Digital Counties 2019: Winners Push Shared, Citizen Services

In the 17th annual Digital Counties Survey, the top 58 counties nationwide stand out for their commitment to using tech to improve quality of life, shore up cybersecurity, support municipal resources and more.

by , / July 11, 2019
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Click points on the map above to learn more about each winner. Red indicates 1st place winners, yellow indicates 2nd place winners, green indicates 3rd place winners, and blue indicates winners that placed 4th through 10th.

1st Cabarrus County, N.C.

Ascending from third to first place in its population category, Cabarrus County has continued to invest in technology to connect citizens to services, enable remote business transactions and reduce emergency response times.

Nearly half the county’s 2019 budget will go toward schools to accommodate population growth, which has put pressure on the county to automate, share or consolidate services and collaborate wherever possible, with non-IT departments as well as other jurisdictions. For example, the county merged its plan review process with that of the cities of Concord and Kannapolis, shares its data center with all its schools, and initiated an agreement to use Concord’s fiber to connect to a senior center and a new parking deck, saving $26,400 while increasing bandwidth.

Many of Cabarrus County’s innovations in 2019 were citizen-facing initiatives. These include new dashboards to measure biodiversity, zoning and property taxes, and how citizens are using county services online; websites to track county budget and financial information, connect people with resources for mental health or substance abuse problems, and report child abuse; automated calls to citizens about federal food assistance, which reduced overtime for case workers; an e-newsletter and crowdsourcing app for rescue animals; an online portal for tax processes; and apps for recycling and garbage-collection schedules, finding outdoor recreation, rating fire insurance, info on wait times at polling places, park and open-space planning, tracking crime data; a 911 Center app in case of a CAD outage; and an app that maps deployments of opioid-overdose treatments.

For its own staff, the county made a dashboard linked to Accela that helped clear out a backlog of almost 2,000 construction plan reviews. It also integrated new tax software with its GIS master database to validate and “clean up” addresses on citizen tax records, saving considerable staff time.

2nd Arlington County, Va.

Consistently one of the top finishers in its population category, this year Arlington County doubled down on its efforts to address the digital divide. The new chair of the County Board made digital equity a top priority, and funding in that area is expected to get a 269 percent increase in the next year. In 2018-19, Arlington added 93 public school facilities to ConnectArlington, the county-owned fiber-optic network. That network also provides connections for 300 traffic signals, 250 traffic cameras, 10 fire stations, six 911 radio towers and six wireless hot spot zones. Additionally, in December 2018, Arlington launched a pilot program to use ConnectArlington to bring broadband access to low- and moderate-income residents of the Arlington Mill Residences affordable housing complex.

Arlington also earned its second-place ranking with its focus on citizen engagement. When Amazon chose to locate its second headquarters (HQ2) in Arlington, the county set up a page on its website with multiple information channels to keep residents informed of the project’s development. It hosted county meetings via Facebook Live so that residents could ask questions and offer thoughts. Also on the county’s website is Engage Arlington, a designated location where residents can learn about community events, give feedback, and find other ways to get involved in the local community. And last but not least, in the last year the county recorded two more sessions for its Defining Arlington’s Digital Destiny series, “Shaping Arlington for a Smart and Secure Future Community” and “The Future of Work,” which discuss how technology will affect the county’s future.

3rd Onslow County, N.C.

A major goal of the Onslow County Board of Commissioners is to find more efficient ways of doing business and avoid raising property taxes, following the aftereffects of 2018’s Hurricane Florence. In response to this and other objectives, county management is realigning the entire organization according to the High Performance Organization Model as outlined by the University of Virginia's Senior Executive Institute.

The Information Technology Services/Geographical Information Services Department (ITS/GIS) is doing its part to reduce costs and increase efficiency by renegotiating contracts and streamlining enterprise operations. The department also partners with internal county departments to better understand their processes. By working closely and building these relationships, the department becomes a reliable partner and vital resource to innovation and process improvement. ITS has also stayed active on security concerns. Testing and enhancing cybersecurity helps the tech department to avoid costly work interruptions and data loss caused by such issues as ransomware and phishing.

One innovation developed by the department is the Citizen Incident and Self Reporting tool, an Esri cloud-based application developed during Hurricane Florence by staff that was deployed as part of the Disaster Ready Team. This app let citizens report damage to their homes, with pictures, that would have gone unnoticed in a street-level, drive-by assessment.

