In downtown Mesa stands a voice-activated digital kiosk providing citizens and visitors a safe new way to navigate what is going on in this smart city - from checking rail times to looking at a road map or simply discovering a new restaurant.
The physical presence of a Citypost kiosk in the business district of this Arizona city - population of 500,000 - is just one physical sign of how the City of Mesa government has digitally transformed the 35th largest city in the US into a smart city within the space of only two years.
This year will see the roll out of 20 more kiosks which will connect residents with Mesa City services and local businesses. But this is just the tip of the iceberg of smart innovations which are taking place across the city’s parks, schools, libraries and emergency services.
Driving the digital acceleration is the Mesa City government, who has invested more than $10 million, and is quick to acknowledge a smart city is ‘about people not just tech’.
The first step to becoming a smart city was to involve all of the stakeholders from the top down from the council, mayor, city manager and every single department director at City of Mesa Local Government and was led by chief information officer Travis Cutright.
His aim is to launch smart city initiatives that holistically transformed the City of Mesa.
The city now has free public Wi-Fi downtown, intelligent traffic systems and irrigation systems along with a new program which gives first responders priority access to communication channels.
Cutright’s role at the City of Mesa sees him responsible Chief Information and Innovation Office to transform digital government and enhance the city's position as one of the nation's most digitally connected cities.
“These initiatives, that touch almost every department, have helped launch Mesa forward as a smart city. But that term can be vague. It requires the person or the organisation calling themselves a smart city to apply something to the phrase. Otherwise it's just a buzzword. We looked at that term smart city and we said, how do we want to define that for the city? And those are some of the initiatives that we've applied to it moving forward,” said Cutright.
Some examples of the smart city in action include intelligent irrigation systems - vital to a city located in a valley near the Sonoran Desert - which have been deployed across city parks. Smart traffic systems are also helping to analyse traffic.
But as Cutright points out this has all been done in the most efficient way due to the fact the City of Mesa is the largest city in the US that does not have a primary property tax.
One smart city initiative which highlights this is efficiency is how the City has partnered with schools and restaurants to collect waste and turn it into methane gas. “We pump this natural gas back into our system and fuel our vehicles so you can see how being efficient can save the organisation money while expanding our services,” commented Cutright.
Reflecting on his holistic approach to building a smart city he said: “It’s not a destination but a journey and it continues to evolve and involves all aspects of government.
“We put this plan together by talking to all department heads and put together a citizen workshop of 150 folks from the ages of eight to 80. One of the surprising feedbacks we
we received from them related to transit such as wanting more bike lanes and bus routes so that information was very valuable in our planning,” he said.
What is a smart city?
A smart city is defined as one in which the latest technologies and data-driven insights are leveraged to improve the quality of life, civic engagement, economic development, service delivery and community vibrancy for its citizens, businesses and visitors.
In 2018, the City of Mesa engaged Think Big Partners, LLC to assist in the development of a Smart City Master Plan which included engaging citizens, businesses and the public as they identified the strategies and priorities for building a ‘smarter Mesa’.
The first step taken by the city government was to focus on seven priority pillars within their community. These included; A focus on Downtown (which is now experiencing a renaissance), the environment, government, public safety, transport and community.
“The most important thing for us is engaging with citizens and being transparent when it comes to technology. It's absolutely crucial for them to understand the information that we have. Here's how it's being used. Here's how it's being managed,” said Cutright.
How does a ‘smart Mesa’ differ from other cities?
According to Cutright, the city government operates in a unique format. “We are very hub and spoke as we have digital communication specialists within individual departments who can dictate their individual messages.
“We respect our subject matter experts and we lean on them to come to the table and say, these are the initiatives that matter to our department, but also matter to our citizens. And then we work with them to understand what their priorities are and what messaging we can craft. It’s about not having too many buzzwords, acronyms, government-speak and translating that into something that is more appropriate for their audience.
