cities nationwide will increasingly grapple with in the years to come, and Louisville is well-prepared to deal with that.

In terms of specifics for the future, Louisville plans to soon publish a new smart city plan and to also announce what the city is calling a Louisville Fiber Infrastructure Technology major milestone.

8th City of El Paso, Texas

A top priority for El Paso’s Department of Information Technology Services is cybersecurity, an effort encompassing numerous areas such as the implementation of physical and virtual private networks, operating system upgrades, backup policies and mandatory online cybersecurity training for all employees. Another city IT priority is enhancing citizen engagement with online surveys, social media and mobile applications like 311.

The city now publishes budget dashboards forecasting the next six to 12 months. And a new “Agenda Management” feature includes a function allowing anyone to post comments on meeting agenda items.

El Paso’s IT is also involved in “quality of place” improvements for local residents, aiding in the development of the El Paso Streetcar mobile app and the design of the $15.5 million Westside Natatorium, which includes free Wi-Fi, an automated water management system and LED lighting controls. Also, some 27 parks and libraries will get Wi-Fi system upgrades in the coming fiscal year. El Paso residents now have access to 120 mobile hot spots. And 245 parking meters have been upgraded to accept credit cards.

In public safety, the El Paso Fire Department released its PulsePoint App, which connects victims of cardiac arrest with someone nearby trained in CPR. Three dozen new police cars include in-vehicle NVR systems, mobile routers, radar and other tech tools. Also, IT developed a new prisoner log application which provides real-time booking information for local law enforcement agencies regarding people entering the county jail.

9th City of Albuquerque, N.M.

With a population of about 560,000, Albuquerque, N.M., is committed to Mayor Tim Keller’s vision of “One Albuquerque.” The city’s Department of Technology and Innovation (DTI) is no exception, as it works across multiple agencies to fulfill an agenda that emphasizes public safety, inclusiveness and innovation.

One of DTI’s most significant projects in 2019 is the ongoing rollout of an up-to-date P25 radio and telecommunications system for public safety agencies. This year Albuquerque has also procured robotics to accelerate DNA analysis. The department installed a test camera system that, based on initial findings, makes Albuquerque one of the first places to have an individual camera that can capture license plates from two lanes at normal traffic speeds. IT has also helped police communicate with individuals who don’t speak English with an online interpretation service from LanguageLine Solutions.

The city’s various inclusivity efforts involve DTI support so that data can be used to achieve real-world impacts. Albuquerque has been developing a neighborhood-level equity index that has resulted in $7 million going toward the repair of streets in historically underserved neighborhoods. Additionally, the city partnered with the Buy Local Racial Equity organization to improve economic opportunities and outcomes for women- and minority-owned businesses through improved data tracking, more inclusive informational networks and fairer contract opportunities.

Albuquerque intends to become a full-fledged smart city. As part of this initiative, the city hired a Technology Services Transformation Manager and created a cross-departmental innovation team whose members can assist different agencies with performance management and data analytics. Right now, Albuquerque is testing IoT sensor nodes, pedestrian traffic analysis and next-generation high-speed wireless services. In the near future, the city plans to explore environmental sensors, smart irrigation, noise sensors and advanced parking systems.

10th City of Charlotte, N.C.

In the process of reorganizing its Innovation and Technology Department (I&T), the city of Charlotte launched several internal projects and initiatives. Among these were a dedicated Center for Data Analytics, an interdepartmental team called Data Co-Lab to establish data governance policy, a special division focused on public safety technology, a Video Management System (VMS) governance committee to oversee video surveillance systems, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Security Task Force, which includes 60 public officials from the region to discuss cybersecurity issues.

Charlotte also invested big: $25 million for technology to improve procurement, IT investment planning and permit approval; $14 million in technology initiatives for neighborhood development, including a program for monitoring dementia patients, one for drone surveying, and one to create a permanent emergency operations center (EOC) for emergency preparedness and disaster management; and about $30 million in planned investment in transportation, led by three city departments.

Over the past year, the city also upgraded its Open Data Portal for finding, cataloguing and sharing data; launched a platform called Charlotte Explorer for publicizing GIS data; created dashboards for city employees to access and interact with data in the city’s financial management system (MUNIS); and gave more than 1,000 cumulative hours of data training to 159 staff members.

From these and other investments came a host of infrastructure projects. Charlotte partnered with AT&T to build a FirstNet environment for public safety infrastructure, started integrating its data networks with the public safety LMR (land mobile radio) networks to allow law enforcement to track first responder locations, and began the process of splitting its metro fiber-optic infrastructure to create a redundant pathway in the event of failure.

Charlotte has also launched a proliferation of citizen-facing tools: a new app for citizens to plan mass transit trips and ticket wait times, an app from the local airport for passengers to check flights and amenities, enhancements to the Charlotte Business Resources website to include online chat and virtual classrooms, and updated citizen-facing dashboards regarding quality of life and vehicle collisions. The Charlotte Area Transportation System started working with I&T to bring free public Wi-Fi to all public transit systems. The city implemented an online interactive map for developers to evaluate possible housing sites in order to improve the project approval process.

10th City of Dallas, Texas

In 2019, elected officials in Dallas increased the objectives for how it deployed IT projects from four to six priorities, which now range from public safety to government performance and financial management. 

To overcome a shortage of police officers, the city deployed an online crime reporting tool, which allows residents to report 13 types of nonviolent crimes to the Dallas Police Department. User-submitted reports are reviewed and assigned if they merit police follow-up. The online tool has reduced the amount of time officers spend gathering and entering incident information, which in turn allows police to respond to a greater number of serious crimes. 

Dallas officials recognize the importance of collaborating with regional and local IT experts. The city has established a regional data sharing agreement with Dallas County that may result in the collocation of IT resources. Data from the county could feed into the city’s open data portal, which has been leveraged during city-sanctioned hackathons to solve community problems and to familiarize residents with the government transparency tool.  

But as more data is stored and shared, the risk of cyberthreats concurrently increases. Dallas enlisted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to help with the Dallas Strategic Cybersecurity Plan, which resulted in the creation of an enterprise-wide patch management system in 2019. The program ensures all technology services undergo patch management unilaterally, removing individual departments’ varying update timeframes. Also, city staff have been instructed to undergo cybersecurity awareness training to prevent accidental breaches. 

As Dallas improves its services, data and security, it is adapting emerging technologies, like 5G. New LED light poles can house small cells to match the city’s aesthetics while providing a higher degree of connectivity.

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