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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 Bellevue, Wash.  

Serving about 150,000 residents, this suburb in the Seattle metropolitan area has landed in the top 10 of its population category the last few years, including another first-place finish in 2018. Fittingly, Bellevue responded to the pandemic with a COVID-19 chatbot and informational maps. The chatbot, launched in June, has answered more than 3,000 questions and can speak in seven different languages. Bellevue is also making the chatbot open source so that other local areas can take advantage of the tool. Meanwhile, emergency maps have helped citizens find food distribution centers, free Wi-Fi locations and businesses that were either partially open or offering takeout meals.    

Bellevue is full of impressive tech initiatives. This year the city began installing 40,000 smart water meters to better identify leaks, give customers access to accurate water data and replace old meters. Last year, the utilities department created an award-winning water quality dashboard that combines data from various sources to enable real-time detection of problems and proactive repairs. And with an initiative that aims to eliminate car crashes, Bellevue adjusted signal changes at one location in fall 2019 based on data generated from a program that utilizes artificial intelligence algorithms and video analytics. Traffic conflicts in the area have since decreased by 60 percent. 

Automation is an emphasis for Bellevue, as evidenced by the city’s reimagined fire safety inspection service, which went live at the beginning of 2020. In the past, a single inspection involved 102 steps, seven programs, four devices and roughly six sheets of paper. Now, an inspection requires only 24 steps, two programs, one type of device and zero paper. In another success story, the city was able to automate a time-consuming cloud migration process with robotic process automation, saving thousands of dollars and gaining valuable experience for future transitions. 

2nd Cape Coral, Fla. 

The city of Cape Coral, Fla., took second place for the third year in a row, demonstrating a continued commitment to smart technology use. The city recently created a Smart City Strategy, which the IT department used late last year to discuss connected vehicle infrastructure with the county Metropolitan Planning Organization and transportation department. As a result, the city and county expanded their pre-existing fiber sharing agreement to include spare strands for connected vehicle use in the future. Also, in the interest of expanding fiber, the city partnered with fiber-optic design vendors to build a citywide fiber-optic map to optimize installation and connection locations. 

Cybersecurity is always top of mind for Cape Coral — the IT department is on year four of its five-year security plan, with 134 of the plan’s 171 goals or “sub-controls” completed. Staff can monitor the city’s progress on these sub-controls as well as all other IT security projects thanks to a number of dashboards. In the interest of physical security, the IT and fleet departments procured GPS devices for all city vehicles that can be displayed on a single map so that officials can locate the vehicles closest to an incident and mobilize those first. This will also help city officials locate their vehicles after a disaster such as a hurricane or flood. 

Cape Coral also looked to technology to improve its procurement process, implementing an automated software solution in June 2020. Unlike the previous manual, paper-based process, the new software system saves time and ensures that nothing gets lost or misplaced along the way. And another municipal system is in the process of being modernized — following a successful pilot, Cape Coral is implementing water meters that can be read wirelessly every 10 minutes. This will save the city time and money by eliminating the need to send drivers to check meters manually. 

3rd Baton Rouge, La. 

The city addressed one of its top priorities, creating a safer community, with the deployment of a new computer-aided dispatch system. The new system replaced the 30-year-old COBOL system with a SQL database that meets law enforcement and citizen needs for the development of filters, lookups and applications.  

The new system was a key factor in the city launching its real-time crime center in May of this year. Staff at the crime center use numerous data sources to identify and mitigate risks in the most violent areas and to provide critical information to officers responding to 911 calls. The center is the culmination of years of planning and hundreds of thousands of dollars in private donations due to years of escalating violent crime. The IT staff has developed dashboards for analyzing incidents and crime patterns, giving commanders the data they need to move resources in real-time. The city also deployed kiosks at police stations to allow citizens to discreetly talk to a crime center officer for a non-emergency matter.   