The county’s primary mobile data vendor suffered extensive losses in coverage due to fiber damage and other storm-related outages. Such extreme communication loss made ITS/GIS seriously reconsider its approach to emergency communications. The department has started expanding its pool of communications vendors, and has strengthened its relationships with current vendors, which are now committed to deploying staff at the county emergency operations center for the next event. ITS/GIS is also diversifying the mobile data fleet to include other vendors and is giving first responders priority radio bandwidth.

Another goal of Onslow’s commissioners is to adequately fund public safety, including jail personnel and courthouse needs. The county recently completed expansion of the courthouse, for which ITS/GIS provided the technical needs, including wired and wireless networking, proximity card door access, security cameras and video signage.

4th Charles County, Md.

Officials in Charles County, Md., thought the permitting process was taking too long and decided to modernize it with Tyler Technologies’ EnerGov Community Development software in October 2018. The solution gave departments new tools to manage permits, inspections, reviews, approvals, licensing and enforcement.

Residents and contractors can apply online for permits and submit plans for home improvements. Staff from multiple agencies can use the platform to collaborate on projects either from their desktop or by using a PDF iPad app, Bluebeam Revu. The EnerGov portal provides homeowners and builders with a transparent look at county feedback after they create an account. Necessary changes can then be made to the original submission and the plans can be resubmitted. The self-service portal handles about 1,500 users per month.

Additional EnerGov apps for inspections and code enforcement now allow inspectors to review construction and property maintenance issues while in the field where they can take and upload pictures; residents can digitally sign documents and receive immediate feedback.

Before the deployment of EnerGov, county and software staff worked in tandem to analyze, update and streamline the business process, eliminating unnecessary steps as they were identified.  From April 2018 to July 2018, the county collaborated with third-party inspectors and selected residents applying for permits to test the design and functionality of the self-service portal. Since its launch, EnerGov has saved Charles County almost eight man-hours per day searching for printed documents and has cut the permit review timeframe in half.

5th Boone County, Mo.

Boone County, home to the University of Missouri, and with a population of some 170,000 people, has put itself ahead of the competition this year by leveraging innovative IT solutions towards the ends of heightened security, law enforcement and public safety.

The county, which is in the midst of a three-year IT strategic plan, is creating an innovative, inter-municipal digital law enforcement record-keeping system, which will allow different police departments to share information more seamlessly. The Information Technology Department is developing, installing and testing a law enforcement records management system (RMS) and jail management system (JMS) in coordination with other municipalities and its software vendor.

The county has also said it will prioritize cybersecurity operations in the coming year — with plans to develop a Cybersecurity Response Plan, which will give officials a road map for responsive measures in the event of a cyberattack. A ransomware response plan is also in the works. Boone recently engaged with a third-party company for ongoing phishing testing, while also accomplishing a security audit of all its public-facing applications that use sensitive consumer information like birthdays or social security numbers — an effort to hunt for and plug potential vulnerabilities.

Along similar lines, the county has also invested heavily in emergency response and continuity of operations, which are being augmented by the county’s geographic information system. Officials partnered this year with Surdex Corporation to produce updated orthographic and lidar images of the local area, which could be utilized by the GIS Department as a resource for emergency and resource management planning.

5th Pitt County, N.C.

In Pitt County, N.C., technology plays an integral role in governing. Officials have set goals to make it a more responsive and accessible government, not to mention a safer place to live for its residents. The county’s Pulsepoint CPR app has helped it shake the less than 1 percent heart attack survival rate, helping citizen responders in the most critical moments of a medical emergency. The application alerts the public to an emergency in their area in the hopes that a CPR-qualified individual can help until first responders arrive.

The need for on-the-go access to county systems saw investment in remote access capability. This was especially useful in the public safety space, as the Sheriff’s Department and the narcotics team were able to log in from the field. In a similar vein, the outdated enterprise content management system was recently replaced with a Laserfiche solution, simplifying document access and management across the regional government.

Faced with the same mounting threat as governments of all sizes, the county made an “intentional investment” in bolstering cybersecurity. This took the form of a security-as-a-service model, in which a virtual chief information security officer advises on the latest threat trends and where a security vendor runs threat detection and prevention measures. Policies and best practices are being developed to ensure proper response in the event of an attack.

Among the many efforts to make government more responsive, the county is providing more accurate information in a region often touched by hurricane activity. The Joint Information Center serves as a one-stop resource for information about emergency response, road closures and available resources. The website is only active during an emergency situation.

6th County of Davidson, N.C.

Cybersecurity has been one of the top priorities of Davidson County leadership following a February 2018 ransomware attack that shut down more than 90 county servers and systems for six days. The IT staff has since put in place several safeguards like desktop antivirus protections, two-factor authentication for IT staff and domain accounts with far-reaching network access, as well as closer monitoring of all public-facing systems. More than 150 cyberthreats have been averted since the changes were put in place. Funding for cybersecurity efforts increased 75 percent in the last 12 to 18 months.

