City of Tucson: Bridging the digital divide
A polar vortex followed by a global pandemic sound like themes from a Hollywood movie, but for Collin Boyce, Chief Information Officer at City of Tucson, these are two very real challenges he has navigated during his digital journey working in government administrations.
“The City of Tucson is building innovation bridges while we are still walking along them,” said Boyce, who set in motion a plan for free internet access, from the municipally-owned broadband network to 1,000 households during COVID-19 - despite being stuck in lockdown 2,420 miles away in New York City.
A total of US$4.4m from the federal CARES Act fund has been invested in a community wireless program for the second poorest city in the US (after El Paso, Texas). In partnership with Insight Enterprises, the City of Tucson is working to provide service and routers to eligible residents, schools and offices that lack at-home internet connections.
Boyce possessed a clear leadership vision to deal with the challenges of the pandemic and is now working to bridge the digital divide for many of the Arizona-state citizens living in the poorer neighbourhoods and drive ahead with the City’s vision of becoming a smart city.
“Data is the new capital of our century,” said Boyce, who also mobilised more than 6,000 local government employees to work remotely from his temporary base in New York. “The pandemic has shown the future of remote working for millions of people who now rely on being connected to a digital world - as does the future safety and security of a smart city.
“Tucson has a rich history, and the project to connect our citizens and close the digital divide has even included navigating archeologically significant sites,” said Boyce, who pointed out it was shocking that 32,000 out of the city’s 212,000 households lacked reliable internet access at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We are trying to use the existing infrastructure, including cell towers and hundreds of miles of in-ground fibre for the project, and we are planning to operate the new network beyond COVID-19 as 16.8% of our 540,000 population function below the poverty line and need our help,” he said.
Polar vortex shapes response to pandemic
Despite only joining the local government administration in 2019, Boyce had already experienced an unprecedented natural emergency while working as the CIO for the City of Lansing, Michigan, when a polar vortex ripped through the northern state. Citizens were advised to stay at home as the temperature plunged to minus 50 degrees, and Boyce had his first taste of crisis management.
“During that time, I covered the territory and laid the groundwork for my colleagues to work from home, and this prepared me for what lay ahead. When I arrived at the City of Tucson, I had a three-year road map to make sure Tucson was self-sufficient if something terrible happened. But I was only a few months into my plan, and the pandemic hit.”
Boyce had travelled from his new role in the warm southern state to New York for a family funeral when the pandemic struck in 2020, and he could not leave for five months. At that time, his children were kept busy with online lessons, and Boyce was struck by the fact thousands of citizens back in Tucson had no internet connection to access virtual learning or remote working.
“I realised 33% of the people in Tucson did not have internet connectivity. When you live in a desert, and your car breaks down, a cell phone is a lifeline and has more value to a family than internet connectivity. People were going without, so I felt that we should reach out and build a product to help our citizens.”
The City of Tucson is funded by sales tax, so it has to be careful with funding when it is deploying services. “Our digital approach tends to differ from other cities as we take a private-sector approach,” said Boyce.
Implementation of LTE
The City of Tucson chose to use Long Term Evolution (LTE), which offers a high-speed, high-security wireless cellular network, for the rollout of their broadband network. The 4G will be expandable to 5G.
“We initially talked about doing community Wi-Fi, and we pivoted to LTE and pulled in two providers — JMA [Wireless] and Insight — to help with the implementation of the product,” said Boyce.
“LTE made a little bit more sense than Wi-Fi which would have meant putting up 7,000 access points to cover 19 square miles. When we started to do the testing, we were able to put up 40 LTE service towers and cover around 40 square miles and discovered this would be around the same budget.
“The first 5,000 endpoint devices focus on connecting teleworkers, students and those at high-risk for COVID-19. Phase two involves deploying endpoints and network core infrastructure “with a strategic focus on public transportation and other public areas to maximise resident access.” Boyce said the next phase of the plan would cover 70-80% of the city with LTE access.
“We are now starting to bridge the digital divide. There are some people who would prefer to use our service over the incumbents, even though we do provide some filtering. People are jumping on board and streaming church services and picking up educational programming from their schools.
