Digital Cities 2020: IT Foundation Key to COVID Response

The winners in this year’s Digital Cities survey have long been following well-laid plans for modernizing infrastructure, cybersecurity and citizen services, meaning they were prepared to stand up to the pandemic.

by , / November 10, 2020
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1st Sugar Land, Texas 

Sugar Land, Texas, home to some 118,000 people, jetted to the top of its category this year. With its fast-growing population and burgeoning economic landscape, the city that sits just southwest of Houston is known for its suburbs and culture and was once the setting of a Steven Spielberg action thriller. What the city really has going for it, though, is its investment in data-driven government, cybersecurity and emergent technologies.

The city’s approach to data is embodied by its Office of Performance and Accountability (OPA), created two years ago, which seeks to use data to understand how public agencies can more efficiently optimize performance and better deliver services. This March, OPA held its first Citywide Data Committee meeting — which will be held regularly to evaluate where all city agencies are with data and to discuss next steps for improvement.

At the same time, Sugar Land has also made great strides when it comes to cybersecurity. Its creation of a Digital Security Policy is a good step: designed to promote an increased culture of risk awareness within government, the policy allocates various security responsibilities to different people, agencies, and groups, bringing a more ordered system to how the organization defends itself overall. Meanwhile, the city’s mandatory security awareness training for all city staff ensures a resilient workforce. 

The city has also created an impressive hub for emergent technologies via its new Department of Innovation. The department, which is run by the city manager, has been tasked with implementing smart city strategies for Sugar Land — and will look to seed enterprise-wide ideas that utilize data for better governance. 

2nd Lynchburg, Va.

The COVID-19 crisis presented a dual challenge for second-place Lynchburg, Va.: equipping and training staff to work remotely while the IT department saw the retirement of 25 percent of its senior staff. On top of that, officials instituted a hiring freeze.   

Part of the city’s multiyear strategic goal, adopted by the City Council earlier this year, are initiatives to transition more interactions with the city to online platforms. Permitting for both contractors and the general public moved to an online platform in March, allowing for quick online registration and a personalized dashboard for submitting applications, inspection requests, online payments and more.  

Other technology efforts include coordination among IT, the Lynchburg Public Works Department and the Virginia Department of Transportation to complete a vehicular traffic planning project and fiber-optic communication expansion. In addition, a major network infrastructure upgrade was completed in June 2020 with improved data speeds and operational resiliency.   

Much recent progress was made using GIS tools, including flood control mapping and a new Esri-supported dashboard for the Lynchburg Fire Department, allowing the department to have a better view of patterns around calls for service and other metrics. The technology allows for more data-based decision-making around the placement of resources. A similar tool was developed for the Lynchburg Police Department to track crime data. The police department also adopted the Microsoft Teams platform, making the transfer of files via smartphone nearly effortless and saving countless personnel hours in trips back to headquarters.    

3rd Columbia, Mo. 

Third-place Columbia, Mo., is adapting to accommodate citizen needs in the area of mobile communications, already having provided digital access to business licenses and permits as well as building and site development, with several other citizen engagement enhancements underway. One project is the new 311 service, which will allow citizens to report common issues through a website or mobile app. That 311 system is part of a larger effort to centralize all citywide mobile applications into one solution. The final product will facilitate two-way digital communication with citizens with common requests for information. The city has surveyed its constituents for input on design and layout modifications to best suit their needs.   

Citizens are known to prefer text messaging and the city has provided court system reminders via text message as well as updates from the Office of Sustainability. The city has also deployed contact tracing software with text messaging capabilities and is implementing this functionality to increase the speed and accuracy of contact tracing to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

4th Independence, Mo.  

Just 10 miles east of Kansas City, Mo., Independence, Mo., is focused on using technology to help it operate at peak efficiency. In the face of ever-present budget challenges, the city grouped like functions together to reduce redundancies with its GIS and application administration staff. Similarly, the city outsourced some of its help desk functions at a significant cost savings over what it would have spent hiring additional employees. The move makes the operation more scalable and allows in-house staff to focus on higher-value tasks. Playing a guiding role in changes like these is a recently formed IT Steering Committee made up of leaders from different city departments, who strategize to ensure technology decisions are guided by good governance practices.  

