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Digital Cities 2021: 75,000-124,999 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 Westminster, Colo.

First-place Westminster, Colo., demonstrates a solid commitment to citizen engagement, especially as the pandemic took hold. Residents rely on Access Westminster, a platform for citizen requests with an intuitive organizational structure offering many paths to information and many routes to issue resolution. Service requests are routed to the right department for response, and requesters can track progress along the way. In another example, to gauge resident views and gather feedback on water infrastructure improvements, the city set up a portal, which helps inform city policy.

WestyRISE is yet another engagement effort, born from a desire to unite the community behind resilience efforts as it faced COVID-19. Focused on economic, government, community and individual resilience, one outgrowth is a resident group focused on data transparency. And these efforts are also being advanced internally. A multidepartment data analytics team has done some foundational work to clearly define the city’s goals around data, leading to budget requests for both 2021 and 2022. Westminster is making great strides visualizing its data using Microsoft Power BI, which is becoming a centerpiece of their efforts.

Westminster similarly demonstrates a commitment to cybersecurity, investing heavily in awareness training and testing, as well as tools to defend against malicious email directed at staff. The work is paying off, with a current phishing failure rate of just over 1 percent. Collaboration and information sharing is another hallmark of its cyber efforts. The city’s CISO participates in many regional groups, often taking a leading role. These efforts have yielded grant funding for a managed security incident and event management project composed of eight area agencies, including Westminster’s, producing timely, high-value security alerts for collective action.

2nd Columbia, Mo.

Rising to second place this year, the city of Columbia, Mo., has been prioritizing cybersecurity. Besides increasing awareness trainings and conducting monthly phishing campaigns, the city created several new positions, including a senior cybersecurity analyst and a physical security technician, who will manage the locks, cameras, wiring and other physical protection of city property. In view of the cyber intruder that threatened a Florida town’s water supply in February, Columbia’s IT is working on a feasibility study of the city’s industrial automation control systems (IACSs) to see what backups and response planning they need. IT staff also used VMware and Veeam to automate the replication of the city’s virtual machines and set up three disaster recovery servers.

Columbia has not just been trying to secure its data, but to make it useful and transparent. The city is implementing an ERP platform and integrating it with disparate systems, aiming to reduce the need for manual data entry and preparing for a future where a single system of record will house all the city’s data for decision-making. IT staff also used the Purdue Model to map the city’s critical utility infrastructure, so internal staff could understand data and network flows to and from the data center.

More visibly to citizens, Columbia finished a new website, a years-long cross-departmental project that halved the number of pages on the site, made it ADA compliant and functional on mobile devices, and includes a strategic plan dashboard for tracking progress of ongoing projects. The city also hired an associate web developer to help maintain the new site. For mobile users, the city consolidated six citizen applications into one portal, MyCOMO, that offers information, notifications, chat, 311 reporting and other services. Columbia is using emerging technology for inventory too, using drones to inspect and photograph power lines, and placing automatic vehicle locator systems in all city vehicles.

3rd Sugar Land, Texas

Sugar Land improved communications both internally with staff and externally in its engagement with the community. Internal communications have been improved through the deployment of platforms like Microsoft Teams, Yammer, Zoom and Slack. The city engages with residents through a range of social media platforms. Residents can also file feedback on city projects via the Online Town Hall, and participate in satisfaction surveys issued every other year. To increase engagement during the 2020 census, Sugar Land created a city dashboard to aggregate the Census Bureau’s self-response data to allow residents to track the city’s overall response rate. The dashboard also tracked areas with low response rates, which aided outreach teams.

Sugar Land hired a new cybersecurity system administrator in November 2020 and then implemented a zero-trust policy using multiple vendors and checkpoints. To keep user experience front of mind in its cyber efforts, the city is currently piloting a passwordless multifactor authentication solution as well as developing a single sign-on strategy.

Another project in 2021 established the Data Collaboration Committee, made up of officials from Planning, Engineering and Public Works, as well as IT and Economic Development. Aimed at better understanding relationships among data and data sets and using the information more effectively, the initiative is part of Sugar Land’s data-as-a-service effort. Power BI from Microsoft is the data analytics tool used for sales tax analysis, 311 reports, permit requests and more.

