Municipalities are being forced to rethink how they develop and rollout internet infrastructure now that public spaces like libraries and rec centres are no longer the Wi-Fi hotspots they used to be. Meanwhile, citizens have to find alternate connectivity options, and that’s much easier said than done, says CIO Helen Knight of Helen Knight Consulting.

People using public devices to apply for jobs online and access a multitude of resources are finding few alternatives. Municipalities have done an admirable job adjusting to a virtual-first reality: Some have started streaming council meetings and archiving them; others have produced clever social media campaigns to communicate with citizens on the platforms they prefer to use. 

“We’ve left a lot of people behind,” Knight said during a Technicity WEST panel about the changing citizen experience with municipalities and its services.

Non-profit organizations, at times the only other option for people without access to the internet or a proper computer (it’s tough to write a resume on a smartphone) were already playing catch up when it comes to technology. 

“There are so many non-profits organizations that I’ve seen that have purchased or used free, donated software and hardware, cobbled together inexpensive technologies and therefore haven’t had the opportunity or financing to make critical purchases into best of breed technology,” Knight said. “I’m seeing a lot of focused programs now and a greater understanding by nonprofits in how important tech is. For example, understanding that purchasing a number of different systems isn’t nearly as cost-effective as purchasing a single CRM, entering data once, receiving reports and everyone sharing the same content. That’s exciting stuff because there’s so much potential for return on investment and advancing the mission when you’re removing all that time fighting disparate technology and focusing on enabling the client.”

Catherine Chick, CTO for the City of Vancouver, says the city’s recycling program for used technology is redirecting equipment to organizations with communities in need for some short-term relief. A long-term strategy is still being formulated.

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The Changing Citizen Experience Panel: 
Moderator
• Alex Coop, Editorial Director, ITWC
Panellists
• Catherine Chick, CTO, City of Vancouver
• Jan Bradley, CIO, City of Calgary
• Helen Wetherley Knight, Founder, Helen Knight Consulting

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“Prior to 2020, we just assumed we would always have access to the buildings but we obviously have to look for a secondary approach when the building access is not possible,” she stated.

The CIO of Calgary, Jan Bradley, pointed to recent efforts to work with telcos in the province to provide internet capacity to areas that needed a boost once usage exploded.

“We have a group that looks after affordable housing as part of our municipal service delivery. They reached out to us and we connected them with partners in the telco industry because people may have a phone or a device but they don’t have access to sufficient internet to use services online,” Bradley explained. 

Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve connectivity issues for everyone, which is why Bradley says CIOs across the country are in constant communication to try and work with the federal government to build a modern infrastructure to ensure citizens in large cities and rural communities can. 

And based on the numbers, digital infrastructure is going to do a lot of heavy lifting for the foreseeable future when it comes to citizen engagement. Canadians are approaching the one-year mark since strict social distancing measures to flatten the curve were put in place, and despite a vaccine targeted for a 2021 rollout, the physical world remains largely out of bounds.

Digital entertainment has usurped all other forms of recreation. Last year, Nokia found that stuck at home by school closures, kids have driven up gaming growth by 400 per cent. In addition, Netflix use during the day is beginning to replicate traffic typically seen in the evenings, jumping by 54 to 75 per cent in peak viewing hours.

It’s all about data

Chick says her team has been focused on processing internal data about the city’s assets and presenting that information to the public through open data sets. If you have access to the internet, you can find dozens of data sets ranging from demographics to water and sewer assets with a few mouse button clicks.

Calgary boasts its own open data portal, and Bradley says the application of Internet of Things devices across public services and events is going to add even more value for its citizens. For example, during outdoor events – remember those?- Bradley says the city can gauge sound levels via sensors and ensure festivals or concerts aren’t causing significant disruption nearby. Any technology that’s deployed in public areas are peeled through with a fine tough and comb by the city’s access and privacy team.

“We need to be mindful that we’re not collecting data from these sensors that could be personally identifiable,” she said.

Call centre activity increases

Chick says she’s observed rising call volumes over the past year, adding the 311 Contact Centre is the busiest it’s ever been.

“Especially during COVID, the phone call was a life-line for people to get a personal connection and have a person convey information to them,” Chick said.

Knight says she’s heard from contact centres saying the length of calls has also increased.

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