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Four Areas Driving Connected Communities

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Longstanding shifts in work and education that accelerated dramatically during the pandemic have changed how communities think about connectivity.

Longstanding shifts in work and education that accelerated dramatically during the pandemic have changed how communities think about connectivity. One of the most profound changes for government leaders involves the notion of edgeless government — where constituent services mesh seamlessly into a world of decentralized work, hybrid learning and digital interactions in the other areas of residents’ lives.

However, governments have much work to do to meet constituents’ evolving expectations — a Center for Digital Government (CDG) survey of 150 state and local government leaders in September 2021 showed that 42 percent of respondents didn’t have a road map for connected communities.

Connected communities represent the evolution of more discrete smart city and connectivity projects that began more than a decade ago. In Kansas City, Mo., for example, large-scale efforts launched in 2016 with construction on a streetcar line. The project provided opportunities to add smart sensors to improve traffic circulation and public Wi-Fi access points across more than 50 blocks of the city’s downtown.

Communities became more connected during the pandemic out of necessity, with governments shifting service delivery online as their employees and constituents began learning, working and socializing in digital settings. Now, the focus has shifted toward more coordinated approaches to build on these efforts in sustainable ways to meet evolving constituent and employee expectations about digital services and hybrid work.

Moving Forward

Today, four critical areas are driving governments’ connected community efforts: managing the Internet of Things (IoT), addressing the digital divide, enabling hybrid work environments in and beyond government, and ensuring connected communities remain safe and secure.

Managing the Internet of Things

The pandemic provided new impetus to monitor and control systems remotely. At the same time, the influx of federal stimulus funding has given governments the opportunity to scale up infrastructure-related IoT systems, including ones connected with municipal utilities like water. More than one-third of CDG survey respondents (35 percent) have started using IoT devices, with 20 percent of them integrating these devices into other systems and applications. Smart cameras and sensors for security and cameras for law enforcement represent the top current use cases, followed by location sensors, environmental sensors, and smart streetlights and traffic sensors. The number of use cases involving security and public safety illustrate a key challenge around large-scale IoT deployments. The bandwidth needed to stream video and leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) to trigger security alerts and monitor traffic is taxing existing networks. It’s not surprising that one-third (33 percent) of CDG survey respondents said their jurisdictions are already experiencing network constraints that hinder their ability to use IoT devices. Among the strategies for deploying IoT at scale for connected community efforts:

  • Identify specific needs. Let use cases drive the selection of IoT devices, not the other way around.
  • Address bandwidth needs. Networks need the capacity to support large numbers of connected devices and the data they generate.
  • Simplify device management. As connected devices grow exponentially into the thousands in many localities, it will be critical to have centralized platforms that automate onboarding, managing and collecting information from multiple devices, particularly given most governments’ constrained IT resources.
  • Focus on how you can use data. Governments can benefit from systems that aggregate, analyze and generate visualizations that help leaders make actionable decisions. These kinds of capabilities will be critical for governments to leverage IoT for more sophisticated use cases.
  • Consider security implications. Sophisticated capabilities allow agencies to onboard new smart hardware in a way that establishes them as trusted devices.
  • Consider redundancies and remote locations. It’s important to consider cellular failovers and other technologies to ensure systems aren’t disrupted.
  • Leverage IoT to monitor the heart of the connected community — the network itself.

Addressing the Digital Divide

As millions of people began working and learning from home during the pandemic, the availability of high-speed Internet access became a necessity, not a luxury. Yet the level of at-home access to broadband Internet barely budged during the pandemic. Nearly 60 percent of students and 43 percent of adults in low-income households still lack at-home broadband Internet access, providing an imperative for governments focused on connected community initiatives.

Ongoing disparities in broadband access represent “a market failure,” says Mitchell Gorsen, Cisco public funding advisor. In urban areas, the primary barrier is affordability, while in more rural ones — both rural regions and less populated areas of large counties or municipalities — access to high-speed broadband may not be available at any cost.

