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Digital Cities 2021: 125,000-249,999 Population Category

The top performers in this year’s Digital Cities Survey from the Center for Digital Government pushed through the challenges of COVID-19 while continuing to innovate and engage with residents.

1st Corona, Calif.

Improvements to IT infrastructure are at the forefront of Corona, Calif.’s plans to strengthen the local economy following COVID-19. The city has prioritized efforts to boost cybersecurity protocol, cloud computing and interdepartmental IT collaboration under the leadership of city management and its tech team. As part of ongoing modernization plans, Corona has worked over the last few years to develop and deploy a host of technology platforms and has moved over 90 percent of the city’s IT and network to the cloud. City leaders say that this tech overhaul was crucial to their transition to remote work across city departments.

The pandemic made the city more open to using tech to streamline government, and IT set out to build online dashboards to track more than 125 performance indicators of the city’s strategic plan. Corona’s IT leadership also now has a cohesive IT strategy built around using and managing infrastructure for data-driven citizen solutions, according to city leaders. Corona uses the Zencity platform, which uses AI to provide insight into residents’ concerns and areas in need of improvement across departments, and has utilized a chatbot to gain feedback regarding which issues are most pressing for citizens. In addition, the city responded to an increase in cyber attacks over the past two years, particularly during COVID-19, by designing its incident response plan for an organized approach to critical security incident response measures.

2nd Alexandria, Va.

In the last year, Alexandria awarded a contract to build a municipal broadband network over 40 miles throughout the city. Slated to begin in fall 2021 and take four years to complete, the network will not only connect 90-plus city facilities but also include partnership opportunities to provide high-speed broadband options for businesses and residents within the community.

Also in the interest of better serving the community, Information Technology Services (ITS) teamed up with the Department of Community and Human Services and Office of Emergency Management to analyze data in order to better understand the community’s most vulnerable areas. The result is the Food Distribution Events Dashboard, with interactive maps that helped facilitate Alexandria’s largest-ever ongoing food distribution program. As of July 2021, the program had delivered more than 6.4 million meals and 5,000 grocery store gift cards as well as groceries to residents in need.

This year, Alexandria created a Coordinated Community Recovery Plan to address digital equity challenges. Bloomberg Philanthropies awarded the city a $25,000 grant to help address one of the challenges identified in the plan: lack of Internet access. It was used to expand public Wi-Fi in the outdoor area of a nonprofit partner, so residents could come and connect for things like virtual learning and telemedicine. The city also expanded high-speed Internet services at its recreation centers to cover surrounding parking lots.

Alexandria continues to be a leader in cybersecurity, demonstrating that this year with an overhaul of its training program for employees. This ongoing initiative replaced the legacy system with a new platform for the city’s 3,000-plus users that aligns with ITS’ strategic plan. The city is already reaping the benefits, with a dramatic reduction in clicks on simulated phishing attacks, putting the click rate at half the industry average.

3rd Bellevue, Wash.

Bellevue is aiming to more deeply engage the public as part of its 2021-2023 goals, and new mapping tools could help it do just that. The city debuted a digital geographic information system (GIS) to trace characteristics of each of its different neighborhoods and provide updates about them. This lets public and city officials easily view how concerns like housing affordability, public safety, construction permitting and access to open spaces play out in different locations. The “State of the Neighborhoods” map draws on Census Bureau and internal state data to chart how neighborhoods have been changing over the past decade, identify key trends, and predict how these could create problems and opportunities in the future. Next up, the city aims to add features enabling residents to give feedback and direct city planners to use those resident responses to inform the city’s next Comprehensive Plan.

An internal mapping tool is also bolstering city services by helping staff better track the locations of snowplows and other vehicles responding to severe weather events. The Automated Vehicle Locator system updates in near real time and means dispatchers no longer need to radio vehicle operators to get their statuses, then update paper maps with the details. This saves them time and provides better information to guide decision-making, as well as helping personnel more accurately field residents’ questions about the roads.

Aiming to tackle cyber events along with weather ones, Bellevue adopted a managed detection and response system to help it more quickly identify and react to threats. Goals for this year would boost security further, seeing the city test internal web applications for vulnerabilities before deploying them and conduct third-party risk assessments of cloud providers. Federal grant money being used this year will also fund efforts to establish a mutual assistance program for IT professionals throughout the region, as well as hire a consultant to evaluate the cybersecurity of certain high-priority networks.

4th Augusta, Ga.

The city of Augusta, Ga., has prioritized technology in its approach to combating the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in the community. Despite challenges with funding limitations, the city has invested in cybersecurity, grown its IT department and delivered digital services to citizens.

