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Digital Counties 2020: Winners Were Ready Ahead of Pandemic

In the 18th annual Digital Counties Survey, leading jurisdictions had made investments in broadband, remote collaboration and digital citizen engagement long before COVID-19 tested whether they were up to the challenge.

by , / September 1, 2020
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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 Arlington County, Va. 

Arlington County, Va., moves to first place this year thanks to strong work in a number of areas that, among other things, paved the way for a smooth transition amid the chaos of COVID-19. Much of this effort was in preparation for the construction of Amazon HQ2 in the county, which Arlington anticipates will make the area more of a tech hub. This meant that, pre-COVID, the county had already accelerated its data center migration to the cloud and worked toward a virtualized experience for the workforce that allows anytime, anywhere access. As a result, when the county was instructed to shelter in place, they were fully operational in 10 days. Arlington has shored up its resiliency, including adding multifactor authentication for staff, transitioning first responder communication to FirstNet, and moving systems like permitting and utility billing services online.   

The Department of Technology Services (DTS) is committed to upholding county leadership’s emphasis on equity, striving to push forward with new and innovative technologies while also expanding high-speed Internet to make sure all residents have access to the digital tools they need, such as via the Equity through Provision of Broadband Services Initiative. Plus, with an anticipated increase of 75,000 workers in the county over the coming decade, Arlington is using data to analyze affordable housing and identify how to best upgrade commercial buildings to meet the needs of anticipated new tech companies in the area. 

In November 2019, the county launched its first chatbot, the Arlington Virtual Assistant (AVA), to help reduce the number of calls received at the Solid Waste Center that needed attention from human staff. AVA was the first use of AI in the county and can currently offer answers to 850 questions and growing. It will ultimately be used for more agencies and be featured on the county’s main website. 

2nd Washington County, Ark. 

Washington County, Ark., has moved up from ninth place in 2019, partly because of new citizen-centric plans. Its first phase involved collaborating with the county assessor and the state health department to make online geolocated septic tank information available to residents. The second phase called for giving free public access to 360-degree GIS images of properties. The third phase was to provide real-time updates of tax collection records, with a payment platform that also reports in real time to state agencies like the Motor Vehicle and Finance departments. In addition to the general public, professionals such as contractors, real estate agents and inspectors can use these free tools to make their work more time- and cost-efficient. 

Another project involved the county Road Department using drones to map ground and structure areas with few errors. Drones also help property owners determine the source and pattern of waterflow on their land. Future uses of drones include bridge and road inspections.   

Washington County also made strides on the sustainability front, establishing a solar energy initiative. Its first phase is the largest rooftop solar array in the state, a 2 megawatt solar energy production farm. Phase two, to be completed in 2021, is the installation of Tesla Walls in county data centers. Rechargeable lithium ion batteries will connect to solar panels, giving the data centers a power source in the event of an electrical outage. 

3rd Cabarrus County, N.C. 

Cabarrus County takes third place in its population category for prioritizing transparency and accountability, fostering a culture of innovation in its government operations, and maintaining robust cybersecurity practices. The IT department sought to provide an environment that enabled clear connections between the local government and the county’s residents. By streamlining services and staying up to date on a variety of online platforms, residents can communicate and connect with their local government via mobile smart devices, social media and email.   

In the area of cybersecurity, Cabarrus County takes a holistic approach by regularly providing all county employees with up-to-date training courses. Recognizing the importance of citizen participation as well, the county promotes educational programs on the topic as a part of its outreach efforts. Cabarrus has shown its dedication to mitigating cyberthreats by also investing in multi-layered tools such as next-gen firewalls. Like all other events, the state’s annual North Carolina Local Government Information Technology Association spring symposium was moved online due to the COVID-19 crisis. Stepping up to the plate, the Cabarrus team spearheaded several cybersecurity sessions, addressing high-importance topics like election security.

4th Columbia County, Ga. 

