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Smart City Lessons from 4 Southern California CIOs

Chief information officers from four Southern California communities offered their experiences rolling out smart city efforts. While some offered an optimistic view, others tempered their comments with caution.

Chief information officers from four cities discussed their approaches to smart city technology during the Laserfiche Empower conference Feb, 13 in Long Beach, Calif. From left: Joseph Cevetello, CIO of Santa Monica, Calif.; Kevin Gray, CIO of Burbank, Ca
Chief information officers from four cities discussed their approaches to smart city technology during the Laserfiche Empower conference Feb, 13 in Long Beach, Calif. From left: Joseph Cevetello, CIO of Santa Monica, Calif.; Kevin Gray, CIO of Burbank, Calif.; Lea Erikson, CIO of Long Beach, Calif.; and Phillip Leclair, CIO of Pasadena, Calif.
eRepublic/Eyragon Eidam
LONG BEACH, Calif. — The term “smart city” means different things to different technologists. For some, it’s a quest for maximum efficiency, while others see the pursuit as an opportunity to evolve infrastructure and IT in one leap. 

Whatever tack they choose to take, Southern California CIOs offered lessons from their own experiences during the Laserfiche Empower conference Feb. 13 in Long Beach.

Some warned of the dangers of jumping into technology for the sake of a shiny new toy in search of a problem — see the example of Pasadena’s failed Big Belly smart trash can experiment below — but the call for thoughtful community engagement and privacy protections were universally accepted by panelists.

The Smart City: A Fool’s  Errand? 

For his part, Burbank CIO Kevin Gray took a realist’s approach to smart city tech, calling for solutions that actually solve an existing business problem. 

“I’ve never been a big fan of the concept of ‘build it and they will come,’ you build it because the technology is available,” he said. “Now that doesn’t mean you don’t try new things, you don’t innovate. What it means is, I believe it’s a fool’s errand to make huge investments in technology for technology’s sake as opposed to trying to solve some real community problem, some real business problem."

He pointed to the lack of a parking management system as one such example. As it stands, as long as a car isn’t parked in a city-owned space for more than three days, it goes unticketed. There is no way to tell how many spaces in parking structures are occupied. 

“If [there] is some other business problem that you need to solve, I think the key is to bring light to that business problem so that you can get the support you need to bring the technology solutions to bear to solve it.”

This wisdom was supported by Santa Monica CIO Joseph Cevetello, who said that technology without the right processes and buy-in amount to useless investments. 

The case of Big Belly networked trash cans was his evidence. According to Cevetello, Public Works staff had not used the cans to inform their routes because no one had bothered to make the technology a part of their daily operations. 

“The failure was not the Big Belly technology, it’s that the processes and the organization around using it didn’t change at all,” he explained. 

Long Beach has taken an approach that complements this line of thinking, CIO Lea Eriksen said. The city participates in Startup in Residence events, where specific challenges are coupled with solutions.

“The challenge-based approach is a really great way to look at it,” she said. If a no-cost pilot is successful in meeting the requirements of the city, Eriksen says officials can entertain a contact to implement it on a wider scale.

Putting Resident Privacy First

To address the persistent issue of homelessness in the city, Santa Monica partnered with health-care consultant Akido Labs to develop an app that would connect police, human service and other city departments without compromising the sensitive information of individuals.

Cevetello said the privacy protection component of the Project Connect app took staff roughly a year to develop. 

“On any given day, one person experiencing homeless[ness] might illicit three interactions from the police, two or three interactions from the fire department, and maybe three or four from our human service team and nonprofit providers in the city,” Cevetello said of an early conversation about the project. “The problem is we don’t know that.”

Existing databases were carefully combined to offer a more comprehensive view about the interactions between local government and those in the homeless community. In some cases, case workers have been notified as quickly as a minute after an interaction between their client and city services.

"To me, this is the first really smart thing that we’ve done in the city of Santa Monica. We’re a very connected city, we have many of the same smart city technologies as other cities, but this thing is really smart and it is making a difference,” he said. 

A Seismic Shift in Smart City Thinking

The city of Pasadena is leveraging partnerships in their smart city efforts by allowing researchers with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to use city-owned fiber-optic infrastructure for seismic research, said CIO Phillip Leclair.

The partnership has effectively multiplied the city's existing seismographs inventory from just 14 to the equivalent of 30,000 monitoring devices, a more than 2,000-fold increase.

“Why this is important for Pasadena is … that this is showing intensity of shaking from one end of the city to the other end of the city,” Leclair explained.

The insights into earthquake activity offers a several benefits, but perhaps most importantly those offered to first responders. With real-time access to information about affected areas, public safety personnel can more effectively deploy resources without waiting for reports and 911 calls. 

“To be able to have a shake map right after an event occurs can help our public safety personnel dispatch to the right place to resolve and support whatever recovery effort is needed, versus waiting for phone calls to come in or reports coming from the field.”

The same tool might have application in traffic studies, Leclair explained. During the Rose Parade Jan. 1, researchers were able to examine backups and try to determine the weights of parade floats in motion.

“There is a whole exploding industry about fiber optics that is way beyond the transport of data, so we’re excited about that,” he said.


Lea Eriksen
Eyragon Eidam is the managing editor for Industry Insider — California. He previously served as the daily news editor for Government Technology. He lives in Sacramento, Calif.