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Digital Counties 2021: 150,000 to 249,999 Population Category

In the 19th annual Digital Counties Survey, leading jurisdictions have moved on from immediate emergency response and are now looking at lessons learned, as well as at what work should turn permanent.

1st Cabarrus County, N.C. 

Cabarrus County, N.C., demonstrated a commitment in the last year to the mindset of business process improvement, as opposed to simple technological upgrading and spot fixes. In many places, it seeks to spread enterprise-level software and infrastructure between systems, departments and even jurisdictions in order to help achieve efficiencies. A major example was the creation of a solution to handle emergency rental assistance applications, which tied together a custom chatbot, web forms, and a document management, case management and financial system to help disburse the $6.5 million in rental assistance funding the county received. The solution notified applicants early on if they weren’t eligible and sped up the process for those that were.

The county’s response to the pandemic exemplified much of its philosophy. As Cabarrus County moved to quickly procure and provision 400 laptops for remote workers, it repurposed unused desktops for the library system. A symptom checker — providing the county with a way to proactively identify workers with COVID-like symptoms — brought together personnel and processes in multiple departments. Participation in a state Next-Generation 911 initiative improved the county’s address data in a shared system, allowing for better emergency response routing. Cabarrus also moved forward on core infrastructure, setting up a new security operation center arrangement, new communications technology for public safety and migration of a child welfare system to the cloud.

2nd Arlington County, Va. 

Consistently at the top of its population category, Arlington County continues to serve as a model government. As the pandemic exacerbated inequities caused by lack of access to broadband, Arlington made it clear that digital inclusion would be a top priority. One noteworthy accomplishment is the county’s completion of ConnectArlington, a dedicated high-speed fiber network connecting county and school buildings. Arlington also stood up public Wi-Fi hot spots in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and developed a digital equity plan.

As far as innovative endeavors go, the Arlington IT team partnered with citizens through its IT Advisory Commission to ensure that county-led projects would directly benefit citizens. The partnership has resulted in the creation of citizen-centered projects like the Clarendon Innovation Zone, a testing ground for Internet of Things solutions and public safety tech. Other projects in development inspired by citizen feedback covered issues like 5G, contact tracing and artificial intelligence.

The countywide deployment of Microsoft Teams and quick pivot to a remote working environment during the pandemic made it possible for Arlington to continue its internal operations and provide services to the public. Public health services like COVID-19 vaccine pre-registration and contract tracing were managed electronically.

3rd Columbia County, Ga.

The pandemic spurred Columbia County, Ga., to push for more widespread broadband access. Officials struck a deal with private Internet providers in which the county would share the costs of laying new fibers to incentivize extending access to 185 additional residents located in less-profitable rural areas. The county, which moved up to third place in this year’s survey, also aims to bring more connectivity in remote areas by constructing “Wi-Fi pavilions” in public spaces. Columbia County’s plans also called for bolstering its existing networks’ capacity by replacing switches in April and May 2021 with more robust versions and adding additional switches at each node to improve resilience.

Heightened tensions around elections this year also prompted Columbia County to make its results available on its website sooner and more transparently than in the past. The county debuted a more user-friendly, visuals-heavy elections results dashboard to replace a text-only website, and it made results available to the media on election night itself — a new practice. Columbia County released that dashboard ahead of its January 2021 U.S. Senate runoff election and used takeaways from the experience to refine the platform before a March 2021 local election.

Also in March 2021, Columbia County responded to growing cyber threats by implementing a Security Incident Response Policy it had prepared the prior year. That required educating employees and readying agencies to follow a cyber incident prevention, detection, mitigation and recovery plan. New efforts to formally verify its compliance with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) also may help the county qualify for cybersecurity insurance. Prospective efforts to collaborate with the Georgia Cyber Center and Augusta University on critical infrastructure security could further tighten defenses.

4th Washington County, Ark. 

In Washington County, Ark., security has become a top priority to ensure the safety of the county's information assets, prompting IT leaders to reinforce its cybersecurity measures. The move comes after witnessing the impact of ransomware attacks on local government over the last few years. Because of this, IT leadership met with third-party cybersecurity consultants to discuss mitigation strategies to protect the county from cyber threats. One of the main recommendations was enhancing the county’s multilayered defense system by implementing a cloud-based threat prevention software to defend against cyber attacks. Following the discussion, the county followed the advice and implemented a threat prevention software. In addition to that, IT leaders executed a cybersecurity strategy development process carried out over four phases. Phase one consisted of doing a security assessment. Phase two involved developing a risk analysis matrix to identify immediate areas of concern. Phase three consisted of developing risk mitigation strategies. And phase four involved IT leaders meeting with county leaders to discuss the security assessment, including security risks and recommended countermeasures.

