Digital Cities 2021: 500,000 or More 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 San Jose, Calif.
Amid a year divided between pandemic response and recovery, San Jose pinpointed three guiding missions to shape its tech efforts. First, the city worked to minimize harm done by the pandemic. Second, it accelerated its focus on digital services. Finally, San Jose also worked to make sure its tech and data projects supported equity, be it through public health, digital equity, homelessness response or other related concerns. These goals moved up priority lists for jurisdictions across the country, yet rarely were they articulated as well through an entire tech and innovation agenda as they were by San Jose. Having clear and well-defined principles, however, was just part of what made San Jose effective; solid execution was also crucial.
2nd Los Angeles, Calif.
Los Angeles, Calif., consistently performs well in its population category, and 2021 was no different. One of the most substantial steps the big city took this year was the introduction of its cybersecurity scorecard program. Under this initiative, each department receives a score for its overall cyber risk every month. Departments can easily cross-reference this number with a target score, historical trend figures and grades received by other departments.
In another recent cybersecurity win for L.A., city IT was informed of a data breach that could have compromised the data of 20,000 police officers. Within two hours, a disaster response plan was initiated, and within six hours, the situation was stable. While the municipality’s existing cyber posture helped make this positive outcome possible, the city would establish new communications and PR processes to better manage the impact of a future technical breakdown.
Last but not least, the city is pushing forward with a citywide data science platform, which offers staff a more convenient way of incorporating analytics into everyday decision-making. The platform streamlines much of the time-consuming work involved with identifying and cleaning data sets. This feature both makes it easier for data scientists to do their jobs and allows less technical employees to get the data they need. Over time, data standards and other best practices will be strengthened through the platform.
2nd San Diego, Calif.
A regular winner in the Digital Cities Survey, this seaside city of nearly 1.5 million residents rose from third to second place this year. Officials worked closely with staff across the enterprise, surveyed all employees in developing their Fiscal Year 2022-2026 IT Strategic Plan, modernized feedback from a webform to a Medallia management system, and codified the updating of legacy apps in the city budget and IT. Cybersecurity strategy is strongly connected across city government, with the city CISO leading strategy but collaborating with all IT divisions, a citywide security committee, and local and federal authorities. San Diego does regular cyber awareness training, phishing and penetration testing and staffs an around-the-clock Security Operations Center. The city also helped create the San Diego Cyber Innovation Center to share information and forge event response.
The IT department provides a formal review of proposed solutions but manages projects via agile methodologies for swift deployment. After about five years and 1 million reports, officials upgraded the city’s Get It Done app, now used by one quarter of households. The city vaccinated nearly 80,000 via a new HIPAA Compliant Vaccine Tracking Solution that let the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department administer vaccines while enabling data collection for tracking. IT worked with Engineering and Capital to align and map master data, smoothing and automating reporting on permit fee reimbursement. The city’s open data portal and policy enable it to deliver accessible, efficient and transparent government, while its citywide performance dashboard offers KPIs on everything from police and fire response to water use. San Diego implemented Amazon WorkSpaces for virtual desktop infrastructure to support remote work by 3,000 staff. Officials also connected 255 street Wi-Fi hot spots and provided 410 Google Chromebooks for checkout at libraries and parks.
3rd City and County of San Francisco, Calif.
The City by the Bay takes third place in this year’s Digital Cities Survey thanks to impressive measures to weather the ongoing pandemic and a strong commitment to serving all residents. San Francisco IT delivered 12 new digital services in 2020, including facilitating distribution of small business relief grants, and the DataSF team was heavily involved in using analytics to drive COVID-19 response, such as assigning analytics staff to each division of the city’s COVID Command Center. They developed COVID-specific open data dashboards to keep the public up to date on both the virus’ spread and the city’s work to combat it, and provided the underlying data sets for those dashboards to emphasize transparency. Because much of that data included personal and health information, DataSF established specific privacy guidelines for virus-related data sets. As of July 1, 2021, the data sets had been accessed 4.1 million times, and the city’s COVID-19 tracker site had been visited 6 million times.
Accessibility and equity are at the heart of San Francisco’s work, ensuring vulnerable populations can participate in the community and economy, and that digital equity is built into all sf.gov services. IT is retiring 15 databases that track homeless housing and replacing them with a single system that will help the health department, nonprofits and other partners to better serve the unhoused population. For children needing assistance with distance learning, IT worked with the school district to test connectivity, set up more than 2,000 devices for students, and integrate systems to shore up cybersecurity.