“Traditionally a government is very siloed but we've worked really hard to knock down those silos and empower departments to come to the table with ideas, because we don't want to be the centralised communication office on the hill dictating what needs to be done. We want individual departments to have a voice because when they do, then they're speaking to the true needs of the citizens.”
Saving lives through technology
One important aspect of a smart city is improving the response time of the police and fire crews. NextGen 911 has been designed to improve upon the systems to take and respond to emergencies with Text to 911 and new ways to get data from mobile users with E911. The new computer-aided design (CAD) system under construction will allow emergency dispatch to use all the data to direct help where it’s needed.
NextGen 911 will enable first responders to have priority to communications channels, in order to streamline their communications across departments across cities. One of the things that law enforcement will have available in the future is the ability to change the colour of street lights when they are en-route to an emergency. It will work in a similar way to a garage door opener as it will be on the dashboard of the patrol car and they click it and the light will change.
One of the ways this will be possible is by using FirstNet which is the first high-speed, nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety.
According to Cutright, the City of Mesa’s Fire and Medical has partnered with the Transportation Department to improve response times by giving emergency services priority at traffic lights - automatically changing the lights to allow quick access. “We have a program that is in place where the GPS of our public safety vehicle interfaces with our traffic controllers to preempt the lights to change colour so they can continue through the intersection safely.”
The city’s digital transformation has been driven by the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT), which provides secure, proven, innovative technologies that enhance operational efficiencies.
The city's technology infrastructure consists of the physical hardware and systems needed to support the city's computing environment and applications, as well as the radio communication and associated electronic systems for the Public Safety Departments and members of the TOPAZ Regional Wireless Cooperative.
A broad range of business applications, software and database systems are used to deliver city services while ensuring a secure environment.
“We are driving digital changes to support our citizens and this requires the use of data analytics and innovation,” said Cutright.
Cloud and Artificial Intelligence
The City of Mesa has a number of digital tools that involve the cloud and Artificial Intelligence (AI) which is being used internally at the government and to help citizens.
“We have just launched our Mesa app which works with Alexa. Citizens can ask about their utility bill or hear about events using this technology,” said Cutright.
“We also use a number of third-party systems to do our own content creation such as Canva, Sprout Social and Adobe creative cloud. There are a number of creative assets that we've deployed across the city where individual departments are trained on this. So instead of having a centralised marketing department where all the creatives are under one roof, we've essentially drawn up the box.
“These enabling tools can be deployed across the city. If someone is working from home because of the pandemic they're able to completely do the job that they need to without having to rely on a centralised system.”
A smarter environment
As Mesa drives its digital transformation, a major focus is on improving the environment and their carbon footprint.
“Technology comes at you fast and you have to be ready to roll with it, and you have to be conscious of the environmental aspects of technology. We're conscious of our digital footprint and the role we need to play supporting our literal ecosystem.
“One of the areas we're focused on is our environmental sustainability programs which includes recycling. It's a huge initiative for the city, we have done various experiments with recycling biomass fuel,” said Cutright.
“We also have smart irrigation controllers in parks. In monsoon season park employees no longer need to travel to every facility to stop the sprinklers. The city saves more than 80 trips every time it rains by managing the watering centrally. The controllers also alarm if a sprinkler head breaks or a leak is detected, saving water and time.”
Power of CGI partnership
Cutright pointed out the importance and value of CGI as a partner to the City of Mesa.
“CGI has been a great partner for us as we leverage them for our financial systems. If you ask the city manager here what the most important thing is besides public safety, he'll tell you it's to make payroll and make sure we’re able to pay our bills - so, that's a critical element here at the City of Mesa.
“We leverage CGI’s advantage software for our financials. We have three utilities here in Mesa, which is also unique for most cities which are gas, electric and water and so all that data feeds into the system, and we're able to bill customers, make payroll and pay bills.
“CGI also has folks available to respond to us - if you have an issue you can always get CGI on the phone and, and work it through with them,” he said.