Other strong areas for Washington County include a commitment to making services as accessible to citizens as possible, such as through tabletop exercises to mimic the citizen experience. A new AI-powered chatbot on the county website has reduced the time it takes for citizens to get the information they need from government, and the chatbot’s success is generating new use cases in other areas.

5th Pitt County, N.C. 

Pitt County, N.C., moved up two spots in this year’s survey thanks to a strong alignment of IT services and plans with county leadership’s priorities. With the major increase of residents working and learning from home, the pandemic prompted the county to expand broadband connectivity, in a move to help close the digital divide. In county offices, technology stepped in to help smooth the access to resources and services, such as tablets that were issued to county inspectors, allowing them to accomplish tasks like home inspections remotely. Other investments were made to ensure security and safety of county systems while workers worked remotely. The county began contracting with the Cybersecurity 360 Program, which serves as a virtual chief information security officer, and initiated safety protocols like multifactor authentication, and launched a vendor management program to assess the security of third-party solutions before purchase. A GIS steering committee helps to navigate data governance in the county and includes stakeholders from various departments that own the data, driving program engagement across the enterprise. Plus, an upgraded computer-aided mass appraisal system and public web access portal have helped modernize the tax collections department.

6th Onslow County, N.C.

As they did for other local governments on this list, the demands of remote work and school that accompanied COVID-19 prompted Onslow County, N.C., to invest in infrastructure. The IT department reached out to vendors and entrepreneurs for proposals to expand infrastructure and access to Internet, and conducted a survey to assess citizen access to broadband. The county used CARES Act funds to contract with a third party for cybersecurity services and an AI program that does 24/7 network monitoring, also implementing organizationwide security awareness training and having employees use a phishing simulator. For resiliency, the county upgraded its main data center from a three-tiered architecture to a Nutanix hyperconverged infrastructure, increasing speed and reducing administrative burden, and purchased a new backup platform with extra safeguards against ransomware.

More specifically focused on COVID-19, the county updated its guidelines and security protocols for remote work, and used Facebook live sessions and a website to share COVID-19 statistics, CDC guidelines, vaccine registration and other information with the public. The county’s local health department also used a SQL-based application to automate the import of COVID-19 data from area hospitals, reducing errors and man hours involved. New SD-WAN devices from Cisco helped extend VoIP to areas where employees were working remotely, so they could access the network without a VPN.

It was also a busy year of collaboration for Onslow County, as several departments worked on a system for citizens to phone in for vaccine appointments, and the IT department developed a “Tech Tuesday” program where staff would spend time with one other county department per week to resolve issues and get to know their operations. IT staff worked with other departments to mine and categorize data about their operations, some of which gets presented to the public while other data is used for internal performance metrics. IT also added three new positions, including a GIS analyst. To help minimize the incarceration of people with mental health or addiction issues, the county used a federal grant to buy a cloud-based service, HealthIM, whereby law enforcement officers can look up de-escalation methods, transport options and other information about someone when they make contact, as well as add notes that will be shared with health-care workers.

7th Davidson County, N.C. 

Davidson County, N.C., received seventh place in its population category for efforts to modernize or replace various systems and processes, from telephones to software. Upgrades and replacements help the county achieve its goal of maintaining a low property tax rate. The county is in the midst of many changes to improve the accessibility of government services. For example, the county has replaced its on-premise email server and will soon replace its on-premise telephone system with new solutions that can be accessed from anywhere. The county replaced its data centers in September 2020 to improve resilience in case of a disaster.

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly shaped the way the county delivers service, and one top priority in the last year was a project to replace the 20-year-old public safety software system; the new system is expected to go live in January 2022.

In addition to replacing outdated security systems, IT has led an effort to upgrade the county’s cybersecurity training program in an ongoing effort to improve security. This has reduced phishing-prone activity from 11 to 3.8 percent in eight months. The county was hit by a ransomware attack in 2018, but its new advanced endpoint protection security system has protected county systems from two separate email phishing attacks.

8th Berrien County, Mich. 

