Inside the City of Mississauga’s technology transformation journey

Inside the City of Mississauga’s technology transformation journey

As the City of Mississauga continues to integrate technology, CIO Shawn Slack reveals how the City became smart...

‘Welcome to the City of Mississauga, the sixth largest City in Canada and a great place to live, work and play.’ The City has been undergoing a massive digital transformation and according to Shawn Slack, the Director of Information Technology and Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the City, “has been improving services through the use of technology for many years – and is seen as a Smart City leader globally as a result”.

The City’s Strategic Plan was adopted by its Council in 2009 with five strategic pillars focused on addressing the priorities for the 21st century. These priorities included: developing a transit-oriented city; ensuring youth, older adults and new immigrants thrive; completing neighborhoods; cultivating creative and innovative businesses; and living green.

With the recent announcement of the Federal Government of Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge, the City of Mississauga decided to submit a proposal to the challenge in May 2018. The City also developed a Smart City Master Plan that provided a framework and vision for the future as the City continues to enable Smart City technologies. The submission focused on social and economic resilience based on the input of residents and business through a series of public and online engagement sessions.

The City confirmed early on in the engagement process that a Smart City is for everyone and a fundamental goal of social and economic resilience emerged through a review of a study completed by local agency United Way titled ‘The Opportunity Equation’ which identified a noticeable increase in low income families since 1970 and a similar decrease in middle income families across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).  Being better informed of the challenges in a community is essential to the planning for services and the report really emphasized the importance of digital inclusion and working with local agencies like the United Way to provide opportunity to those at risk. “The ability to connect, adapt and succeed in our communities were key goals of the Smart City submission with a focus on youth, those at risk and our entrepreneurs, schools and the startup community,” states Slack.

Enabling City services through the use of technology has been at the heart of the organization’s operations. Technology is integrated into strategic and business planning processes, with technology roadmaps for each municipal service defined in business plans and budgets. The City was an early adopter of the cloud in 2002, moving its website and online services to the cloud as a hosted and managed service. The City has also been a leader in the public sector through its adoption of Open Data, bring your own device (BYOD) and social media. The City is currently going through another major digital transformation of its website by migrating to Amazon Web Services (AWS) and open source software such as WordPress in an effort to modernize the digital experience. The City also moved to Micro Services architecture for software development. This digital transition puts the focus on user experience, usability and find-ability ensuring that the customer and the customer experience meets today’s digital standards. 

In 2015, City IT staff initiated a review of cloud services to better understand the various applications of cloud technologies, related operational impacts, security, privacy, and finally cost implications. Test environments were established for Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google. On conclusion of the review, City staff were better informed on adoption of cloud. The introduction of cloud technologies such as Software as a Service (SaaS) has enabled and advanced the City’s mobile workforce providing real time access to information in the field resulting in a more efficient and informed workforce.

As cloud and other data driven technologies are introduced it is extremely important to assess the purpose and intent behind the data collection, while respecting privacy and transparency to ensure that sensitive data is managed and secure. “It is a risk to get caught up in the excitement of digital and forget our role as government leaders; we have really got to pay attention to our role. This is why privacy and transparency are so important. We are encouraged by some examples we have seen in other cities where open engagement on the adoption of technology and the collection of data has built trust with residents. By engaging with communities, it becomes easier to implement, adopt, or even experiment with these types of technologies,” states Slack.

Adopting mobile and cloud technologies has allowed the City of Mississauga to champion being a paperless operation, starting with the City Leadership Team who have used secure cloud storage and mobile technology to enable paperless meetings and collaboration through video conferencing to attend meetings and share presentation materials. This has significantly reduced the use of paper and the need to drive to meetings; a small but important environmental statement. Cloud technologies and mobile access to applications have also created access to digital resources for staff in the City who previously would have not been able to reach such materials. “The cloud allowed us to quickly and effectively provide access to operational data and employee information to a very large portion of our workforce that typically does not have a computer such as transit operators and works operations staff, and that's been very well received,” notes Slack.