The city also faced the COVID-19 challenge head on and within a week had adapted a virtual work environment that allowed for more than 1,300 virtual meetings between some 10,000 participants. Among them were crucial government meetings that were essential to the continuity of city operations. 

3rd Pasadena, Calif.

Tying for third place this year is Pasadena, Calif., which credits its rapid response to the pandemic with propelling the state of the city’s technology infrastructure forward at least five years. In addition to enabling large-scale remote work and collaboration, many tools were added to enable effective virtual public meetings with full public participation. 

Officials have focused attention and resources on improving their cybersecurity posture in the past couple years, starting with the creation of an IT Security Office in 2018. Since then, a robust training program has been developed, with specialized courses for staff with specific data responsibilities: training covering HIPAA for those in public health, for example, and SCADA for utility staff. Pasadena was also chosen to participate in the state’s Cybersecurity Intelligence Center, which gives them modern information and event management capabilities and makes them a contributor to shared cybersecurity intelligence efforts.   

Indicating a desire to move toward more cloud solutions in the future, Pasadena made a significant step in that direction by participating in a shared contract with three other cities for a cloud-based backup solution. The shared services effort represents a streamlined solution that also offers cost savings over the more manual methods it previously used. The city’s website was also modernized this year to a responsive design, using an open source tool that allows for broad departmental participation and a consistent citywide look and feel.    

4th Norfolk, Va.

Taking fourth place in this year’s survey, Norfolk, Va., is making the most of the proverbial doing more with less. Officials anticipate a $40 million citywide budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year as the result of the coronavirus pandemic, with the IT budget expected to be reduced by 5 percent. However, this year Norfolk began using predictive analytics, including machine learning, to make better decisions about how to allocate funding, including predicting how COVID-19 would impact finances. Norfolk has also recently formed an Innovation Group within IT to more efficiently present emerging technology ideas to the CIO, and the city is now using AI for flooding and traffic prediction, as well as anticipating zoo and recreation center attendance.    

To prepare for disasters besides COVID-19, Norfolk is in the process of moving its primary data center to an off-site colocation facility 5 miles away, a $6 million project that will bolster remote work and continuity of operations. Because the city is on the coast in an area at high risk for hurricanes, and the current data center is prone to flooding, Norfolk is also establishing a redundant data center near Richmond, in partnership with neighboring cities like Virginia Beach.   

IT works closely with the communications office to facilitate citizen interaction with the city. Fall 2019 saw the launch of the MyNorfolk app and website, which allows citizens to make requests of the city and also diverts some traffic away from municipal call centers. Let’s Talk Norfolk, an online polling platform from OpenGov used to survey residents, is used by myriad departments. Norfolk also has a strong data governance strategy, including its CivicLab division, which monitors the open data program that currently offers 38 data sets for both citizen use and to enable city leaders to make data-driven decisions. July 2020 saw the roll out of a project with the open data team to gather and anonymize the city’s micromobility data to maximize its use while protecting citizen privacy. 

5th Alexandria, Va. 

Alexandria, Va., is a prime example of a city investing in technology for the public good. New tools and tactics have helped solidify the city’s place as a forward-thinking municipality. These investments have helped smooth business processes but were also key in weathering the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic while providing essential services to residents.

In late 2019, Alexandria launched APEX, a replacement for the old land use system, which ushered in a streamlined way for residents and builders to access permits, inspections and approvals electronically. In addition to streamlining the permitting and payments steps associated with projects, the system automatically schedules inspections based on the issuance of a permit and other project criteria. In February, a new customer management system known as Alex311 was launched, cutting down the process for citizens to submit requests for service, comments and other input. Since its launch earlier this year, the system has handled more than 20,000 interactions. This system was an integral part of how the city was able to respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic and allowed call center agents to take calls from anywhere with an Internet connection, maintaining the flow of vital information to residents. 

