Nov 18 2020

Q&A: Reno’s Rishma Khimji on the City’s Drive to Innovate

The director of IT for Reno explains how the city pivoted to digital services and shares its plans around autonomous vehicles and smart mobility.

Unlike its neighboring city just a 7-hour drive southeast, Reno, Nev., may not have been on everyone’s radar as a smart city to watch. While Las Vegas has spent years cultivating its image as a smart city and testing smart transportation technology, it’s only been in the past two years that Reno has gotten in on the act.

However, there are lots of reasons to watch Reno’s rise as a smart city. Its work with the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) on smart mobility and autonomous vehicle technology is promising. The city also is proving to be an agile and economically diverse city. It pivoted quickly as the coronavirus pandemic took hold to digitize city services, and it still plans to move forward on the smart transportation initiatives that had been underway.

StateTech spoke recently with Rishma Khimji, director of IT for Reno, about the city’s smart city ambitions and how it has remained flexible amid the pandemic.

STATETECH: What are the top smart city priorities that you’ve been working on with other colleagues in the city this year?

Khimji: One of the things we had been working on for a while was digitizing and automating some of the services that we have, where, for example, a customer would have to come into City Hall to pay a bill or to get a business license and things like that. We have been working on strategies to automate or digitize some of those services, making a webpage, being able to pay online, etc., when the pandemic hit. I know every city went through this, but we had to fast-track some of those projects.

What we have discovered is the value of contact with the city employee or city service was sometimes more important than the service itself. What I mean by that is we have to transfer and try to digitize or modernize in-person communications. We already have an inspection app that our building inspectors use to schedule inspections with people who are doing additions to their homes or businesses, or remodels, or even new developments. When the pandemic hit, we had to find substitute services that still allowed the person to have contact. In the interim, we’re allowing inspections to be done through FaceTime so that inspector doesn’t have to go onsite and we can keep up with social distancing and keep those protections in place

What we’re looking for more and more now is how to provide a valuable intermediary to our citizens that they feel is still productive, is still human-to-human contact and still provides the service that they need in the end. We’re trying to make face-to-face virtual face-to-face.

STATETECH: Are there other examples that you can give me of how that’s evolved?

We are doing electronic document review. What that means is that our community development department can now work with developers virtually, where the developers can upload all of their plans for review by the planning reviewers and the building reviewers. It can all be done online now. So, we don’t need that space and that physical space to actually have those conversations.

We were already working toward those goals and we already had some of those products in place, but when the pandemic hit, we had to roll out those products a little bit faster to get them to our citizens. Whereas we might’ve done a soft release of something and given it to a few developers to test out with us, now, we’re just saying, “Here, everybody test it out with us, everybody be involved in this process.”

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out why mayors are prioritizing investments in tech amid the pandemic.

STATETECH: The city has also been involved in intelligent mobility projects. Is that something the city is directly involved in, and can you talk about that?

Khimji: We are working with the University of Nevada, Reno and with the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County, Nev. We are working on developing a testing zone or testing area for the technologies for autonomous vehicles partnered with pedestrian safety. We’re not just looking at what the autonomy technology is like but we’re looking at how it impacts pedestrian safety. Is it better for safety, or are there some pitfalls that we need to be aware of?

Rishma Khimji, Director of IT, Reno, Nev.
We already had some of those products in place, but when the pandemic hit, we had to roll out those products a little bit faster to get them to our citizens.”

Rishma Khimji Director of IT, Reno, Nev.

STATETECH: Is there any timeline, or has that been impacted by the pandemic?

Khimji: [The pandemic] stalled some of our technology rollouts, because staff that was assigned to this project had to be diverted to other, more pressing needs to satisfy citizens’ needs during the pandemic. We are slowly rolling back into it and starting to plan out new phases where we can start accomplishing some goals.

READ MORE: How has Columbus, Ohio, made travel easier with smart mobility projects?

STATETECH: What are the primary needs the city has been addressing this year with its smart city projects?

Khimji: Most of our projects with the departments, where they’re looking to digitize or automate their services, they are being fast-tracked now. What has also been addressed during this pandemic is, as we do have a more remote workforce, we want to ensure we have a better and more robust environment to support that.