4th Roanoke, Va.

As part of ongoing efforts to streamline government IT operations amid the rise of telework, Roanoke has established an information technology committee made up of representatives from across city government. The city says the committee improves coordination between departments and the city's Department of Technology as they prepare for the “new normal” of remote work, which leaders expect will outlast COVID-19.

The city earned its place among this year’s winners partly due to an increased focus on strengthening cybersecurity protocols during the onslaught of cyber attacks threatening public-sector teleworkers. To bolster security capabilities, the city retired outdated legacy systems across its departments, like the move it made from Lotus Notes to Office 365.

In terms of citizen engagement, the city has established translation services to better serve its non-English speaking residents, integrating new translation tools for police, firefighters, EMS and emergency phone operators. Additionally, the city’s safety-centric focus resulted in the implementation of new sensor tools designed to keep the public and emergency responders better informed about flooding from the Roanoke River. The technology enables officials to provide updates every six hours on current conditions, and to be better prepared in general for major floods.

5th Avondale, Ariz.

In the last year, Avondale looked to improve the citizen experience with technology. The city implemented a new online portal for residents to pay their water bills that streamlined the signup process and integrated with the city’s enterprise resource planning system. Residents can now avoid in-person trips to City Hall and pay their bill with just one click. Avondale also moved to make things easier for residents with a new 311 system. Called AviWise, the system is available on the web or as a mobile application. Citizens can use it to report issues or ask questions, and the system will make sure the request and all pertinent information are automatically routed to the correct department. It works so well, in fact, that the City Council also uses it to track internal requests.

Avondale also looked to improve the lives of its citizens by making efforts to close the digital divide. Together with the public libraries and the Neighborhood and Family Services and Parks and Recreation departments, the IT Department made Chromebooks and mobile Wi-Fi hot spots available to residents. The libraries have a total of 22 Chromebook kits and 25 hot spot kits that residents can check out for up to three months at a time, so students have enough time to complete semesters online and job applicants can sit for virtual interviews.

Public safety was another area of focus for Avondale’s technology efforts in the last year. Every member of the city police force now has a department-issued cellphone on the FirstNet network. The city has found that this initiative saved money while increasing efficiency and availability for responding to calls, as well as ensuring the security of the city’s and officers’ personal information. The police department also recently acquired three drones, which have been helpful in searching for suspects and monitoring illegal firework activity.

5th Lynchburg, Va.

Lynchburg named cybersecurity as one of its top goals and set its sights on ensuring critical services remain operational for 99.95 percent of the year. That push led the city to enhance its abilities to maintain backups and use them to recover from system outages. In late 2020, Lynchburg took up a new approach to checking the quality of its virtual machine backups that replaced manual checks with an automated routine developed by in-house staff. Other automation efforts include the adoption of a VMware high-availability tool so that if one of the four servers in its main production environment goes down, the virtual machines running on it will automatically restart on a different server. This move better equips the city to minimize downtime for mission-critical work.

Lynchburg also convenes meetings with stakeholders every other week to identify and discuss specific cybersecurity goals, priorities and deadlines. This improved communication has sometimes allowed policies to be made and implemented within weeks — rather than months — and trimmed incident mitigation and remediation time down from hours or days to just minutes.

The city also got creative to reach residents and support staff. It deployed three payment kiosks throughout Lynchburg where residents can look up and pay utilities, real estate taxes and other city bills, using cash, checks or credit cards.

New apps for personnel also let city staff more efficiently manage collection of brush and bulk trash, a service that saw greater demand once more people began working from home. Another app, meanwhile, let city assessors digitally enter property information into the city’s system while out in the field. That spared assessors from having to make notes manually from the field, then later entering them into computers when back at the office.

6th Independence, Mo.

The city of Independence, Mo., has undergone significant IT changes and upgrades in recent years that have helped position it well to protect and serve constituents. Following a significant portion of IT staff retiring several years ago, including the IT director, a lot of processes were reassessed, and the city had the opportunity to restructure IT. A major component of that was the 2017 adoption of “Independence for All,” a strategic plan to address the city’s implementation of technology.