When it comes to cybersecurity, the city just south of the nation’s capital is careful to adhere to best practices outlined within the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) cybersecurity framework. All city staff are trained to avoid risky cyberbehaviors and to comply with cybersecurity best practices and procedures. Recent efforts in the security space as well as investment in identity and access management infrastructure positioned the city well to respond to the COVID-19 crisis when the number of remote workers tripled almost overnight.    

The city has also gone to great lengths to provide ease of access to open data through a portal that includes business, education, housing and public safety data sets, to name a few. To maintain public confidence in the police department, police directives are made available to the public via the department website. 

6th Corona, Calif.  

Despite being led by four different city managers since February 2019 and having four of its five city council seats also change hands during that time, the city of Corona, which serves more than 170,000 residents, maintained its ranking from 2019 when becoming a data-driven municipality was a key focus. To keep pace with executive and council turnover, officials — who had updated the city’s IT strategic plan every 12-18 months — have moved to make adjustments more quickly. City IT commissioned a third-party assessment of needs and interviewed the city manager to ensure alignment with the CIO — ultimately using the information collected to inform the IT department’s strategic plan.   

This year, Corona replaced a 30-year-old computer-aided dispatch/records management system (CAD/RMS) and implemented a cloud-first strategy. The city had partnered with Citrix and Microsoft to develop a cloud-based virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) platform — and when COVID-19 hit, moved out of final piloting to take the system live and to scale while transitioning to remote work. Its VDI runs on “non-persistent desktops,” which wipe any viruses or malware nightly. The project also enabled deployment of Federal Information Processing Standards-level encrypted remote desktops for public safety. Corona stood up nearly 20 COVID-related dashboards tracking everything from PPE inventory to infection rates. Officials also augmented their new open budget portal with automation to update data weekly — doing a similar update to their open checkbook portal that makes public all accounts payable transactions. In another innovative move, the city used drones and video footage to give IT vendors a virtual walkthrough of a communications infrastructure project, generating several responses. 

6th Fort Collins, Colo.

This year Fort Collins, Colo., had multiple enterprise IT leadership roles become vacant, including CIO, CISO, and the head of application development. This is all against a backdrop of a 20 percent attrition rate overall. Following a search, a new CIO joined the city in February. Within three weeks, however, the physical offices closed due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Fort Collins IT then had to pivot from a CIO onboarding to leading a digital pandemic response. This necessitated forming a related taskforce, continuing usual operations, and implementing capabilities to support a full-time remote workforce with access to critical services. Within that, a significant portion of the IT team was infected by the virus, including 90 percent of the help desk services team. 

The pandemic has obviously not been easy for any local government, but timing and severity presented extra challenges in Fort Collins. The IT shop’s response included a wide slate of virtual self-service tech solutions that have now enabled staffers to work remotely as well as in a socially distanced office. In addition, the city worked to engage residents digitally, doing so via remote city events as well as introducing digital capabilities that allow remote access to critical city services.   

Aside from the crisis, the city reports that its new enterprise IT leadership has worked toward culture change by supporting agile development practices, teaching innovation as a process, and hosting internal innovation jams, all to serve an overarching goal of expanding innovation culture across departments to yield new digital solutions for the city. On the drier side, the city invested in a full upgrade of core networking switches and hubs that have bolstered network speed, reliability and remote access. Looking ahead, the city just concluded an RFP for better wireless access points as well.

7th Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

Only 37 miles east of Los Angeles, the city of Rancho Cucamonga serves over 177,000 residents. Despite the combination of challenges presented to the city this year, Rancho Cucamonga’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) worked toward providing government transparency for the public.

To that end, the city’s DoIT staff implemented the Socrata open data checkbook and launched a new transparency website. Users can access city documents, an interactive open budget platform, the city’s online performance dashboard, and more. With regard to citizen engagement and safety, the city launched an online survey for hazard concerns and an open call for citizens to engage in PlanRC — a multiyear planning effort to provide policy direction, prepare for technological advancements and increase resilience in the face of crises. 