Tech is a high priority in Columbia County, Ga., as demonstrated by the technology services director’s seat at executive-level meetings and by a monthly technology meeting attended by elected officials and personnel from county divisions and departments. In short, leadership and IT are strongly aligned. 

Responsibility, preparedness and communication play central roles in the county’s approach to IT. In March 2020, the county instituted an acceptable use policy, which provides a one-stop shop for how county employees should and shouldn’t utilize county-issued equipment, with cybersecurity being a major thread in the policy. That same month, an unmanned aerial systems policy was established, which affects the drone programs of several departments such as the sheriff’s office, fire rescue and water utility. There has also been countywide support for an ongoing phishing campaign and multiple security awareness trainings. Columbia County has also started using the cloud to strengthen the resilience of its data. Finally, in 2019, the county adopted three different asset management policies as well as an all-encompassing technology contingency planning policy, which addresses continuity of operations, business continuity, disaster recovery and information systems contingency.   

Columbia County IT has helped enhance citizen engagement in various ways. As a result of multi-departmental cooperation, the county has its own phone app, one of the first of its kind in the state of Georgia, that provides access to all citizen-focused services, from event ticket purchasing to searching for lost pets to submitting work orders. Through a 311 system, Facebook page and other channels, county staff are encouraged to listen and respond to all citizen concerns. 

5th Onslow County, N.C.

Like in many jurisdictions, the COVID-19 crisis has hastened digital transformation in fifth-place Onslow County, N.C. Microsoft Teams, Planner and SharePoint are all part of the county’s Microsoft Office 365 infrastructure and have enabled virtual collaboration and workspaces, and IT was able to quickly pivot staff who would not typically be able to work remote to do so. Throughout the pandemic, Onslow has presented weekly meetings via Facebook Live to provide citizens with up-to-date data and other information around COVID-19's impact. The county has also expanded on its transparency with residents with the deployment in November 2019 of its open data platform, powered by its existing Esri technology, which helped save on costs. The county is involved in a website redesign process and has been engaging with residents for input.   

The county has deployed iDaptive for identity management as part of its cybersecurity strategy, and uses multifactor authentication for logins, as well as geofencing. Public-private agreements are expanding fiber communications technology to other county facilities. And management of the county’s vehicle fleets is led by the Verizon fleet management platform, which tracks mileage, alerts and vehicle use, leading to maintenance that is more focused and better scheduled. This is the first system of its kind for non-emergency vehicles in Onslow County. 

6th Davidson County, N.C.

Davidson County, N.C., held on to 6th place for the second year in a row, focusing on cybersecurity and citizen engagement, among other efforts. In July of last year, the county implemented quarterly training sessions and a monthly email phishing test on top of its current cybersecurity regimen for employees. In the eight months since those changes went into effect, the county saw a decrease in the rate that employees fell for the phishing test from 11 percent to just 3.8 percent.   

In the interest of boosting citizen engagement, the county added a form to its website that allows citizens to submit questions to a specific elected official or department. The system requires a response within two working days, ensuring that citizens aren’t left waiting. Additionally, Davidson County Transportation System (DCTS) rolled out a new Facebook page last year to provide residents with easy access to information on a number of route changes. They also engaged in a Facebook advertising campaign, which saw significant engagement and helped increase ridership in 2019.   

The Davidson County GIS department also underwent changes recently. They implemented an automated scripting program that puts together a standard data set, updated weekly, which citizens can download. They also launched an initiative to review street and address data in order to ensure its accuracy for next-generation 911. In the process, however, they discovered 2,007 addresses that had not been submitted to the U.S. Census Bureau. These addresses were submitted to the Bureau and accepted in time for the 2020 Census count. 

Last but not least, Davidson County Emergency Services recently procured two drones — one is used by Emergency Services and the other by the Fire Marshal. The drones have been quite helpful in emergency response and have twice been lent out to a neighboring county to help investigate house fires. 

7th Pitt County, N.C. 

