Apr 19 2022

Smart City Leaders Work to Break Down Data Silos to Improve Services

Sharing data across city government is as much about shifting the culture within departments as it is about technology.

Cities collect mountains of data, but only in the past six or seven years have they been able to leverage that data to make decisions and better serve their communities. According to a June 2021 report by What Works Cities and the Monitor Institute by Deloitte, the percentage of cities with platforms to share data with residents more than tripled, from 18 percent to 67 percent since 2015.

Tyler Svitak, executive director of the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, has witnessed this progress firsthand, working with 27 different jurisdictions in his state.

“Most of the cities we work with are interested in improving,” he says. “They recognize there’s power in data, and they’re trying to clean it, share it and really gain information from it.”

However, the road to data shareability can be challenging.

“A lot of systems collecting data are proprietary, so it’s difficult to share it with peers or with the public,” Svitak says. “Often, the data aren’t clean or usable, and the local governments don’t have the staff or expertise to catalog it or create systems to unite it.”

And, as most city CIOs have experienced, changing the mindset of the city governments is typically more difficult than employing new technology. Often, innovation leaders need to focus on breaking down cultures of data fiefdoms.

“Organizational change is more important than technology,” Svitak says. “It’s important to prioritize what the data will be used for and what people and systems are in place to use that data.”

Detroit and Fort Collins, Colo., are two cities that have recently earned What Works Cities Certifications, awarded to local governments that have shown an “exceptional use of data to inform policy and funding decisions, improve services, create operational efficiencies and engage residents.” Here’s what those cities are doing now.

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Detroit Shares Data Between City Departments to Improve Services

Detroit CIO Art Thompson has spearheaded a number of data-driven projects that span city departments despite the common silos of data that naturally reside in local governments. To promote change, he communicates with stakeholders at various levels in the organization.

“I’m here to guide people toward solutions,” Thompson says. “My team and I are dedicated to understanding operational challenges in the various departments so we can help make things easier and get buy-in from the bottom up. We also have a mayor that is very data-driven, so a lot of the initiative to change comes from the top down. When we all have the same end goals, it helps break down those silos.”

Some of the projects Detroit has accomplished include:

  • Community Health Corps, which identifies vulnerable city residents using data points from various departments, such as analyzing Water and Sewage Department data to discover residents who struggle to pay their water bills. These residents are then offered support services they may not know about or have access to.
  • Sharing data from 911 calls with the mental health department. Social workers can now track how incidents with a mental health component are treated and how they can be improved.
  • An open data portal is available to residents as well as nonprofits and research institutions.
  • Improve Detroit, a mobile app that enables residents to report a wide variety of issues, from flooding to damaged street signs. In 2021, the Improve Detroit program resolved more than 100,000 requests.

Thompson says the city government is working in a hybrid environment using Microsoft’s Azure cloud, but most of their data is housed on-premises.

“As we keep growing, we continue to use more cloud infrastructure,” he says.

Thompson also has discovered the power of data visualization, such as charts, graphs and heat maps.

“One trend that I see as CIO is that when you put data in front of people in a visualized format, like from Tableau, for example, people generate new ideas,” he says. “They are coming up with ways to operationalize data.”

RELATED: Cities can now measure how “smart” they actually are.

Fort Collins Uses Tech to Improve the Customer Experience for Citizens 

Kevin Wilkins, CIO of the city of Fort Collins, Colo., started his position just a few weeks before coronavirus pandemic lockdowns began in early 2020. The former corporate IT executive was thrown into the deep end and survived.

“I didn’t have the time to start with a typical onboarding or a strategy,” he says. “Right away, I had to mobilize teams and create an infrastructure to serve our customers. Teams in different areas had to take a leap, from a technology literacy perspective.”

Now that Wilkins has had time to settle into his position, he’s been able to help his colleagues reimagine how the city can deliver products and services equitably and efficiently in a digital age. He prefers to call residents or constituents “customers” because it puts staff members into a different mindset.

“The service areas were all trying to maintain their own spaces, and I wanted to find a way for them to look beyond that,” he says. “Talking about the customer experience is a good way to start a conversation. When we look at how we perform from a customer journey perspective and not a service-area perspective, we get more of a common viewpoint of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

One of Wilkins’s tactics has been to standardize technology tools. In addition to a Microsoft 365 subscription for all employees, Fort Collins uses Azure cloud services as well as SharePoint and Power BI for data analytics and visualizations.

LEARN MORE: Philadelphia launched a smart streetlight pilot to collect data in real time.

“We had a challenge with application sprawl,” says Wilkins. “Now we’re moving away from customized applications to best-in-class, industry-standard cloud offerings. It gives us a high degree of security and also allows us to move faster with innovation. Simplicity and standardization are key.”

For example, the various emergency management departments, such as fire and police, now have the same mobile workstations in each vehicle, allowing them to share data. The city also uses Cisco and Wi-Fi partners such as Connexion, AT&T and Verizon to coordinate Internet of Things devices, many of which are buried underground to monitor utilities, including electric, telephone and water.

To increase efficiency and interoperability, the city is working with Colorado State University to test new solutions, such as a GPS-powered sensor that sits behind a bumper on snowplows. The device measures humidity and precipitation and while offering a real-time view of the environment. The data enables the city to plan more intelligent snow routes, and in the future will be shared with emergency response teams to better respond to incidents.

To push forward, Wilkins takes a personal approach to change management, conducting roadshows with all service areas, building trust and empowering individuals to pursue creative solutions.

“Some of what I’m saying is new, provocative and even scary,” he says. “But I very rarely talk about technology. I talk about analytics, business processes and deliverables, but technology is just a tool in a toolbox. My goal is to mobilize people to become more innovative and receptive to change to provide profound, long-term benefits for our community.”

RELATED: How will the evolution of infrastructure impact smart cities?

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