Security is a critical part of the city’s IT modernization approach. Independence approved a $1.5 million, seven-year strategic cybersecurity plan that will be monitored by the City Council through quarterly progress updates. As the city began implementing new cybersecurity tools in December 2020, a ransomware attack hit. Because of the tools and procedures in place, the city was able to recover quickly. Additionally, the city’s IT leadership established two different IT governance subcommittees this year: a cybersecurity committee and a GIS committee. The cybersecurity committee’s efforts have helped secure funding to hire a cybersecurity specialist, who offered policy recommendations and guidance for things like file sharing among employees.

7th Allen, Texas

In Allen, Texas, technology is at the forefront of the city’s efforts to improve operations and services for residents. For example, police officers use drones in numerous efforts, like identifying suspects that have fled from a crime scene. Tech was also a key enabler of city employees moving to a remote work environment in response to the pandemic, leading IT to deploy laptops, VPN, smartphones and other remote support tools to monitor and prevent cyber attacks.

The city’s fire department is using robotic process automation to make what could be a tedious, manual process much more efficient: entering vaccine data for thousands of citizens into the state's website. The department also used GIS technology to create local dashboards that helped procure a significant amount of PPE, which was then shared with the city’s police department. These accomplishments were achieved against a challenging backdrop, which included budget cuts of up to 10 percent and putting new IT projects, training and travel on hold.

8th Kirkland, Wash.

Kirkland, Wash., bore the initial brunt of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. nearly a month before other parts of the country. The disruption forced 50 percent of city employees to transition to remote work while at the same time challenging the IT team to make government more accessible to residents online. This largely took the form of online public meetings and online services. Similarly, a digital Main Street platform was created to keep shoppers engaged locally. The city also worked to build a new citizen-facing website between January and December 2020. With its content management system past its useful life cycle, staff and the vendor partner worked virtually to gather resident feedback and complete the new website.

Where data and transparency is concerned, the city has made great strides. Several dashboards are now available to track key performance indicators. Among them are use of force, human services and human resources and school resource officer dashboards.

As with most cities in the U.S., cybersecurity is a top priority for Kirkland. In addition to working with a third-party cybersecurity assessment vendor, the IT department has dedicated two full-time employees to its security program.

9th Carlsbad, Calif.

Recognizing that increasing connectivity among citizens, the business community and other stakeholders is paramount to its growth, Carlsbad deployed modern technologies to realize its priorities. This past year, the city implemented a security information and event management system to track infrastructure and system use to try to detect abnormal patterns and alert security personnel of potential failure or attack. The city added artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities, as many jurisdictions have done, to help detect cyber threats and ensure business continuity.

Civic engagement is one of Carlsbad’s top priorities, and to that end, the city overhauled its public service request application, Carlsbad @ Your Service. The revamped app enables greater engagement with the public, easier access to city resources, improved analytics and better integration with other city systems. The city also launched a redesigned website that offers quick access to city council agendas and live video of meetings.

10th Pueblo, Colo.

Serving over 113,000 residents, Pueblo secured 10th place in its population category for improving access to services for residents and businesses alike. Over the last few years, Pueblo officials have worked relentlessly to streamline a variety of permitting processes including code enforcement, fire inspections and more. Last year, the city officially implemented OpenGov’s Permitting, Licensing and Code Enforcement system (PLC) which integrates with Pueblo’s GIS data and financial system. The upgrades in these processes have allowed residents and businesses to track the progress of their applications through the citizen service portal. In short, IT leadership’s decision to select OpenGov’s PLC has helped systemize and expedite all city permitting processes.

Fueled in part by the ongoing pandemic, Pueblo also made strides in modernizing the city’s network infrastructure. IT leadership bolstered cybersecurity by training city employees on phishing attacks, conducting internal and external vulnerability assessments and penetration tests, upgrading licensing to EMS to enable geoblocking, and implementing multi-factor authentication for Office365. Pueblo is also currently working on a project with several broadband companies to bring gig Internet to the city.