Rancho Cucamonga also entered the year with a second data center, signaling that the city was ready to embrace a path toward the cloud and remote working. The data center helps support letting employees work remotely without forfeiting security. The city also moved its backups from tape to cloud, greatly improving the process for restoring from backup. 

8th Roseville, Calif.  

The city of Roseville started the year by reviewing its IT policies and processes, and over the subsequent months it made several steps to hone them with a combination of internal improvements, citizen-facing services and adaptations to COVID-19. Some of these were a matter of practice, such as working with a consultant on a program that gives other city departments a say in how IT funds are distributed, which Roseville has done for the past two years. City staff also meet regularly with regional partners to discuss how to make use of geographic information systems (GIS) data and analysis, and the city’s parks and police departments have been using ArcGIS Collector to mark homeless encampments on a map and notify city staff that they need to be addressed. More specifically this year, the city enhanced security firewalls for its network, redistributed the workloads of virtual machines and servers to make them more efficient, and expanded its use of Citrix tools so employees could access business applications, virtual desktops and city data from anywhere. The IT department also built a new VMware platform to host cloud-based applications, created a new security officer position, hired an additional security analyst and used PingID to implement single sign-on and multifactor authentication for employees. 

For citizens, Roseville started several modernization projects. These included using Accela software to set up online permitting portals, implementing smart water meters, using an open data portal to give residents updated information about local elections, and creating a website and automated calling system for people to reserve dial-a-ride or paratransit services. In response to COVID-19, the city used Esri technology to meet COVID-19 screening and tracing needs for employees and visitors of city departments, and it created an online dashboard to track which businesses were getting customers so the city would know where support programs were needed. 

9th Hampton, Va.

Hampton, Va., has been making good progress with its core infrastructure, including an ongoing project to connect all city facilities with a fiber ring that will reduce its reliance on third-party services while providing more bandwidth for voice, video and data. Recently it invested in machine virtualization, achieving 94 percent virtualization of its data center, as well as upgraded routers, switches, firewalls and email security. Plans for a new emergency operations center are underway as well. 

The city has leaned in on good communication during the COVID-19 pandemic, using many channels to reach and engage with citizens. IT supported continued access for citizens to city council meetings, town hall meetings and candidate forums for local elections by setting up livestream capabilities. Meanwhile, the department has worked with other agencies such as economic development and health and human services to set up new websites where citizens can find services, resources and information they might have normally accessed in person.

The city also completed a smart technology project along a local walking trail near underused public spaces. To address safety concerns in the area, Hampton set up 15 solar-powered light poles equipped with Wi-Fi, sensors that brighten and dim lights when people approach, call buttons connected to the police department and a 360-degree-view camera. 

10th Tallahassee, Fla.  

A city of about 200,000 near the Gulf Coast, Florida’s capital city of Tallahassee is no stranger to natural disasters like hurricanes. That’s why the city invested in improving its disaster response through tech, creating a platform of distributed file systems in each of its core facilities. That way, if a hurricane or other natural disaster knocks out the connection to the data center, each core facility can continue to operate independently until the connection is restored.   

But hurricanes weren’t the only crisis that Tallahassee had to worry about in the last year. Like jurisdictions across the country and the world, the city was suddenly faced with the need to facilitate a remote workforce when the coronavirus pandemic struck in March. Fortunately, its tech team rose to the challenge and, working closely with the Procurement department, quickly set up the necessary technology. Laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots were purchased and distributed to the 1,000 employees, about a third of the total city workforce, who were sent home. WebEx collaboration devices were also acquired so that employees could meet and collaborate virtually.  

In 2019, the IT department was called upon, along with all other city departments, to participate in the creation of Tallahassee’s five-year strategic plan. This overarching, citywide plan is the first of its kind in Tallahassee, and in 2020 the city set up a performance dashboard for citizens to monitor its progress on meeting the plan’s goals. The city also decided to be more transparent about its finances, setting up a public-facing financial transparency website. Here, citizens can look up data including current fiscal year expense, financial reports, archived budgets and more.

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