Notably, Augusta’s cybersecurity budget has grown over 100 percent in the last two years. The city implemented products including Cisco Secure Endpoint and Cisco Duo, and COVID-19 pushed cybersecurity trainings online for city employees, a measure that has facilitated consistent attendance. Quarterly phishing tests have helped the city measure detection abilities in staff. In the last year, the city also updated its Business Continuity Plan to prepare IT for unplanned circumstances that could interrupt services.

A fundamental component of the city’s IT Strategic Plan is developing career ladders for IT employees to grow. Building and supporting a strong IT team for the city is accomplished in part through IT’s internship program that hosts several high school and college interns each year. Multiple new hires have come from this program. The city has also stretched its IT budget by conducting an audit to assess if all the software licenses currently in use are necessary for all employees.

Augusta is continuously refining its offering of digital services for residents, such as its online payment and 311 portals. The city has also integrated its utilities billing software with Cityworks, which enables real-time billing for installations and provides a foundation for smart water infrastructure advances to come.

5th Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

Moving up two places from last year’s survey, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., now holds the fifth spot within its population category. To achieve this, the city introduced its first comprehensive technology road map, which contains its strategy for maintaining and improving cybersecurity, alongside a Strategic Services Plan (SSP) and Information Technology Master Plan (ITMP). According to the SSP, IT will set specific milestones and objectives to support the broader ambitions of the technology road map. It will be amended annually to show progress made on identified projects, including performance measures to evaluate if the city is achieving its desired outcomes and provide room for revisions for future goals and objectives for the upcoming year. As for the ITMP, the document will allow senior leadership to fiscally prepare for significant technology investments and forecast personnel or contract service needs, allowing for earlier discussions on organizational growth and capacity for the IT department.

Other IT efforts include hosting weekly cybersecurity team meetings to discuss current and upcoming cybersecurity initiatives, along with setting up a city email to report cybersecurity concerns, including phishing attempts. In 2021, Rancho Cucamonga conducted its first ever tabletop cybersecurity exercise, in conjunction with the Public Technology Institute.

6th Fort Collins, Colo.

Fort Collins, Colo., like nearly every city in the U.S., was forced to adapt to the COVID-19 crisis, but what separates the city from many others is the fact that the new CIO, Kevin Wilkins, came on board in February 2020, just weeks before the crisis officially reached pandemic proportions. In spite of the immediate challenges and 15 months working out of the office, Wilkins and his team solidified a multiyear digital road map to help guide technology investment.

Among the many efforts underway in the city, perhaps none more directly affects low-income households than the effort to streamline benefits and rebates. Through a partnership with Code for America, Fort Collins has created an app — currently in the beta phase — to make citizen access to income-qualified programs simpler. Equity and inclusion are also top priorities for the Colorado city. Efforts have been made to bring City Council meetings to as many people as possible. Hybrid meetings, complete with bilingual, real-time interpretation, offer better access to all participants regardless of English language skills.

Where connectivity is concerned, Fort Collins was a frontrunner in the municipal broadband space, working to roll out a city-owned network that began construction in 2019. Today, the project is still underway, and the fiber network is connecting new neighborhoods on a weekly basis.

7th Baton Rouge, La.

Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by emphasizing the importance of a rapid, data-driven response to increases in COVID-19 cases and to prevent further outbreaks. That spurred Baton Rouge IT leadership into action, developing tools such as the COVID-19 dashboard to provide map-based data to guide decisions and coordinate policies among leaders, hospital administrators and other stakeholders. The data was used to develop targeted testing locations, and the city worked with the federal government to establish one of a few mass vaccination sites in the U.S. It took just days to establish the infrastructure and IT environment to run a daily and efficient operation that drew high praise from federal leaders.

The past year saw the city make significant progress in implementing its three-year IT strategic plan, including the unified communications project, one of the largest endeavors undertaken by the city, which will fully modernize telecommunication infrastructure. The project will save millions of dollars by eliminating redundant phone lines and deploying VoIP solutions instead. Baton Rouge has plans to implement a virtual CISO in late 2021, which will strengthen cybersecurity while saving on costs. And this year the city’s data governance committee stood up a budgeting dashboard to increase transparency with the public on city spending.

7th Cape Coral, Fla.

Education took up much of the time for Cape Coral’s technology professionals in 2021. The city has four charter schools, and they had been underfunded for years, resulting in a backlog of work. In fact, hardware had not been updated since the school system’s founding in 2004. So the city gave its IT department the job of replacing all servers with a Nutanix hyperconverged cluster, and those workers also installed new battery backups.

Waste collection, Cape Coral’s top priority, also underwent an upgrade via technology. With complaints about garbage coming into 311 by the thousands every day, the city’s technology pros created maps to track where those problems were and built a dashboard to further visualize the data. All that helped the city push back against its waste collection providers and invoke contract clauses and fines for missed pickups. The city’s IT department also wrote an application that constructs a daily statistically significant extract of those missed pickups and provides other granular information designed to bolster the city’s case should it have to take waste collectors to court.