Among the strategies for addressing the digital divide:

  • Consider entering a public-private partnership, leasing existing fiber rings or offering RFPs to multiple providers to develop new connectivity.
  • Focus on using existing or rights-of-way or utility infrastructure to connect key institutions such as universities, public schools and hospitals.
  • Research if 5G and other technologies such as microwave radio and fluid mesh networking can be used to supply access to remote areas.
  • Invest in the necessary IT staff. Placing huge demands on small teams will only lead to burnout.
  • Check into funding opportunities regularly.

Preparing for the Future of Work

One thing that’s clear is that hybrid work is here to stay — both in and beyond government. Half of CDG survey respondents said their organizations remain in hybrid work environments, and nearly as many (46 percent) say they anticipate hybrid work continuing over the next 12 to 18 months.

Government leaders will have to address ongoing challenges to ensure these hybrid efforts remain effective. Network connectivity and issues with effective communication and collaboration are the top challenges with hybrid work cited by CDG survey respondents, followed by lack of adequate equipment, security requirements, and outdated hardware and software.

Notably, only 13 percent of respondents said hybrid environments are impacting the quality of services to residents. And the ability to hire employees beyond a jurisdiction’s boundaries for many roles holds potential for governments to improve their own recruiting for hard-to-staff positions.

Among the strategies for building a sustainable infrastructure for hybrid work:

  • Focus on simplicity and find better approaches to enable remote access for employees, including user-friendly ways to onboard and manage devices andaccess virtual private networks (VPN).
  • Catalog the tools you used for remote work and collaboration across departments during the pandemic and determine what’s worth keeping, what you can discard and identify opportunities to consolidate solutions when possible.
  • Don’t neglect in-office needs. The future of hybrid work increasingly involves employees spending at least some time in office settings.
  • Build atop a unified platform. While there likely won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to hybrid work applications, governments still need to avoid a fragmented IT environment.
  • Think beyond government employees. Ensuring the entire community has the bandwidth to enable hybrid work is a critical component of workforce and economic development efforts.

Keeping It All Secure

Securing connected community initiatives is an extension of the ongoing evolution of government IT — from legacy mainframes secured in a data center to a growing array of cloud-based applications and storage providers, as the edge extends to encompass Internet-connected IoT devices and those used by hybrid employees. But the scope of the challenge has continued to grow.

Only 8 percent of CDG survey respondents reported no security challenges with their connected community initiatives. Along with funding issues, respondents said ensuring network security when employees use their own devices, training, finding staff with cybersecurity skill sets, securing remote cloud-based applications and access, and managing endpoints are key challenges.

The growing scope of governments’ IT environments and the threats against them necessitates a broader shift in thinking about cybersecurity, according to CDG Chief Innovation Officer Dustin Haisler.

“People still think things are securable — that’s not a reality,” he says. “It’s about how to manage the impact and protect personal information.”

Among the strategies for ensuring that connected community initiatives remain secure:

  • Focus on a continuous approach to risk mitigation. Technology platforms can enable IT staff to continuously monitor for threats across the network and its endpoints to speed response and recovery.
  • Bring together internal stakeholders. Even within an IT department, different functional roles — security, connectivity, cloud and operations — all have critical roles to play in securing systems and data.
  • Identify the most critical needs and the appropriate solutions. Depending on where a government is in its connected community journey, its leaders may choose to focus first on securing existing infrastructure or expanding connectivity in secure ways.
  • Ensure solutions meet privacy standards and requirements.
  • Focus on training — and simplicity. Most governments have established plans to train employees and periodically test their resistance to phishing attempts, which should continue. However, the simplicity of mobile device management solutions and other procedures can help train users to access hybrid work environments.
  • Recognize that securing communities remains a community-wide effort.

Seizing the Opportunity

Connectivity is essential for governments to address the challenges outlined in this article — managing the growing number of connected devices that inform and support services, addressing the digital divide issues that impact constituents’ lives, ensuring effective work environments in and beyond government, and assuring residents that their personal information and the systems they rely on remain secure. Meeting these needs through the effective deployment of technology can ensure that governments will remain at the center of connected communities for years to come.