“It's absolutely free - and a win for the City of Tucson on so many levels; we can provide connectivity to the citizens which we need as we move towards becoming a smart city, and we can also recoup the money we're spending as a cell phone costs the City US$60 a month while the network drops the cost to down to US$10 a month.”
Internet access in real-time
A staggering 80% of people who applied to Tucson’s program had no access to the internet. Boyce admitted that officials underestimated how many people had no connectivity, which prevented them from using the city government’s website.
“When you have something as major as a pandemic taking place, citizens that don’t have internet connectivity ring our offices, and this overwhelms our phone systems. Providing access to our website allows for better communication and helps our citizens to get updates in real-time, especially on vital information such as the vaccine rollouts.”
Boyce is now looking to increase awareness for the project with an advertising strategy to connect with grassroots organisations in a bid to spread the word.
“We can provide service to 32,000 homes, but so far, we only have 1,000 homes that are connected, so we have to get the word out there. Once they say they are interested, we will then deploy a device to their house, and we will transmit it out, and it will convert it into something that is usable for the citizen - very similar to a radio wave,” said Boyce.
‘Data is the capital of this century’
Commenting on The City of Tucson’s digital journey, Boyce said the hard part of any innovative project is it doesn’t always have a clear beginning, middle or end. “When we started on the project to get our citizens connected, we had a vision of what we wanted to do, but all of the steps to get there weren't well-defined, so we literally built the bridge while we were walking along it.
“It is a fun project, despite having to make a few adjustments along the way, as we march towards our vision. We even had to navigate Native American burial grounds. It was probably the most exciting project that I've done in the sense that it was a lot of learning and impacted citizens in a meaningful way. It was also a risk, but taking a risk is an important part of leadership,” said Boyce.
“Data is the capital of this century. We use our data in a way that's meaningful. We don't want to use it in a way that makes our citizens uncomfortable, but we want to use data to drive smart decisions. Where a lot of people see smart cities as highly technical, we see a smart city a little bit different. We are more focused on using the data to help drive the decisions and being able to connect citizens to the resources that we have.
“Our most precious resource in the City of Tucson is our citizens and being able to crowdsource what they're feeling, what their problems are and using that to drive our decisions. We are pushing on those fronts in order to better connect with our citizens and to be a smart city.”
Phased approach for employees
Boyce said when the pandemic struck, the City had to initially categorise more than 6,000 employees and identify whose role was critical to that department - deploying 800 laptops in phase one.
“Our priority was to get them home and keep our employees safe. But we were surprised how many people did not have computer access at home. If they did not have a mobile device, we quickly got them one, and they were able to function.
“Once we got the wave of everyone who was critical to their department, we started to add in another layer that drove our digital transformation process. We onboarded a company called Laserfiche through our partner General Code, and they created a lot of the workflow forms for us.
“We gave them a smorgasbord of forms, and we started to convert them and create simple work for each department and slowly moved this into real-time. I like the analogy for this kind of digital transformation ‘don’t turbocharge caterpillars, let them mature slowly into butterflies and grow the way they are supposed to’.
“During phase two, we upgraded 20 major applications inside of the City and consolidated them into the IT umbrella. We started to create self-service options inside of our Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system - which was tied into Google - and a new intranet was deployed in order to help facilitate better city communications.”
Partners - Geoverse and General Code
City of Tucson relies on an ecosystem of trusted partners, which include Geoverse, General Code, and Diversified - all praised by Boyce for their seamless support during the project. “Diversified is the core provider for the network that we built and immediately helped us to deploy towers when we ran into problems,” said Boyce.
“Tucson is very historical, so when you go to deploy towers, there are sensitive archaeological areas, and it can take a while to get towers in those locations. But Geoverse flipped on roaming for our users, and through this partnership, the things they were doing made that possible.”
General Code built the City of Tucson’s web application for the Wireless program. “They did an amazing job. The whole backend system where we validated the address, whether the person was in the coverage area or not, was designed and built by the General Code team.”
