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Virginia Beach CIO Peter Wallace on Tech and Crisis Response

Chief information officer Peter Wallace, who oversees central IT for Virginia Beach, Va., discusses responding to crises, working toward digital equity and the benefits of data sharing.

virginia beach fishing pier.jpg
Shutterstock/Jay Yuan
As CIO for Virginia Beach, Va., Peter Wallace has spent the past four years leading the coastal city’s central IT shop. The city’s tech and innovation work in that time has been diverse and wide-ranging, from a predictive analytics and data sharing partnership built around managing seasonal flooding to responding to a pair of unprecedented crises in as many years. GT recently spoke with Wallace about crisis response, lessons learned and what’s next for the department.

1. What have some of the major projects around the pandemic been for your office?

Virginia Beach CIO Peter Wallace
The pandemic itself has been eye-opening, and I think it’s been a catalyst for government in this country in terms of transformation. In this instance, because there was no other choice, government had to change quickly. For us, we had to start supporting a 6,000-user remote workforce overnight, and we did. We expanded our capacity with our Internet provider. The second thing we did was build a new VPN so it would be seamless and very secure. [As of April 2021], we still have about half our workforce working remotely. 

2. What lessons or programs will extend past the pandemic?

One of the main lessons we learned is that you have to be agile. We always have that mindset in IT, but I think the organization has now come to know how much they depend on IT. It goes back before the pandemic. In 2019, we had a shooting in a municipal building. We had to move 400 people out of the building within a week, find them spaces and get them back to work.

It’s been a crazy two years. We were approaching the first year of the anniversary of that shooting when the pandemic came and we had to shut down again. What we have learned in IT is to be very agile, to be ready for what’s next and to be aware that people’s psyches are very fragile. You have to be mindful and take a new leadership approach. Make sure that you put humanity first. When you get disrupted at your job for a shooting, your whole life is disrupted. What we have to do is make sure that people have the tools that they need to cope and also to do their work. 

It’s about leadership and about leading with compassion. That’s what’s required in these times of uncertainty, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.

3. How has your office been able to work on digital equity and digital inclusion?

In Virginia Beach, we have a program that gives students a Chromebook, both to work on when they’re in school and to take home to use the Internet. We realized that some of the students in underserved areas don’t have sufficient broadband, so this program doesn’t help them. They still can’t get online. We’ve started looking at how we can partner with our school system to find out where the most underserved areas are and work to provide Internet services. 

4. How has your traffic data sharing partnership evolved, and what’s ahead?

That’s been a very good partnership. We now have a joint partnership with Norfolk, Va.; Miami-Dade County, Fla.; and other coastal cities around how we can use our data to predict flooding. We’re working with our traffic department to not allow building on certain sites, knowing that if there is rain, several inches, that area will flood. We also want to make sure that in those situations, they know where to put up signs to close roads and keep people off of flooded streets. That’s the type of proactive work that this partnership has taken on.
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.