The COVID-19 pandemic challenged many a government IT department over the last year, and Berrien County, Mich., was no exception. The Information Systems Department helped the Berrien County Health Department implement technology to respond to the pandemic and roll out vaccinations. Among these solutions was a staffed call center, email notification systems, website improvements and mobile devices. The IT department also partnered with the county health and GIS departments, along with staff from Lakeland Hospital, to develop a public-facing COVID-19 dashboard with real-time information. Plus, when the pandemic struck, county IT was called upon to find ways to use existing systems and implement new features to keep the county courts operating remotely. They created informative videos like the Courthouse COVID-19 Screening Video and the Jury Assembly Video, which were posted on the Trial Court and county websites. Additionally, all Trial Court trials are streamed live on YouTube and can be accessed from the court’s website.

Berrien County also looked to improve its technological infrastructure in the last year, completing a data center refresh to replace aging servers and network storage. The project, started in December 2020 and finished in March 2021, included enhanced disaster recovery capabilities such as redundant network switches and multiple power supplies and network pathways to bypass any single point of failure. The fiber at the primary data center also received an upgrade, going from 1GB multimode to 10GB single mode. Internet connectivity throughout the county also received increased focus, with Berrien forming a Broadband Internet Task Force to survey current broadband availability. Formed in partnership with Merit, the task force hopes that the results of its survey will help the county secure grant funding in the future to improve Internet availability.

9th Charlotte County, Fla. 

Among the priorities for Charlotte County, Fla., is to promote transparency and efficiency through technology, and the jurisdiction boasts three major projects to that end in the last year. The county is prone to hurricanes, and an ongoing goal is to provide accurate damage assessment. FEMA is working on a Risk MAP assessment process that changes requirements for flood insurance, and the county has been out in front of media reports, creating an online mapping app for citizens to understand the risk assessment process. IT staff created a web map comparison application and used a new link-shortening service to use in public materials to easily provide as much information to the public as possible. The county has addressed building a qualified labor force by leveraging online educational methods such as Skype during inspections and for educational purposes, and is using web-based outreach to help residents engage in community activities.

10th Berkeley County, S.C. 

During the pandemic, Berkeley County, S.C., became the first in its state to launch a virtual option for participating in delinquent tax sales, which helped it boost this revenue source. Officials developed ways to deliver real-time bidding updates and accept both online and on-site bids. The effort paid off with a surge of engagement, drawing nearly double the usual participant count.

With a 120 mph tornado in recent memory, Berkeley IT made a major relocation of its physical office and an infrastructure update, building a new, hardened annex with hurricane-proof sections and moving in its 911 dispatch center and emergency operations center (EOC). The county designed the facility with extra power generators, backup network infrastructure and dark fibers that could take up traffic should normal conduits fail. Even bringing the emergency services into the annex was a tricky task, and officials had to prepare backup systems to ensure that they could maintain emergency services uninterrupted while relocating the departments in late February 2021. They also used the rehousing as an opportunity to review the centers’ existing setups for outdated hardware and servers that could be virtualized.

The county also took aim at making on-the-ground emergency operations more efficient, with tech-equipped EMS, fire and police vehicles that can receive assignments via software applications rather than radio — freeing up that channel — and which transmit their location via GPS, allowing 911 dispatchers to deploy units closest to the scene.

Berkeley is now working to move more data to cloud-run servers located offsite to safeguard critical systems and ensure a level of county website information remains available even during a cyber attack that takes down the government network.

10th Union County, N.C.

Union County, N.C., is in the process of some major shifts in IT operations, chiefly a move away from a completely centralized model to what the county is calling “decentralized, centralized hybrid IT.” The idea is to have technology governed from within the county IT department while leveraging skills in each of the county’s 24 agencies. This is notable in the way data governance works in Union County. Ownership of data lives within the individual agencies; central IT’s job is to understand that data, guide policy around it, and make sure it is accessible and secure. Streamlining the procurement process is another area where this move away from centralization is seeing success. So far, IT has worked with Health and Human Services and 911 Services, bringing their departments together to purchase tech during COVID-19, such as for vaccine clinics and scheduling management. Central IT anticipates this sharing of personnel and tech resources will cut costs overall, and further give agencies ownership over their systems, because while IT will govern procurement, agencies can choose their technology. The county hopes to expand this model to include Public Works and the Sheriff’s Office this year.

To shore up resilience, Union County has audited its disaster recovery processes with the understanding that critical IT infrastructure must be monitored and tested regularly, a project the county is working on alongside the Facilities Department. The county is currently developing an “Active-Active” data center that will live in a new 911 center, and building out a third repository for critical data storage. In emerging technology, Union County reports it is the only county in North Carolina to purchase workforce automation services from Blue Prism AI, which it plans to use in its Finance Agency. IT is also looking to move to cloud-based services and is currently evaluating department needs for VoIP phone services.

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