Cutright pointed out that giving access to citizens to pay utility bills requires a robust set of tools, business applications, software, databases and back end so “security is paramount”.
“One thing we do to protect our citizens is that we do not store their credit card information, PII (Personal Identified Identifiable Information) and we've got a two-factor authentication - so we've got a lot of strategies in place to secure our environment and make sure we're protecting the citizens data.
He pointed out that harnessing the technology provided by Wibbitz - one of their ecosystem partners - is an effective way in helping to create content.
“We've really enjoyed working with Wibbitz. “They are a video creation tool and are able to lock down certain aspects of our brand from the logo, typeface and colour pallet so our department experts can create content. These tools have enabled us to democratise these assets across the city, which is saving me and my team a huge amount of time. Our experts now have the right tools to make that content sing effectively.”
Mesa Cares is a program which has been launched during the pandemic to help citizens with services such as paying rent and assisting small businesses owners. It currently has 4,296 users.
“This has been one of the best ways to reach our audience and make sure they know about these programs, whether we're live streaming the information on social media - like we do with council meetings - or whether we're creating custom content for our website. We have created a digital one-stop-shop for all of the programs that exist to help during the pandemic.
“We have had countless responses from our audience saying, thank you. As a city government we tend to exist in the background but when something happens - that's an opportunity for us to rise to the occasion and to be there for our citizens.”
Other smart city initiatives include:
- Wi-Fi in parks – broadband access in public spaces helps bridge the digital divide, giving all residents access to the internet and allows the city to deploy sensors and controllers.
- Launchpoint is the city’s technology accelerator which provides entrepreneurs and small companies business development assistance, networking and training opportunities.
- Mesa K-Ready helps children and parents prepare for kindergarten. Using a tablet device, educational app and learning activities at city museums, parks and libraries, Mesa K-Ready helps children in our community start kindergarten ready to learn.
- Thinkspot is a mini-makerspaces in all city libraries which allows citizens free or inexpensive access to the tools of creation.
- Shared Active Transportation Vehicle (SATV) - Mesa Moves. The pilot scheme started last year to allow licensed providers of SATV, including bicycles, e-bikes and scooters, to operate in Mesa.
A smarter future
As citizens embrace their smart city, a number of initiatives look set to make life even easier. These include making free wifi available near traffic signals and smart parking.
Seven pillars of a smarter Mesa
- Smart downtown - Create a vibrant downtown thriving with work and play activities for residents and businesses
- Smart environment - Protect the environment and create sustainable options where possible
- Smart infrastructure - modernise essential infrastructure to provide essential city services and preserve a high quality of life in Mesa
- Smart government - Create a responsive, engaged city that makes decisions based on data and understands the needs of its citizens
- Smart public safety - create a safe and secure environment for all citizens
- Smart transportation - Create accessible and safe multi-modal transit options along with creating the ability to move easily throughout Mesa
- Smart community - create an engaged, inclusive and equitable community that can provide a high quality life to all Mesa citizens
Power of curated content at City of Mesa
“An integral part of our success has stemmed from focusing on individual, traceable KPIs. Data is our best friend and we leverage our analytics to understand our audience and curate content that is tailored to them,” said chief information officer Travis Cutright.
“We have an event at the Arizona Museum of Natural History every year called beer and bones which is a craft brewery/paleontology exhibition.
“We were able to work with the museum on this initiative to advertise on Facebook and we targeted people in and around Mesa. We drew a 10-mile radius and targeted people who were 21 and older, men and women who are interested in craft beer and dinosaurs. I mean, it was that specific.
“We spent US$200 and we made US$2,400 from that one advertisement. That was pre-COVID but was something that really was a light bulb moment and a catalyst for a lot of people in the city.
“It's about understanding the audience and realising that whether it's Facebook or Twitter or the website or email marketing, these are just levers. These are levers that we can pull to try to accomplish a goal,” he said.