The Information Technology Department worked on a joint project with the Davidson County Sheriff’s Department to create a protected and secure network for forensic research: Cellebrite's Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED). The network gives officers access to the dark web and has now handled more than 240 electronic devices and acquired data from 86 percent of those.

Another top priority has been emergency communications. The county partnered with the state to expand the Viper system, a statewide emergency communication system for public safety agencies. Following hurricanes Florence and Michael in 2018, Davidson County created a mobile-friendly assessment and reporting tool available to all residents.

7th Charlotte County, Fla.

This Gulf Coast county, with a population of 182,000, has been impacted by severe weather in recent years. It also has to manage large swings in demographics, thanks to heavy tourism during the winter season. These two factors help drive major policymaking decisions that require responses from IT. Complicating the picture is the county’s struggles to fund new IT endeavors and innovation, especially for mobile services. Nonetheless, Charlotte has taken strides to modernize how it serves its citizens. A new commercial and residential development software application has opened up access to information that had been unavailable at the public level in the past. The program’s versatility and flexibility in providing permitting information, which is updated daily, has been a high mark in the county’s IT achievements.

To help with damage assessments, the county relies on geospatial data from its ArcGIS platform and from its Accela land management platform, which can help inspectors detail type and location of damage, as well as other kinds of information that can be uploaded to create specialized damage assessment permits. Charlotte has also leveraged its GIS platform to create several new applications, ranging from recent construction data and critical facility locations in the county to apps that deliver up-to-date tourism-related information on fishing, coral reefs and boat launches. Other mapping apps support emergency response, property and local regulations.

8th Delaware County, Ohio

Delaware County, Ohio, in its fourth consecutive year of ranking, is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. Not surprisingly, much of the county’s IT work is related to the influx of new residents. Located just north of Columbus, Ohio, Delaware has been tasked with expanding the scope of its work in a fiscally responsible way. To help with this, county IT has begun to provide shared services to many publicly funded agencies, a move that aims to create more consistency and less overall spending. The county’s growing tax base has helped make this possible.

Meanwhile, Delaware is also preparing for the future by creating infrastructure aimed at easier adaptation of new technologies, specifically 5G. Delaware has accomplished this in a couple of ways. First, the county recently contracted with an outside company to help it create an optimized local telecommunications network. Second, through zoning restrictions aimed at not overbuilding redundant infrastructure, Delaware has worked to pave the way for 5G while also preserving streetscapes and natural environments. Moving forward, the county is also working to adjust its tech-related communications work to account for how many of its residents are active on social media. This work is being augmented by the creation of a new communications position that will manage the county’s social media channels. There is also a plan in place to establish a social media review committee.

9th Washington County, Ark.

The Washington County Judge has prioritized the focus on infrastructure, destination of choice (services) education around the county, and security. The IT department has made infrastructure a major focus by implementing a plan for sustaining and replenishing the county’s electronic resources.

The IT department is helping educate county employees by providing cybersecurity awareness and training to all county employees each quarter and by encouraging collaboration and the use of project management practices for sound decision-making. The department is also striving to protect infrastructure, both from the inside out and outside in and by protecting the official records of the county.

One of Washington’s top initiatives is the finance committee’s call for budget reductions in each department. The IT department works to identify and differentiate financial and non-financial goals and prioritize projects and improve efficiencies through technology. To improve efficiency, the county moved to a five-year replacement cycle of its desktop computers from a three-year cycle and moved to centralize all IT-related purchases across the county.

The IT department has become creative over the years in reducing costs by providing in-house solutions to expenses from outside vendors and suppliers, as well as utilizing contract reviews for further cost reductions. For example, the county reviewed its contract with a broadband provider to substantially reduce annual costs.

10th Union County, N.C.

North Carolina’s Union County is making steady changes in its technology posture to better serve citizens. A top priority has been upgrading the audio and video systems so the county can livestream all public board meetings and be as transparent to residents as possible. Another area of focus is data governance. The IT agency plans to stand up a more robust data analytics program in the next year and has created guidelines and standards around that to ensure initiatives are secure and accessible. This has helped reduce the cost of physical documents and their storage. In similar cost-saving measures, a move to paperless workflows has saved upward of $15,000. Union County cites funding as its biggest IT challenge as the department works to do more with less, especially as their population grows by about 2 percent each year. Focusing on smart staffing choices and planning for anticipated retirements in the next five years will help ensure the agency can continue providing services enterprise-wide.

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