Boyce said the city is also planning to launch another network using the same infrastructure that will supply connectivity to the city’s air-quality sensors and future devices, but that it won’t interfere with the community network.
In a bid to reduce pollution, the City is in the process of optimising traffic lights to react to the number of vehicles. “This is an example of how we can use data-driven solutions to influence the traffic flow and reduce pollution as our Mayor, Regina Romero, is very keen to make sure we work towards a greener smart city of the future.”
What is the difference between LTE and Wi-Fi?
Long Term Evolution or LTE, as it’s commonly called, refers to 4G technology or fourth-generation wireless broadband standard. It’s a communication standard for data terminals, mobile devices, and smartphones and is being used by the City of Tucson to connect its citizens.
The LTE standard offers a high-speed, high-security wireless cellular network. LTE technology tends to have dedicated frequency bands for different applications, which ensures citizens don’t have to compete with other technologies in the same bands, minimising the probability of a lag.
As LTE migrates towards 5G, it's expected to revolutionise the future of cellular networks, with not only its extended network capacity and lower latency but also faster response times and greater bandwidth.
Whereas Wi-Fi, as we know, represents a wireless local area network (LAN) protocol. A router helps several types of computing devices to connect to the wireless network and send and receive data, including files, audio, and video. The router transmits the wireless signal, which facilitates data communication within a fixed location.
Streamlining connectivity for students
The need for a uniform city plan was highlighted when Tucson Unified School District began distributing devices needed for virtual learning, but many students could not access them.
“By addressing areas that have the highest need, we can consolidate the school districts to just us being that one provider, so they no longer have to bounce between three providers,” he added.
“It’s probably the largest partnership since I’ve been in government with the local school district and the municipal government. Today, we’re slating around 5,000 devices we want to get out into the community.”
Snapshot of Tucson, Arizona
Founded in 1775, Tucson (known as ‘The Old Pueblo’) is Arizona’s second-largest city, with a population of 540,000. It is historically a college town that blends American Indian, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo traditions. It lies on a plain of the Sonoran Desert and is surrounded by Saguaro National Park and the Santa Catalina Mountains.
In the hot seat with Collin Boyce, Chief Information Officer at City of Tucson.
How does the digital approach at the City of Tucson differ from other US cities?
We take a very private-sector approach to how we use data at the City of Tucson. What makes us different is we try to be faster and more agile, and we're willing to push the boundaries a little bit more than our government contemporaries.
But as we are funded by sales tax, we have to be careful how we deploy services. We are using some AI, but we are not doing cloud yet. We tend to favour old licence models as it helps to keep the lights on when the economy isn’t great.
How do you ensure that you continue to be agile to the needs of the citizens who are more environmentally aware today?
By keeping our finger on the pulse on what our citizens want. The City of Tucson has a unique approach as we have an employee whose full-time job is to connect with citizens. We are just about to release an app where we're going to crowdsource information. We also look at data in a meaningful way, and by doing this can start to find common problems and solutions. When you look at cities that are agile, it is always down to their hybrid approach, combining what the citizens want, the leadership vision and what the local government department needs. If you take those three things and put them together, you get the whole pie.
How do you see Tucson evolving as a smart city in the next two years?
We’re using data in more meaningful ways to create an amazing footprint. We are using some AI with Google to do some natural language processing in routing citizens to the correct government department. Lots of little things are happening, but when they all come together, we'll be better able to serve the citizens.
Life outside the office
Place of birth?
Trinidad and Tobago in the West Indies.
When we can travel again - what will be your first holiday destination?
Back to my place of birth and to Barbados, as this is where my father is from.
What is your favourite cuisine?
What is your most precious possession?
Apart from being a husband and a father, I am a musician, so I have to say my vintage saxophones.
I am currently watching the NCIS box-set.
I like people to own where they're at - if you do something wrong, own it and move on.
What advice would you give to a young Collin Boyce?
The young Collin would tell the older version to stay curious, continue to ask questions and learn from everyone, and the older Collin would tell its younger self to be patient.
What has been life’s most valuable lesson?