The city uses one shared system from Cityworks to store asset, permitting and licensing data, streamlining information that used to be housed in separate systems. Also integrated is the city’s 311 app, IndepNow, creating symmetry between tools used by citizens and staff, and positioning the city well to move toward data-driven performance goals given that information is all in one place. 

Independence is also focused on increasing its capabilities relative to cybersecurity, making investments in things like training for staff and machine learning-enhanced screening of suspicious emails that can help pinpoint and eliminate phishing threats. In addition, remote work options for staff were piloted before the pandemic, with policymakers recently signing off on improved tools for remote work, which is expected to continue post-COVID.     

4th Roanoke, Va.

Public safety has been a strong priority of late for Roanoke, Va., once again coming in fourth place in its population category. The Department of Technology (DoT) was integral in helping open the Blue Hills Communications Center, a public-private partnership with strong tech components to enable E911 services, including extensive cabling to serve call centers, computers and servers, with an emphasis on redundancy. Plus, backup generators allow the facility to operate for up to two weeks in the event of a power outage, and city officials anticipate the project will receive the unique LEED BD+C certification. This year has also seen Roanoke replace digital radios for all public safety departments and upgrade CAD software with features like push-to-talk functionality for better communication between first responders and dispatchers. In response to COVID-19, the city put in place a “dispatcher in a box” initiative, which gave the minimum amount of E911 equipment to teleworking dispatchers, including a computer with two-factor VPN, radio, phone and headset. 

When it comes to cybersecurity, in May 2020, Roanoke formalized its Incident Response plan based on the NIST framework and recommendations and implemented additional staff training. They have seen a reduction in phishing emails as a result. DoT has also increased its cyberinsurance policy to include consulting with outside experts. Further, they are in the process of organizing a tabletop exercise with the Department of Homeland Security to improve response processes, and in November 2019 became a member of MS-ISAC and now use many of its no-cost resources like monthly situational awareness calls. 

To better serve citizens, Roanoke created the new position of Community Engagement Manager, who works with website staff in each city department as well as social media managers to create consistency across the enterprise. The Information Technology Committee, comprised of members from various agencies, helps govern IT initiatives, gets leadership buy-in for long-term investments and is helping create a data portal for the city. 

5th Santa Monica, Calif.

The world-famous beach community of Santa Monica, Calif., is no beach bum when it comes to using technology to better serve residents. When COVID-19 emerged in the U.S., city officials and the IT department sprang into action to transition nearly 800 employees to telework setups. The drastic, nearly overnight shift was made easier through digitized records and document systems tied into the remote work experience. In the same vein, the city was able to provide public access to council proceedings virtually without any delay. 

Where cybersecurity is concerned, staff take the extra precautions needed to protect data stores and vital systems. The city was a partner in the 2017 launch of the LA Cyber Lab, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the public and private sectors from cyberthreats. The program’s Threat Intelligence Sharing Platform was recently expanded with a $3 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to offer actionable intelligence around cyberthreats. In addition to this regional effort, all staff are trained for cybersecurity best practices and scam avoidance and they conduct regular table-top training exercises.   

Santa Monica has also made a significant effort where smarter technology is concerned. Intelligent parking and curbside management have played a part in streamlining city streets, and an online portal is available to help residents resolve citations, apply for parking permits and other services. 

6th Avondale, Ariz. 

In July 2019, the city of Avondale, Ariz., centralized IT, leading to a $4 million increase in the department’s budget in two months. The department quickly got to work, standardizing software contracts to reduce the time spent on them, consolidating contracts and integrating apps into its security platform to harden its defenses. It also set up multi-factor authentication for domain administrator accounts, moved the city from passwords to passphrases and achieved 24/7 monitoring by procuring a security operations center service. 

The city has taken on many projects, including setting up public Wi-Fi for students doing distance learning, deploying Internet hot spots in a park to gather data on density and activity and assisting the fire department in creating a new system to track personnel during twice-annual NASCAR events to speed incident response. IT has plenty on its plate moving forward, with citywide ERP and CRM implementations underway as well as a possible replacement of an asset management system. 

