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Summit West Takeaways, Recognizing Innovative Leaders and District Spotlight


Welcome to the latest issue of The Districts, where we chronicle the people, issues and activities impacting special districts across the U.S.

News Staff / July 3, 2019

4 Takeaways from the Special Districts Summit West

More than 100 officials representing nearly 60 special districts attended our first Special Districts Summit of 2019. Held in Anaheim, Calif., on May 30, the Special Districts Summit West covered issues ranging from future readiness and effective leadership to data analytics and cybersecurity. In all, more than a dozen speakers and panelists shared insights and advice at the day-long event. Here are some takeaways:

  • The future is arriving faster than ever before: Keynote speaker Christina “C.K.” Kerley said the confluence of mobility, artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) is creating a modern-day Renaissance. Kerley, a futurist and innovation specialist, said the mainstreaming of these technologies is rapidly triggering changes that will impact special district leaders in multiple ways.

  • Crisis generates opportunity: Sandra Bobek’s first day as CIO of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System in 2012 included a hard drive failure in a storage array that caused the district to lose terabytes of important data. Bobek, who spoke on the summit’s information security panel, said she used the crash to drive home the need for IT investment and modernization. The equipment failure became a catalyst for change, leading to server modernization and infrastructure and security upgrades that strengthened the district’s technology foundation, according to Bobek. “That incident opened lots of people’s eyes to technology and the role it plays.”

  • Skills gaps can sometimes be filled internally: Like many special districts, the Orange County (Calif.) Transportation Authority struggles to attract and retain employees, particularly in specialized positions. “Finding the right talent is probably the biggest challenge we have in IT right now,” said Bill Mao, CIO for the authority, during the summit’s data panel. “Cybersecurity and data analytics are two of our most sought-after skills.” To address the analytics gap, the authority has begun upskilling existing employees to use data tools. For instance, one of the authority’s business analysts recently transferred to Mao’s IT team and was trained on data visualization software.

  • Infrastructure replacement requires early planning: When the Irvine Ranch Water District was created in 1961, its founders established an infrastructure replacement fund which customers pay into monthly. That forward-thinking move has paid off numerous times already, said Tony Mossbarger, director of administrative services for the district, which serves 380,000 residential customers in Orange County, Calif. “We’ve used the fund to replace some of the early infrastructure,” Mossbarger said during the summit’s panel on infrastructure modernization. “It puts us in a good position to modernize as needed – without hitting our ratepayers with a big bill.” Besides replacing traditional infrastructure, the district uses the fund to modernize IT systems.

Read more about the summit here.

Recognizing Innovative Leaders and Districts

The West Summit also featured the presentation of Technology Innovation Awards to three special district executives and seven special districts. The awards program recognizes visionary leadership, as well as innovative use of technology for strengthening internal operations and improving citizen services. Meet all of the winners here.

Next Stop: Philadelphia

The live conversation continues June 25 in Philadelphia when we convene the Special Districts Summit Northeast. Join us for a full day of insights and networking – including keynotes from Christina “C.K.” Kerley and former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Hear bright ideas on implementing leadership skills, building your future workforce, using data to drive outcomes and more. You’ll find all the details here. We hope to see you in Philly!

District Spotlight

Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) is the latest public transit organization to create a chief innovation officer position. The move is becoming more common as transit districts seek creative ways to improve customer experience and stem declining ridership. Transit districts want innovation officers to help them revamp existing services to meet evolving citizen expectations and compete with ride-hailing services and other emerging transit options.

DART didn’t comment on the new position, but innovation chiefs at several other transit districts talked about the role and its potential impact.

“This is a new role in transit agencies,” says Kimberly Williams, chief innovation officer for the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Harris County, Texas, which serves the Houston metro region. Houston established its chief innovation officer position in late 2016, making it one of the first in the nation. Williams came into the role about a year later. The transit agency also holds the unique distinction of being one of the few transit providers that saw a ridership increase — admittedly, it was modest — in 2018.

Williams says taking a fresh look at the region’s transit system – particularly, overhauling a number of bus routes -- yielded results. “Houston made a significant investment in responding to what the ridership is asking for,” she says.

Read the full story here.

More Articles Worth a Read

Here are the latest stories from special districts around the country.Share your own news with us for inclusion in the next newsletter.

Syracuse, N.Y., will soon begin phasing out its conventional streetlights for network-connected LED models that will give the city more control over lighting and better data for operations and maintenance. The city says the intelligent lighting project will become the foundation for additional smart city projects.

As transit agencies move away from fossil fuels, they’re weighing whether rechargeable batteries or hydrogen fuel cells are the best clean-power choice for them. The technologies are so new, however, there isn’t an obvious answer yet. Agencies are putting vehicles powered by both options on the road to see how they perform in the real world.

Iowa City is preparing for the arrival of autonomous vehicles. A new report prepared by students in the University of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning looks at how the city could incorporate automated vehicles into its transit offerings and explores other changes coming down the road.

The mass consumerization of technology is triggering big shifts in the role of government CIOs, moving the position out of the back office and into the center of a growing number of relationships. These changes have big implications for special district IT leaders.

GovTech Special Districts Program Report.

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