Learning from a Small, Smart City

Aurora, Ill., began rolling out smart technologies two years ago and has lessons to show for it.
by Christina Lieffring, The Journal Times | September 18, 2019 AT 3:10 AM

 (TNS) - Racine may be one of the smallest cities to seriously pursue Smart City technologies, but it’s not the first — not in the Midwest and not even in the Great Lakes region.

Aurora, Illinois, a western Chicago suburb less than two hours’ drive from Racine, has been researching and rolling out smart technologies for about two years. In that time, the city hit several milestones laid out in a technology strategic plan for 2018-19 which analyzed in detail where the city was, where it wanted to go and how it wanted to get there.

In 2018, Aurora was one of the finalists in the 2018 Smart Cities Readiness Challenge, which the City of Racine won in 2019.

Aurora Mayor Richard C. Irvin and Chief Informational Officer Michael Pegues attended Racine’s Smart Cities Convention and spoke on several panels about lessons the city has learned along the way, laying out potential payoffs and pitfalls in the transition to a 21st Century city.

The digital age

Irvin likes to point out that Aurora was nicknamed the City of Lights because it was one of the first to install public electric streetlights. He now jokes he wants to change the nickname to the City of Lightspeed.

“It’s the same as going from the horse and buggy to motorized vehicles,” said Irvin. “Now we’re transitioning into the digital age.”

With about 200,000 residents, Aurora is a much larger city than Racine. While that means it has more resources, it also has more expenses, which puts constraints on its ability to invest in technology.

Irvin said one of the keys to getting the support of the general public to invest in smart technology is to explain, in plain language, how the investment will improve quality of life.

“We have to justify that before we start spending the money,” said Irvin.

Before rolling out anything new, the city had to assess where it was and upgrade its systems. The city’s information technology systems were split between City Hall, the police department and other city departments so first step was to consolidate them under one IT department.

Pegues said some of the subsequent upgrades, like to the police and fire dispatch and record management systems, were long overdue. But his team also started looking at other ways to update other systems through automation and cloud-based technologies.

For example, they started using a web-based platform that used automation to manage and track public information requests. They also switched over to a cloud-based system for handling all financial transactions from utility bills to contractor payments.

The city also created several new IT positions, including a chief information security officer and a data analytics director, which opens up options for collecting data, analyzing it to improve services and, most importantly, keep them safe.

Big Data

Another municipality that has been digging into big data is Racine County. During a panel on how large data sets can be used, Travis Richardson, the program manager for Workforce Solutions, talked about how it’s important to have everyone on the same page. Richardson stressed the importance of having everyone know what information you’re looking at, how its being processed and how it’s going to inform what the organization does.

“You want your data person to understand the work in your organization, and you want the people in your organization to understand the data,” said Richardson.

Pegues emphasized the importance of knowing the details when dealing with data: What is the goal? What are the metrics to measure success? And what is the process, broken down step by step?

“People talk about the technology but you’ve got to look at the policies, your procedures,” said Pegues. “The tech will come after.”

When partnering with another entity, Pegues said, it’s especially to examine the Right to Use terms in the agreement, which should spell out what data the other body has access to and how they can use it. Also, Pegues said, if the partner entity is able to monetize that data, the municipality should receive some of that.

But partnerships can also be a two-way street, granting municipalities access to information they wouldn’t otherwise have. Sarah Schrader, an account manager at Esri, a geography information system software, gave the example of drugstore chains informing municipalities whenever sales of flu medications spike to give health departments a heads-up that an epidemic could be underway.

Ongoing innovations

Aurora continues to invest in smart technologies in the hope of becoming a tech hub in the region.

Last July, the city designated an innovation district, called 605 Innovation, through a partnership with Smart City Capital, a private equity firm, which it is marketing as a hub for tech companies to set up shop.

Just this last week the city installed eight kiosks around town which provide information on transportation, events and local businesses, a move which the City of Racine announced on Wednesday that it is considering.

Aurora is also piloting an open data platform where anyone can see data sets pertaining to different departments’ goals and key performance indicators.

“It promotes open government and transparency,” said Pegues.

While smart technologies can involve investments up front, Aurora saw some financial benefits fairly early on. By the end of 2017 alone, the city had saved $2.3 million by renegotiating contracts and other changes.

“It is an investment in our future,” said Irvin.

©2019 The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.