In 2020, Mayor London Breed cited cybersecurity as a top priority, recognizing that being a high-profile city makes it especially vulnerable to attacks. San Francisco trains its cybersecurity and emergency staff together to improve resilience and has established a cyber risk team as well as a cybersecurity identity management team, and cyber training participation has increased more than threefold over the last year.
4th Charlotte, N.C.
Fourth place Charlotte, N.C., has done some impressive work on governance recently, topped off by the passage of a comprehensive Data Governance Policy earlier this year. Recognizing data’s value as an organizational resource, the policy gives structure to data governance and establishes clear definitions and guidelines for its use. And city officials clearly demonstrate that their analytics capabilities support many important programs, including planning and public safety initiatives.
The newly established Access Charlotte program takes aim at the city’s digital divide, which was underscored by the pandemic. With more than $3 million in funds from the CARES Act, a cross-departmental team took on digital equity and inclusion. They significantly expanded public Wi-Fi, provided laptops and other equipment to citizens and community programs, and participated in a Digital Navigators program to help connect homes with affordable Internet and teach the skills needed to take advantage of it.
CARES Act support amounted to nearly $13 million for technology in Charlotte, and IT staff made quick work of leveraging those funds. Among other new investments were improved Wi-Fi and soft phones for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center, VPN upgrades, new professional development opportunities for staff, and new or enhanced video and teleconferencing equipment across city buildings. Charlotte was also able to unite applications from many agencies into a single video management platform. And in another interesting collaboration, the city pioneered multi-provider 5G infrastructure on Tryon Street, featuring small cells from multiple cellular companies on the same pole, a rare practice facilitated by the city’s Department of Transportation to improve coverage while minimizing the impact to the aesthetics of the area.
5th Mesa, Ariz.
For the city of Mesa, holding fifth place again this year, many of the biggest citizen-facing projects in recent months have been mutually beneficial for citizens and staff — cases of internal operational changes improving public programs, or vice versa. When the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) partnered with other city departments to distribute federal CARES Act and rental assistance funds, it used software to carefully track the status of applications and reallocate resources to speed up the approval process, ultimately distributing $14 million in aid. DoIT used a low-code approach in building the technology environment for those programs, reducing the cost of operating them, and the city published data and stories on its website to explain to the public what was happening with the money. DoIT also created a data standard for addresses on city forms so that different applications could read them the same way, making them more accurate and sharable between departments.
In downtown and various public spaces, the city is expanding Wi-Fi and started working with Mesa Public Schools to put private LTE networks where school districts have identified the most need, based on surveys and data from hot spot lending programs. Anticipating a new college campus downtown in 2022, the city completed a pilot project to use security cameras, an IoT network and a machine learning system to manage spaces in parking lots and garages. For digital traffic, the city updated its customer information system and saw an improvement in customer service and feedback. To accommodate that traffic as well as the needs of remote workers, DoIT completed a re-architecture of its Virtual Desktop Infrastructure platform that wound up reducing administrative overhead by over 95 percent.
Cybersecurity being another priority, the city migrated from basic to modern authorization to secure its mobile email system, implemented a cloud asset security broker tool for cloud security, trained IT staff on real-time cyber threats, did tabletop exercises on ransomware and completed cybersecurity training for most city staff.
6th Albuquerque, N.M.
Albuquerque earned its spot on this year’s list for initiatives to build out Internet infrastructure for underserved communities, as well as the implementation of technologies designed to enhance public safety and crime prevention, where the city made much of its most notable progress.
As part of local leaders’ push to create a more tech-integrated government, the city digitized cross-agency information sharing between law enforcement through its Real Time Crime Center, which acts as a central nervous system for communication with officers in the field during investigations, resulting in faster response times. City leaders say they’ve also made significant strides toward implementing “smart infrastructure” for parking, streetlighting, traffic signal prioritization and gunshot detection tools for police, among other creative public safety tech applications.
In April, the city’s Department of Technology and Innovation — which manages technology across city government – launched a cyber safety social media campaign to educate municipal workers and the public about avoiding online identity theft and phishing scams, as well as cyber hygiene and the need to invest in cybersecurity staffing amid a rise in cyber crimes throughout the pandemic. The campaign made use of simple graphics, images and examples of cyber attacks to provide residents with easy-to-understand information about how to avoid digital scams and who to contact for support. The tech literacy campaign came at a perfect time too, as Albuquerque continues constructing new public Wi-Fi networks to connect thousands of low-income families to remote schooling and telework.
7th Phoenix, Ariz.
Phoenix takes an award-winning approach when it comes to data-driven government, taking home the What Works City 2021 Gold Certification for its data work. Among these efforts is its open data portal, which the city is continually working to improve and expand. Visitors to the portal can suggest new data sets to be added, and last fall, Phoenix added the ability to track its COVID-19 relief spending.
