Cities Undertake Digital Migration

How America's Most Innovative Local Govs are Changing America

Thomas Mullen
November 24, 2015

We generally prefer to keep things nice and light here at the SmartComment blog. Oh sure, we enjoy a high-minded transportation policy discussion now and again. But, really, who doesn't?

So please don't get freaked out if we lay a heavy idea at your feet and immediately take several steps back. Ready? Okay, here it is:

The world is currently being rewritten in code.

(crickets)

Okay, so maybe that didn't exactly blow your mind. Probably already knew that, right? I mean, you saw The Matrix. But the sentence about the rewritten code is still a pretty cool way to illustrate that manual mechanisms are being improved by digital means all around us. And it isn't just some passing trend. Nor is our current innovation revolution a mere glancing blow that will topple certain paper processes, while leaving others to continue click-clacking away for an eternity on the rusty tracks of the past. Oh, no. Humanity is migrating to a new server, folks, and the ones who are going to thrive in the New World have already started packing for the trip.

Now just like any mass migration, not everyone gets on board all at once. After all, some are more invested in The Way Things Are and not so willing to drop everything to make a change. In the digital scenario, this would consist of companies who ignore the fact that their customers seem to be spending a lot of time on this Internet thing, or government agencies that argue in favor of their paper processes because, well, that's how it's always been done.

But there's another camp of first-wave digital adopters who immediately hopped on the innovation train and went along for a ride without sweating the schedule or quickly laid tracks or exact destination – and found incredible levels of success as a result. This group is of course comprised of the expected lineup of hedge funds, Internet startups, and Youtube stars -- but also of the top honorees in the 2015 Digital Cities Survey, recognizing the most tech-savvy local governments in America. What's remarkable about this crop of cities is that they took the digital leap not to get rich, but simply to make their systems more responsive and transparent for the citizens they serve. And you know that's something that we at SmartComment have been preaching for a while now.

So, how did they do it? Read on and see for yourself!

Philadelphia

Philadelphia took top honors as America's No.1 Digital City in 2015 by innovating one of its most fundamental responsibilities: good old public engagement. Touting a new "infrastructure of innovation," the city launched a new website last year featuring a topical list to help citizens quickly find exactly what they're looking for instead of wading through layers of city-facing organizational gook. Philadelphia is also using the latest civic apps to give residents access to property tax calculations, property ownership information and other valuable data. The city also began an Innovation Lab that provides a city-owned space for multi-department technology development -- even collaborating with local high schools and universities to mentor students and increase participation in science- and math- related education. All in all, a truly amazing effort from a city that came to play in the innovation space. Could they stand to invest in some public comment software to bolster their city planning feedback process? Well, sure. But they've gotta hold something back for next year if they want to go back-to-back, right?

Los Angeles

We at SmartComment are proud to say that our very own home base, Los Angeles, finished second in the 2015 digital cities survey. And this was after placing first in 2014, further cementing L.A.'s status as a world-class metro tech-ual (see how we did that?). Bolstered by a burgeoning tech scene and a major digital push by Mayor Eric Garcetti, L.A. has been making waves by using private-sector apps to improve services and cut red tape. It even launched its own app, MyPayLA, so that city employees can view their payroll information on their cell phones. Los Angeles is also using the popular traffic app, Waze, to warn drivers about road closures and traffic problems, and to receive driver information about potholes and other potential hazards. But L.A. isn't just looking for improvements from outside tech companies. The city established a $1 million innovation fund to seed program improvements suggested by city employees, an effort that has spawned more than a dozen projects so far. Garcetti also appointed the city's first Chief Innovation Technology Officer and issued an executive order requiring city departments to gather all the data they collect and share it with the public on websites they can easily access. Which sounds remarkably like our business model in the comment management game, but, hey, more power to you, L.A.!

Louisville

Louisville has ranked as one of America's top Digital Cities for five straight years, landing on this year's list by focusing on enhanced transparency and citizen engagement. Besides revamping its website, Louisville also increased the amount of data it makes available to the public, and started an Office for Performance Improvement to monitor and improve how it operates. "Right now city government is in a period of amazing discovery using technology tools and solutions and data to analyze and solve problems," Mayor Greg Fischer said. Besides exploring a new Google Fiber broadband network, the city has also implemented a new dashboard to help the Department of Corrections manage its jail population, initiated a free citizen technology training program, deployed police body cameras, and improved the infrastructure of the city's computer network.

Kansas City

A World Series trophy isn't the only national honor that Kansas City hauled home this year. It earned its spot as a top Digital City partly by employing one of the nation's most creative attempts to engage citizens through open data. Selecting ten local artists to turn information from its open data site into visual art, the resulting exhibit was viewed by more than 3,000 residents, displaying art centered around data sets ranging from life expectancy by ZIP code to neighborhood safety satisfaction. Kansas City is also participating in a new ConnectHome program, which will offer broadband access, training, digital literacy programs and devices for residents in assisted housing units. And when it came to making its RFP process simpler and more transparent, the city turned to a local startup, RFP365, to implement a new platform that lets buyers track and receive bids from vendors and suppliers online. And we like that kind of thinking. We like that very much.

Phoenix

Marking its second time on the list, the city of Phoenix bolstered its tech bona fides in 2015 largely through efforts to develop technology solutions for processes that were previously handled manually -- from expanded electronic resources for li​brary patrons, to implementing an online procurement system, to web-based payment technology for city court customers. Phoenix also used online public involvement tools – something we at SmartComment particularly applaud – in developing its long-term citywide transportation plan. Rather than writing letters or physically attending public hearings, residents could go online to suggest ideas for new transit services and street infrastructure via a dedicated website. "Thousands of residents interacted with the city through this process, using polls, maps and discussion prompts to directly help and develop the plan," Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said. "Phoenix must continue to be a leader in engaging our residents. When we are able to reach additional stakeholders in the city through new and innovative technology, it will lead to improved services."