May 24 2023

What Is a Smart County?

Counties involve large-scale operations and have multiple jurisdictions, presenting unique smart technology use cases.

Smart cities continue to pop up all over the country, as many municipalities implement technologies that make public areas safer, more effective and more efficient. But there’s another element of the smart community movement that’s perhaps lesser known: the smart county.

Smart counties involve large-scale operations and have multiple jurisdictions, presenting unique smart technology challenges and opportunities. Counties play an essential role in managing certain services, including transportation, water systems, public health, law enforcement and infrastructure, which provide opportunities for the use of smart devices.

Click on the banner below to learn about smart city solutions by becoming an Insider.

What Is a Smart County?

Similar to a smart city, a smart county can be defined as a county that uses information and communication technologies to improve the way it operates. Smart counties use Internet of Things deveces to collect data that will help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of services to provide residents with better quality of life.

“I don’t think it’s any different from a smart city, other than the fact that counties offer different services,” says Tyler Svitak, executive director at the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, an organization that works with cities and counties on smart technology solutions. “They generally are larger than cities, so a smart county has different needs.”

National Association of Counties CIO Rita Reynolds says that the word “smart” in the context of a “smart county” points to innovation, emerging technologies and data collection.

“When you think about it, what defines ‘smart’ is the use of technology that’s going to give you new data, and more data, to make informed decisions,” Reynolds says.

Philip R. McChesney, assistant CIO of Broward County, Fla., added that the term “smart” has evolved to encompass more than just technology such as sensors and IoT devices. He looks to the Digital Cities Index, developed by Economist Impact and NEC, which identifies four pillars that also consider a city’s culture, interconnectivity and sustainability.

“Smart cities used to be really tech-focused. Now it’s more customer-centric. The focus has shifted to the citizen with the tech aspect running in the background. When we think about smart counties, we focus on all our citizens and we want to ensure connectivity,” McChesney says. “As long as we facilitate a customer-centric solution, in partnership with municipalities, then we end up with a smart county.”

READ MORE: Smart city strategies must balance progress and privacy.

How Do Smart Counties Differ from Smart Cities?

Counties differ in a number of ways compared with cities when it comes to jurisdictions and services. To add to the complexity, counties differ from state to state. In Colorado, Svitak says, counties offer public health services, so funding for initiatives such as COVID-19 relief or air quality monitoring programs can go through counties because they’re tied to public health entities. Some counties have a more prominent role in supporting local water authorities and waste management centers.

Counties also generally administer elections at the local level, which makes smart device use cases involving election security more important for counties than for cities. Counties work with sheriff's departments, while cities work with police departments.

Philip R. McChesney
At the county level, you have to be more diplomatic, global and unifying in your approach. An effective model has to have a framework and a cooperative network."

Philip R. McChesney Assistant CIO, Broward County, Fla.

Reynolds says that there are generally bigger differences from county to county than there are from city to city. This could make it trickier for counties to determine how to implement smart technologies.

“For counties more so than cities, what’s smart for one county isn’t necessarily smart for another county,” Reynolds says. “That gets to the size and the population of a county.”

Priorities also differ between counties and cities. As a result, the use of smart devices differs as well. For example, Reynolds says, think about putting sensors on roads: In a city, infrastructure is generally set up so sensors are in places with red lights and parking meters to control traffic and monitor congestion.

But with rural areas or counties that aren’t densely populated, those sensors shouldn’t necessarily be tracking the same thing. Instead, counties could put sensors on unpaved roads that monitor the level of dust in the air to help with dust control, for example. Counties also likely would prioritize monitoring highways instead of city roads because the former are owned and operated by counties.

Reynolds suggests streetlight sensors as another example: “You think of street lighting as a big opportunity for smart devices. But for counties, they might just have to manage lighting that they have around a courthouse. In this case, it’s not quite as extensive as what the city has when it comes to streetlights to maintain.”

What Are Common Challenges Specific to Smart Counties?

Challenges vary by county, but there are general challenges that often arise. Scale is one of them, which is something that separates counties and cities. Broward County has 33 municipalities and just under 2 million. Compare that with Jacksonville, the state’s most populous city, which has fewer than a million residents.

As a result, counties must juggle a number of jurisdictions, each with its own set of regulations and restrictions. The scale and potentially sparse nature of counties can also make it easy for data to become siloed. If municipalities don’t communicate with each other, county-level data won’t be cohesive.

“A clear city mandate can affect change very quickly and cohesively,” McChesney says. “In my opinion, at the county level, you have to be more diplomatic, global and unifying in your approach. An effective model has to have a framework and a cooperative network that still affords autonomy of each of those individual cities so that we don’t have county overreach.”

The scale of counties also can make funding projects more difficult, as they must stretch budgets across many municipalities.

DISCOVER: Colorado Springs continues quest to be ‘smartest of smart cities.’

How Can Counties Leverage Smart Technologies?

The same smart technology solutions that work for cities often work for counties. What often differs is the purpose of using particular devices and the kind of data they collect. When it comes to smart devices, Reynolds says counties should implement technologies based on need, not on what’s flashy or cutting-edge. Will it add value in the long run?

“It may make a county smart, but it’s about the county’s needs and priorities,” Reynolds says.

For counties, the right implementation strategy is as important as the specific smart devices they use. County governments benefit from partnering with cities and municipalities to develop smart city initiatives together to make sure they’re on the same page. Reynolds says that county and city leaders should collaborate more often. She recommends that a county’s tech expertise be present throughout the problem-solving process.

“If you want to improve the implementation of a project, make sure that you have your technology support involved from the beginning,” Reynolds says. “They should be there as you’re talking about the problem and determining what you want to accomplish.”

When all parties are communicating, data will be accessible instead of stranded in silos. One example: Svitak says that in Colorado, counties must share data with their cities and the general public. The state has several counties with air quality monitoring programs in which cities deploy their own sensors to collect data. Counties consolidate that data, put it in one database and then share insights with the public.

McChesney says Broward County is developing a data portal that contains all data the county selects, whether it’s dashboards, maps or data sets. Broward County also has something called ePermits One Stop, a project for which the county worked with 25 municipalities to provide a centralized solution for permitting between cities and the county.

Svitak says it’s key that counties facilitate communication and connectivity by providing reliable, high-speed internet access. Investing in broadband network implementation could make county data more accessible.

“Once you have connectivity, there are lots of ways that you can use that to solve county-level problems,” he says.

metamorworks/Getty Images

Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT