Blog Post

Using Broadband to Create a Better Kansas City

This post is authored by Kansas City, MO Chief Innovation Officer Ashley Hand as part of our ‘Spotlight City’ series. For more features on Kansas City, check out this video from Mayor Sly James and this case study.

In my two years as the first Chief Innovation Officer for Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO), I have seen many exciting changes – both in the community and City Hall. In many ways, I came along at the perfect moment. When I was appointed in January 2013, Google Fiber had already chosen KCMO and our neighbor Kansas City, Kansas as a border-spanning test for its revolutionary fiber-to-the-home network. Mayor Sly James continues to lead by example with a passion for technology and transparency with the launch of KC Stat, a monthly reporting to the community and ongoing dashboard tracking our progress as a city in meeting the council priorities for KCMO.

These two accelerants – gigabit broadband and open government – have propelled us into an unprecedented climate of innovation and experimentation at City Hall, leading to advances in governance that will have lasting effects. Further, as our citizens become more digitally literate, their heightened expectations of their government drive us to adopt new (and increasingly mobile-optimized) methods of service delivery, as well as take a stronger stance on digital literacy as an economic driver. To that end, the Mayors’ Challenge Cabinet – a handpicked group of young, tech-savvy, civic-minded professionals – is researching the digital divide in the community, with the end goal of recommending digital inclusion policies for economic development and social equity as part of an overarching regional digital inclusion plan.

Meeting our citizens’ offline needs in an online world is a huge part of the City’s communications work. To address this challenge, we have expanded our digital outreach efforts, hiring a social media team to manage conversation-driving tools such as Twitter (where we now take 311 requests), Nextdoor and MindMixer. We have also begun deploying a variety of mobile responsive web interfaces and apps to allow people to conduct more and more of their business with the City online. In addition to a parking app, a Water Services portal, and 311 app, we now offer new business owners an online tool to help navigate complex regulations and approval processes. Previously, business owners were expected to identify which permits they would need and work with multiple departments, often acting as the liaison between City Departments. Now, with a simple decision tree and roadmap that eliminates much of the burden and an electronic portal to manage your business licensing and taxes, we have shifted towards  a more customer-focused approach. Meeting our customers where they are has helped us continue to improve citizen satisfaction with city services year over year.

In January 2013, the City also launched its open data portal powered by Socrata. In addition to creating greater transparency, the portal provides a way for citizens to access useful data such as aggregated crime statistics, 311 requests, traffic studies, and other hyper-local information that will help them make better decisions at the neighborhood level. Cities cannot truly be smart without data, and in making our data open, Kansas City has enabled all classes of citizen users — from professional engineers and builders to the grassroots “civic hackers” of the Code for America Brigade — to make smarter decisions and create programs that help the city run more efficiently as a whole. We have since adopted an open data ordinance and hired a full-time open data coordinator to help us move toward a more systemic approach to integrating open data into how we work.

KCMO is developing a Digital Roadmap to set a strategic vision for the City in technology infrastructure investments, sustainability, education, and use of digital media for service delivery and citizen engagement, among other goals. Set for launch in late February 2015, the plan will build on the City’s commitment to open data principles, user-centric design, and more agile delivery models for technology. Included in this roadmap are goals for KCMO to adopt policies for better digital inclusion. With the arrival of high speed fiber, Kansas City is increasingly sensitive to the need to address access to skills, resources and equipment as an issue of social equity. Our government needs to partner with our community to enable greater opportunity for more people in our City while also understanding the impact technology has on our workforce and we are taking decisive action. Going paperless and adopting mobile technology in the field sounds highly efficient but without addressing the skills of our own staff, we will be unsuccessful in realizing the promises of more high-tech service delivery. Additionally, the City can serve as a convener and partner to the many organizations already working to bridge the digital divide throughout the region.  Setting this strategic vision in the Digital Roadmap will help guide us as we further navigate the integration of digital services into our daily operations.

With the rapidly growing entrepreneurial tech community attracting new talent and interest in Kansas City, we realize we have only touched the tip of the iceberg. Last May, Cisco approached the City and proposed developing an unprecedented public-private partnership to make KCMO a smart city. The proposed Internet of Things (IoT) framework would be built along a central downtown corridor, connecting sensors to a network to enhance overall infrastructure situational awareness, giving City administrators the ability to make decisions based on real-time data. Currently under construction, a 2.2 mile streetcar line – the organizing principle for the proposed Cisco project – will physically connect many of the City’s greatest cultural and entertainment districts to large employment and visitor centers. Adding technology infrastructure as an overlay to this new transit mode will better connect people to each other and the City through free public Wi-Fi, City apps and community kiosks and fundamentally enhance how we do business.

With the tech ecosystem evolving rapidly, the City has identified innovative ways to embrace the great potential and new ideas from our entrepreneurial community. For the past 18 months, KCMO has been piloting the Innovation Partnership Program as an alternative to the traditional procurement process. A local tech startup RFP 365, a software company that seeks to revolutionize access and responses to government procurement needs approached the City through this program. Since we had not directly solicited this type of service, we might not have otherwise worked with this young company. However, since they needed to establish proof of concept, we launched a pilot RFP 365 and have been very excited by the initial results. The Innovation Partnership Program is a new way to approach City Hall with a cutting edge product or service and we continue to see tech entrepreneurs interested in tested their ideas with City Hall as a platform for innovation. In this case, City Hall was able to directly engage with the KC StartUp Village – a community of entrepreneurs that have co-located for access to Google Fiber.

It’s definitely an exciting time in Kansas City. The arrival of high-speed broadband Internet has served to catalyze many of the cutting-edge technological developments that are making our city a Next Century City. But none of it would be possible without the passionate and motivated people, both in City offices and out in the neighborhoods, working together to make our City better.