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Smart City Work Laid the Foundation for COVID Innovations

During the Smart Cities Connect Conference this week, tech leaders from Ohio and Colorado shared how digital operations morphed and grew during the COVID-19 crisis because of the earlier efforts to build smarter cities.

Boulder, Colorado
Shutterstock/randy andy
Data-sharing, more digitally supported services and increased public meetings participation are some of the unexpected silver linings cities have encountered in the last eight months of the COVID-19 crisis. 

The pandemic upended nearly every aspect of city operations and immediately tasked “smart city” systems — known for their data collection and analysis — with ensuring the city resiliency when faced with unprecedented headwinds. 

In Denver, “priorities shifted, like essentially overnight,” remarked Paul Kresser, chief data officer for the city and county of Denver. The city activated its emergency operations center to lead the pandemic response. Some 80 percent of city workers were sent home to begin working remotely, which presented technology challenges, but went fairly smoothly.

“All that planning led to a very successful transition for our workforce,” said Kresser, speaking during a panel discussion Thursday at the virtual Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo.

The pandemic also forced local government to reassess its digital presence “to see where there are gaps” that might prevent residents from accessing city and county government digitally, said Kresser, adding, IT explored gaps in services that the organization didn’t have an online or digital offering for. 

“We upped the efforts to make sure that we had solutions available online for residents to conduct transactions with us,” said Kresser. These efforts translated into a 45 percent increase in traffic on the city’s website. 

Other cities, like Dublin, Ohio, also saw increased community engagement with public meetings once those events became available through video conferencing platforms.

“When we went online and started interacting with citizens through Zoom or other types of things, we found engagement went way up, because people were encouraged to interact with us in different ways,” said Dublin CIO Doug McCollough. 

“People who are working second shift have an opportunity to pick up a phone and say, 'Yeah, I have a question, and no, I don’t agree with that,'” he added, calling attention to somewhat unexpected consequence of moving public meetings into a digital space. “And again, we didn’t do that because we wanted to improve equity. We did that because we wanted to run a city council meeting.” 

But as a result, more community engagement, and increased equity were both welcome side-effects, he added. 

The pandemic also prompted changes related to touchless interactions and physical distancing, which are also likely here to stay, said McCollough.

"We’re really having a conversation about personal rights now. And as painful and as unproductive as it feels right now, I think we’re gathering a lot of dialog that’s going to help our smart cities in the future really talk about distances between people and personal safety,” he added. 

In Boulder, Colo., the pandemic opened additional opportunities to share data with county and state counterparts, said Bill Skerpan, the city's innovation and analytics manager. 

In many ways, Skerpan explained, the COVID-19 crisis broke down some of the jurisdictional boundaries that surrounded data-sharing and enabled decision-making as a city and within the respective departments.

“Right alongside of that had to be the conversations around how to handle that data properly, how do we put it into platforms that are going to be helpful for our city council, for parks and rec, our police force and fire department, to be able to make the right decisions in real time,” he added. 

“I think everything we’ve been able to establish over the last seven months will move forward in perpetuity in order to make the next challenge that much easier when it does come,” Skerpan added.   


Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.