Cape Coral also had its IT department work with an outside company to develop what the city called a high-level fiber-optic blueprint designed to connect all city assets to the city network, an effort that took months and involved such buildings as a police substation, water park and senior center.

8th Roseville, Calif.

The city of Roseville held onto its 2020 ranking with a number of leading initiatives, continuing to work with Accela – this year via the Electronic Document Review Project enabling an online permit application with a new citizen access portal, and an ePlan Check workflow and plan review system. The project has saved residents tens of thousands of dollars in credit card transaction fees and reduced foot traffic at the city permit center by nearly half.

Roseville’s open data portal offers APIs to developers and businesses, and internal IT departments are now using data to track team performance. In the public safety arena, city police stood up license plate recognition hardware and software capable of plate capture day and night and at high speeds. Images are securely stored in the cloud but are mobile accessible. In the last year, the city has also updated its data backup, recovery and retention processes to boost compliance.

A number of internal projects have kept the tech team in Roseville busy as well. During the past three years, city IT has worked with a consultant on the IT Internal Service Fund model – which enables it, in turn, to work with other city departments around distribution of IT funds, allowing for more efficient use of resources. And Roseville has also taken aim at resilience, choosing a new uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system, rolling it out to all data closets to empower status and threshold monitoring. As far as cyber resilience, Roseville offers employees formal yearly cybersecurity awareness training and does ongoing phishing testing to better equip the workforce to ward off incoming attacks.

9th Hampton, Va.

Finishing in ninth place for its population category for the second year in a row, Hampton, Va., has used the pandemic as an opportunity to completely rethink how it communicates with citizens. The IT department has established an online appointment scheduler, which can be accessed through a web app or a city kiosk, that allows residents to set up either in-person or Zoom meetings for services such as permits and licensing. Given that public meetings are attended online more than ever before, the municipality has also invested in numerous technology upgrades for its City Council chambers, including but not limited to high-definition cameras and updated audio.

A distinctive investment for citizen engagement involves the deployment of digital signage across the city. Hampton now has 69 such monitors within its borders. The signage allows citizens to receive pertinent information at any city building, and all monitors show customized messages pertaining to specific city resources that residents may be interested in. What’s more, when there’s a city emergency, all the monitors will display the same information so that citizens can know what they need to during crucial times no matter where they are.

10th Norfolk, Va.

The year in tech and innovation for Norfolk, Va., can maybe best be summed up by an accolade the city won — silver certification from the What Works Cities program, which is primarily concerned with creating benchmarks for local government using data and evidence-based decision-making to improve the lives of residents. This is a major milestone for Norfolk to have hit since adopting a formalized open data policy a few years back. One of the ways the city accomplished this was making IT staff part of its city data team. In this capacity, IT staffers help get new data sets published to Norfolk’s open data portal, while also providing support to internal departments and training local data champions. Other work included the creation of a data classification guide to determine which sets should be released via the portal.

Another area of focus for Norfolk was cybersecurity. The city reports a 500 percent increase in the number of suspected phishing emails identified and reviewed during the reporting period for this survey. In addition, Norfolk is now working with 11 other nearby localities, armed with a regional grant that allowed for the hiring of a consultant to help each participant review their current cybersecurity environment. In addition, the city made a precautionary move this year, funding a commercial backup recovery site in nearby Richmond, with a projected opening date of June 2022.

10th Pasadena, Calif.

Much of Pasadena’s IT work in the past year has focused on collaborating with the Public Health Department to facilitate the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. A mass email app was quickly developed that sent more than 100,000 emails to 25,000 recipients to alert eligible citizens when they were qualified to receive the vaccine, saving staff time and allowing more people to get vaccinated. Since the onset of the pandemic, all city services have been moved online and use electronic signatures. Digital services meet ADA requirements and feature language translations, plus Pasadena has added communication channels, all of which are especially helpful for the city’s hosting of the annual Rose Bowl.

In March 2021, Pasadena launched a platform to move previously in-person permitting for work like mechanical, electrical and plumbing projects online. Given the 6,000 of these permits the city issues annually, the move saved on staff resources and allowed for social distancing amid the pandemic. In the coming months, the city plans to add a chatbot to better respond to applicant questions and assess individual needs. Hundreds of permits are now handled online each day.

In other areas, the city has completed an update of its email retention policy, as well as created a website where the public can comment on police activity in light of the civil unrest that swept the country in summer 2020. Based on the success Pasadena saw using Microsoft Teams when a large portion of staff worked remotely in the past 18 months, IT is now piloting Microsoft Teams Phone to replace a 30-year-old PBX system. As the city moves toward a hybrid work environment, employees returning to the office have been given better tech equipment, including high-quality headsets and cameras to facilitate continued remote work several days a week.