But Phoenix’s data governance efforts don’t stop there. In the last year, the IT and police departments worked together to implement an internal dashboard that displays arrests, citations and responses to resistance for officers. This tool allows the department to keep track of officer well-being and accountability, and uses an integrated early warning intervention system to alert superiors if an officer may be at risk to themselves or others. A public-facing dashboard was also developed so that residents can view officer-involved shooting incident data. The city also looked to engage citizens with a new 311 mobile app, myPHX311. As part of the new service, the city partnered with Arizona State University and Amazon Web Services to build a chatbot for the service. The chatbot works with both the mobile and desktop 311 systems, has bilingual options for English and Spanish, and provides voice assistance for visually impaired users.
Last but not least, Phoenix turned to technology to help it respond to the pandemic and make strides in closing the digital divide. Last year it expanded Internet access outside 50 facilities for students to use for virtual learning, creating more than 32 million square feet of additional coverage. The city also launched a 4-square-mile proof-of-concept private LTE network to provide Internet access to .edu resources for students who don’t have it at home. If successful, Phoenix plans to expand this program citywide.
8th Louisville, Ky.
Louisville doubled down on transparency and resident communication this year, as two crises made it essential to foster trust and spread reliable information. The police killing of Breonna Taylor shook resident trust and introduced new cybersecurity threats when alleged Anonymous hackers retaliated against law enforcement and elected officials. The city initiated police reform efforts and launched an online dashboard where the public can track its progress. Officials are mulling publishing data on police use of force and 911 calls as well. The pandemic also prompted the city to create a public-facing COVID-19 resource center dashboard, which updates several times a day with details about vaccination, death and hospitalization rates by demographics, and other information. This has helped chart the spread and severity of the disease as well as identify health equity gaps.
Those aren’t the only areas Derby City is shining a light on, either, and staff released or updated 47 public data sets during 2020. Louisville is now piloting an extract, transform and load data automation and processing system and a data warehouse, two tools that could help it keep a broader swathe of data sets updated more frequently. And as governments compete against the private sector for tech talent, Louisville has turned its focus both inward and outward. Permanent work-from-home options for most of its IT department roles help the city recruit, while efforts to train up existing personnel give the department the best retention rate of all city agencies. City website updates in 2020 and 2021 also kept cybersecurity features fresh and improved mobile display. A deeper site redesign in 2022-2023 will draw on responses from a recently concluded businesses and residents survey.
9th Las Vegas, Nev.
The city of Las Vegas, Nev., is in the process of becoming “Smart Vegas,” a technology-driven city equipped to serve residents in the digital age. This is accomplished through piloting emerging technologies, connecting citizens and preparing a strong defense against cyber attacks. In the past four years, the city has embraced partnerships in order to pilot emerging technology in its Innovation District. Five years into its smart city program, the city has introduced a number of innovative pilots, such as wrong-way driving detection, and the resulting data led the city to implement a mix of solutions that reduced incidents to zero.
Partnerships have also supported the city in the effort for digital equity. For example, a Citizens Band Radio Service network was developed in partnership with the local school district. Another partnership led the city to deploy a 5G-ready private network called Advanced Connectivity for Community and Economic Development. In July 2021, Las Vegas implemented an upgrade to cloud-based wireless infrastructure.
An important aspect of equipping a city for the needs of the digital age is a strong cyber defense, especially after its network was compromised in 2020. The city has approached this goal with a 2021 citywide implementation of multi-factor authentication. In addition, the city’s security team has participated in a monthly local government cybersecurity discussion group throughout 2020 and 2021.
10th El Paso, Texas
In El Paso, Texas, increasing responsiveness to crises among citizens and businesses, along with improving access to services and increasing department, state and county collaboration, was at the top of the city’s to-do list, landing it at No. 10 in this year’s 500,000 or more population category. From a government perspective, the city focused on facilitating a work-from-home model for its 6,000 government employees starting in March 2020. To do this, efforts such as expediting laptop shipments and setting up secure web portals for employees to access internal applications were implemented, along with sharing the latest COVID-19 information in real-time across the city’s channels in both English and Spanish. El Paso also implemented a new agenda management system to assist with virtual city council and board commission meetings, an online option to chat with a clerk and an online hearing request feature.
Other IT initiatives included adding a new CISO to oversee the city’s IT efforts, requiring mandatory yearly cybersecurity training for all city employees and restructuring its information technology department. As part of the restructuring, the IT director will now serve as the managing director for internal services and oversee the IT department, information security assurance, the performance office and human resources. A new division was also created within IT, along with two sub-divisions: the user design, development and adoption program, and the data management program.