7th Carlsbad, Calif.  

Like most local government central IT shops across the country, the folks in Carlsbad, Calif., this year were faced with leading a transition to remote work amid the outbreak of COVID-19. They handled it well, ultimately shifting 80 percent of the staff to work-from-home situations. Somewhat related to that was how the city continued to bolster its citizen engagement capabilities digitally, doing so in part due to a fruitful working relationship between Carlsbad’s CIO and chief innovation officer. A collaborative relationship between IT and the city’s communications team was also quite beneficial. 

In other vital matters, the city added a cybersecurity manager and also recently completed a thorough cybersecurity assessment to guide the formation of its broader cybersecurity policy. A key part of this was the digital awareness and cybersecurity training of all city employees. On top of that, the city also has worked to establish collaborative relationships with other nearby cities as it relates to shared cyber-risks.  

Looking forward, there is a strong foundation in place for this work to grow and continue. In addition, Carlsbad also hired a new data science and business intelligence manager, a move that seems likely to yield significant progress next year when it comes to the city’s data governance program. 

8th Allen, Texas  

Serving roughly 105,000 residents, the growing city of Allen, Texas, comes in eighth place in its population category. Allen focuses on providing online services to engage citizens, boosting cybersecurity practices, and fostering secure communications amid the pandemic. 

City leadership shows how much they value citizen feedback and engagement through user-friendly platforms and highly accessible channels. The 311 mobile app, MyAllen Service Requests, allows residents to report real-time work requests. With just a few clicks, residents can send a report and receive status updates about their request. The city also uses online surveys for citizens to voice their communication preferences and public comment cards for feedback during COVID-19 virtual meetings. In addition, the city leveraged GIS to create a local restaurant map as a response to the pandemic. The map launched in April 2020 with the help of the Convention and Visitors Bureau and Chamber of Commerce.

Allen continues to ready itself for future cyberthreats by making regular investments in cybersecurity. Required quarterly phishing tests and state-mandated trainings have brought about a drop in click rates from 24 percent to 6 percent this year. Looking forward, the city also hopes to integrate vulnerability management tools and form a cyberincident response plan. 

9th Roswell, Ga. 

Roswell, a city of about 90,000 just outside Atlanta, focused its recent tech efforts on two goals: expanding information transparency and improving crisis response. In service of the former, the city developed an interactive online budget book for residents. The site, which went live on May 11 of this year, was built on a Web publishing platform, allowing the city to create the interactive aspect. Rather than just publishing a document for citizens to read, the city chose to create a platform where visitors can engage with the data. They can filter it into charts and graphs and even share the results through their social media channels. The city also created an online platform for sharing free GIS data, which citizens and developers had to pay for in the past.  

In another effort to increase government transparency, the city of Roswell entered into a partnership with the Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) at Johns Hopkins University. The goal of this partnership is to develop a data governance plan and data inventory and to improve the overall quality of the city’s data. Unfortunately, this partnership was only about a year old when the coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on it; however, things have recently started up again and although it’s too early to report any tangible benefits, the initial work is promising.

In the interest of improving the city’s crisis response, Roswell recently upgraded its reporting database for crime statistics and data to NIBRS, the National Incident-Based Reporting System. The city has found that this new system uses layers of checks and balances when data is submitted in order to prevent errors, reducing Roswell’s error rate by four percent as a result. 

10th Richardson, Texas  

In developing a citizen-centric approach to providing services for its constituents, Richardson created a Web application called Property Report, which uses GIS to provide new, current and potential residents with city information on amenities, attractions, and services that are close to the specific address of the user. The app can be used to generate reports on places of interest like daycare centers, schools, hospitals, local transportation, emergency services, city info such as trash, recycling and brush pickup as well as homeowner association and parks info. All the information can be accessed visually in a map using ArcGIS Online, a cloud-based GIS application hosted by Esri and in wide use by governments across the country. The app has drastically reduced calls to the city, successfully connecting residents to the data they need via a single source, aligning with the city’s leadership strategy.   

The city also solicits feedback from its constituents via the “feedback form” available on every city Web page, where citizens can submit a message to the IT department, which handles most citizen requests.

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