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The Smartest Cities Leave No One Behind

By Jane Nickles, CIO, City of Greensboro

Jane Nickles, CIO, City of Greensboro

I grew up in Greensboro, and I’ve watched it grow. Now, as the City of Greensboro’s CIO, I get to help it make the transition into the smart city it needs to become to secure the future for its 285,000 residents.

I believe being a smart city is not just about using technology to make our municipal government run more efficiently and cost-effectively. It’s about using our assets to support the community, both residents and entrepreneurs alike. It’s about CIOs becoming advocates and helping our city to evolve.

"Our IT department stepped outside its traditional internal support role and into the role of advocates for our community"

And as we go forward, it’s about Greensboro Information Technology being a strategic partner in advancing Greensboro— and making sure we leave no one behind.

Greensboro is a former textile hub that is still figuring out what it wants to be next. We’re the headquarters of major companies like Honda Aircraft, Volvo Trucks, and Qorvo, and leaders are working to lure more high-tech manufacturing jobs. We’re a bustling university town, boasting more college students per capita than Boston from two state universities and three private colleges. Our residents are better educated than state and national averages.

We’re growing at a steady, manageable pace. We’ve doubled in land size and added more than 130,000 new residents since 1980. As City government leaders, my fellow department directors and I are doing our part to make sure we have what we need for that good growth. We have adopted mobile technologies such as bus-tracking and parking payment apps that make it easier for people to commute and park. We’ve explored creating smart corridors, where infrastructure communicates with vehicles and sensors collect data that can improve safety and comfort for pedestrians, cyclists, seniors and people who are disabled.

We’ve got so many advantages that make this city a great place to call home. And yet, three years ago when Internet Service Providers started announcing plans to expand high-speed service in North Carolina, Greensboro didn’t make the cut. I began to call around to CIOs from our neighboring communities and educational institutions. They were as concerned as I was. We understood how critically important this kind of fiber network can be. Five years ago, Greensboro began an effort to lay some 150 miles of fiber optic cable to connect that city’s extensive, 500-signal traffic system. Simultaneously, we put down 29 additional miles to ensure that all 93 city facilities were connected to our network and added 54 video cameras to critical intersections. It was a needed upgrade that made our system more reliable, resilient, and easier to control and monitor remotely.

There are endless uses for this type of infrastructure. Our neighboring communities of High Point and Burlington, UNC-Greensboro and NC A&T universities, and Guilford County all make use of fiber networks. It’s as essential to our future as water pipes and roads. Without it, we knew that our region, our residents and industries, would be left behind— especially those areas at the biggest economic disadvantage. From this need, we launched the Tri-Gig High Speed Broadband Initiative. Our IT department stepped outside its traditional internal support role and into the role of advocates for our community. Under the Piedmont Triad Regional Council partnership, we sought an Internet Service Provider to lease our dark fiber and provide one-gigabit service to underserved portions of our community.

It’s been a complicated process, as most private-public partnerships are. We’ve had to manage a multi-agency partnership and learn how to engage the private sector in a new and creative way. We are now partnering with North State Communications on our pilot project, which will provide services to a local nonprofit agency that serves families in need. Future phases will focus on filling in the gaps that limit access for all our residents and business.

We’re also busy thinking about what comes next. Late last year, my IT department launched an open data portal that provides free and easy access to a wide range of City datasets, including reports from our housing, inspections, police, and fire departments. The portal is already being regularly used to provide a quick response to residents’ requests for public documents. Now, we’re working to add more City datasets to the portal and expand our outreach efforts to ensure people know what is available and how to use the portal. We envision university researchers or app builders making use of the data in many different ways that could further improve our city.

We’re also considering what it takes to make that smart corridor happen along Gate City Boulevard, a grand entrance into our city and an important thoroughfare for tourism. We participated in the Envision America 2017 workshop, spending three days of intense collaboration with academic and industry experts to evaluate options like adding sensors that provide up-to-the-minute traffic information or creating an app-based bike share program.

We’re still in the early stages of these three projects. But we are confident this is what we have to do to ensure our economic future, to retain top talent, and be a progressive and innovative city.

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