What I mean by that is, now we are looking at how do we create a better backup process, because if something were to go down, how do we get that back up faster? That was one of the projects we had slated for next year that we are now doing this year: building a new disaster recovery environment so that we can continue to support this remote work environment, as well as just a regular work environment. We want to feel more secure that our data is more transitory, more available and has a really good backup system in place.

Because what we’ve seen and what the FBI has published and what other cities are seeing is that phishing and ransomware and all of those kinds of instances have increased tenfold.

LEARN MORE: How are smart city leaders tackling the need for digital inclusion?

STATETECH: The pandemic has really thrown the digital divide into starker relief. Can you talk about how Reno has been thinking about that and working to address it?

Khimji: The digital divide has always been a pet project of mine, and it’s something that I’ve always been investigating or monitoring from the sidelines. It’s important that if we’re going to, as a city, digitize services, we have to make sure that there is an end means to the consumer to consume those services. What we are looking at is how we provide either private or a public partnership type of service, in terms of networking throughout the city.

We have been working with agency partners to address those needs because we may not see the digital divide at the city level as much as at the school district level. Because now that students are working remotely, they are seeing which areas in the city have limited resources, whether it’s fiber, co-ax or cellular.

Rishma Khimji
Hopefully we’ll have that living lab area or the roadways that’ll have all the technologies built out and ready for our autonomous bus to start running, so that we can start gathering all the data.”

Rishma Khimji Director of IT, Reno, Nev.

We’re working with those agencies to address some of those by putting in some short-term fixes, such as maybe providing access to Wi-Fi through the city at community centers. We can have students and their parents drive up and attach to the network and be able to do some remote learning that way. We’re also looking at how to work with our private vendors to expand the services they already have. Some of that is long-term planning that we are going to have to start looking at a little bit more in depth.

Now, the city of Reno, we have been fortunate to see that a digital divide may not be as large as it is in other cities. I think that’s really because the growth of the city has been so technically savvy as well. One of the things, and this has been diverting us into a different conversation, but one of the things that I also consider a smart city initiative is economic development.

What we have found over the past few years with our very savvy and entrepreneurial mayor is that she has diversified the type of business platforms that are coming to Reno. We have more technology-based companies coming in — AppleGooglea lot of smaller companies that are very tech savvy. They’re bringing in a demographic of people, such as the millennials and younger, that are looking for these apps and mobile type of services. That is forcing those companies like AT&T and Verizon and Spectrum to build out networks into those high-growth areas of the city. That has really kind of been our saving grace.

One, a recent study just came out that Reno has half of the unemployment rate of Vegas because of our diversified business economy here. Two, it is making our networks that much better as well, because consumers want that service and that demand for service is high. We are able to bridge some of that digital divide through the economic development that has happened in Reno.

STATETECH: What will be a priority as you look ahead to 2021, especially around the intelligent mobility project?

Khimji: We’re starting to roll back into the project. For example, we have a couple miles of roadway where we’re looking to put in technologies, lidar and sensors at the traffic signals, so that we can build this living lab. We need to complete that infrastructure design and the network design. We are partnering with UNR on the networking, so we’re trying to be very savvy when it comes to that and then building out the infrastructure with the lidar sensors.

And on the other side, UNR is working with their engineering staff who have been designated to this project to look at a way to automate a bus. We’re looking at a bus that can then roll through these intersections through lidar and autonomous technology. Long-term is to get us to a point where we have a fleet of buses that are autonomously driven in this living lab area. If we can get those buses to work well, then expand that, because really what we want to do is not just look at the autonomous technology, which is fascinating and there’s a few ways to do it, but also look at what is the social impact of the autonomous vehicle program — pedestrian safety and things like that.

There is this long-term picture that I don’t think we will ever lose sight of because we know that there’s a benefit to UNR and to the city with this project, because it keeps us moving forward in our technologies. It also has a social impact, which we’re also very excited about. We may have these short-term things that need to get completed, but I think even next year and the years after, this project is just going to continue to expand, and it is not something that we’ll ever get out of. We have a really good partnership with UNR and we want this to continue.

In terms of the autonomous vehicle project, hopefully we’ll have that living lab area or the roadways that’ll have all the technologies built out and ready for our autonomous bus to start running, so that we can start gathering all the data.

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