Pitt County’s IT efforts in the past year led with emergency services. One of its proudest accomplishments was a grant-funded program that used data records to identify frequent 911 callers, schedule regular follow-ups with them and prepare paramedics to respond to those citizens without sending all the traditional vehicles unnecessarily every time. The county also installed automatic vehicle locator technology on emergency vehicles, so the computer-aided dispactch (CAD) system could more quickly dispatch the nearest vehicles to an incident. 

Pitt County’s next priority was citizen services, specifically health and welfare. For example, the county bought new software for its mobile dental unit that serves kids who qualify for Medicaid, solicited citizen input to revamp the county website, launched a FoodFinder app to connect people who have food insecurities to available resources, and worked with Pitt Community College on a Park Finder app to give the public information on local schools, parks and recreation facilities. As a matter of both emergency and citizen services, the county adapted to COVID-19 by using social media, teleconferencing and other tech-supported community forums to coordinate and release information to staff and the public. 

Planning for resilience, the county established a secondary cloud-based data backup site, and its GIS steering committee prioritized several projects including the publication of environmental health inspection records on the county website and the digitization of legacy records and maps. For cybersecurity, the county contracted with an outside vendor in lieu of a designated CISO for risk assessment and recommendations; and conducted an internal security audit to identify vulnerabilities and potential threats. 

8th Union County, N.C. 

Union County, N.C., jumped up from 10th place last year to eighth this year, and there are some pretty clear indications as to why, including its efforts to improve citizen engagement, while also prioritizing cybersecurity and IT investment.   

Certainly, the county's creation of a mass emergency notification system is one of its more impressive achievements — and is evidence of its prioritization of citizen engagement. The Everbridge notification system, created through collaboration between the county's IT department and its other agencies, alerts citizens to public health and safety emergencies, including extreme weather events. With the system, staff from Emergency Management and Public Safety can expediently communicate news about local hazards to their constituents via text message — as well as relay important information internally to public agency staff. According to county officials, the system was quickly able to notify residents about a potential E.Coli outbreak in the local water supply. 

At the same time, the county’s emphasis on IT investment management seems to be paying off. The county leadership has a direct hand in IT budget priorities — including the Board of Commissioners and the county manager. This year the county invested in both a secure messaging solution for the local public health authority, as well as a secure storage solution that allows for easy data transfer between county agencies.      

9th Berkeley County, S.C. 

Berkeley County, S.C., was not only confronted with the familiar challenges of delivering services as the pandemic took hold earlier this year. Staff also found themselves hunkering down in April with a tornado with winds traveling 120 miles per hour. County staff from multiple departments helped respond, establishing cleanup days, providing grant assistance and setting up online reporting capabilities due to COVID-19-related closures of county facilities. 

A new website for the county went live earlier this year, developed by staff using internal resources. More services can now be accessed online, like payments and applications — timely improvements for constituents due to the pandemic. Cybersecurity strategy includes regular employee training across the organization, complemented by testing to assess its effectiveness. Continuous monitoring of various assets to identify both critical and moderate vulnerabilities also helps staff keep threats at bay.    

Other recent upgrades include migration to a new, more cost-effective phone system late last year, as well as an online financial system that injects more transparency into the county’s budgeting process and fiscal management.

10th Charlotte County, Fla. 

Charlotte County, Fla., which is along the Gulf Coast north of Fort Myers, had a headlining tech and innovation project last year that really stood out. That project was work done to create an electronic document review system in tandem with making the county’s land management software more flexible. This project is in the new mold of online customer service, in that it digitizes processes that used to require in-person interactions with city hall staffers, making them available online 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Charlotte County did this project with much input from citizens, local industry and other departments within city hall.

Aside from the electronic permitting project, cross-department collaboration and public transparency were Charlotte County’s next most significant IT shop accomplishments. Charlotte County had gotten into the practice of holding roundtables about its IT work with members of the local and business communities, as well as filing their responses into reports. The same is true of the county’s use of its various social media platforms.

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