Slack is proud to illustrate how the City has become connected and engaged Smart City. “We have always invested in technology to improve services, and with Smart City becoming a global phenomenon, we have been able to benchmark and learn from other great cities around the world.” As defined by the British Standards Institute, a smart city is “the effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future”, and the City of Mississauga highlights this in its commitment to digital transformation.

However, the significant journey is not over yet and despite reaching Smart City status, Mississauga will continue to evolve. “The City is completing a Smart City Master Plan which is engaging industry and the public in a conversation about technology and the community so that the City can align Smart City technologies with the Strategic Plan initiatives and input through this engagement. An important aspect of Smart City is paying attention to new and emerging technologies, and assessing them early on to understand if the technology is mature enough to apply to City services and equally important to understand if we are ready for the adoption of the new technology,” Slack continues.

The concept of exploration can be an effective way to try new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) or augmented reality (AR), and understand the capabilities, risks and how they can be applied to services. In order to evolve, the team must look ahead for future trends, technologies and opportunities. For Slack, digital transformation – something at the core of developing a Smart City – is about foresight. “It is about assessing which capabilities are maturing and ready for implementation. For us, the transformation of services is important, to improve customer outcomes and make the city more efficient. Another important dynamic is collaboration and partnerships focusing on shared innovation and exploration of new technologies, which will help in understanding the implications of new technology and also build stronger relationships with industry and community agencies,” claims Slack.

Collaboration and co-creation are key to Smart City development, according to the CIO. For example, working with cellular provider Rogers, the City been able to connect its fleet of vehicles and mobile workforce, thus enabling real time data and decision support opportunities. “Today we have connected over 600 buses that are collecting information regarding the bus operations and route information making real time bus location a service directly available to the public. Information on the bus operation informs the timing of maintenance, warranty and mileage routines so that buses can be taken out of service at optimal times and minimizes service interruption. We are able to have real-time bus information, none of which would be possible without the cellular infrastructure provided by Rogers.”

In addition to connected buses the City has also connected 700 city vehicles comprised of fire trucks, works and parks operations vehicles, snow operations vehicles and facility maintenance vehicles providing real time location-based information. The connected snow fleet provides real time snow plow information for the public along with the expected level of service for snow clearing. The onboard sensors also track when the snow blades are active, when and where salt or sand is applied, and the rate at which it is applied. This information is invaluable to the operations of a large and complex service during a snow storm. The City recently implemented an Advanced Traffic Management System (ATMS) which required the connection of over 700 traffic intersections. While the City was able to connect two thirds of the intersections on the City’s fiber and Wi-Fi network the remaining intersections were connected by the Rogers cellular network providing reliable real time data to the ATMS. Rogers is also working with the City on exploring 5G technologies and planning a pilot project focused on how 5G will work within the built form to provide a higher quality of connectivity for residents and businesses, while also considering how the technology will look within the streetscape.

Cellular network and mobile technology are also enabling a mobile strategy for the City’s office space. An initiative called Our Future Corporation (OFC) is transforming the way of work, the use of technology, space, and collaboration. A pilot project was initiated on the fifth floor at City Hall transforming the space into individual workspaces and collaboration units so that staff had a choice as to where to sit and work. Over 90% of the staff on the floor are mobile, having no defined desk or desk phone, and the necessary mobile technology to be connected anywhere, anytime. All the staff are equipped with mobile technology that automatically connects through a secure VPN connection on the wireless infrastructure. “If I'm not near the wireless infrastructure, then it connects to my Rogers cellular hotspot on my phone. It is so seamless; you never have to think about it,” Slack explains.

The City of Mississauga has had the foresight to design and build its own high-speed fiber network, known as the Public Sector Network (PSN), in partnership with three other municipalities. This has resulted in the largest publically owned and operated fiber network in Canada. The investment, which started over 20 years ago, enables a city-wide fiber network and Wi-Fi network that supports all voice and data needs for the City and provides wireless connectivity to the public for many City services. This fiber infrastructure connects all of the buildings for all City Services, becoming the foundation for the City’s IoT network of connected sensors. Through a partnership with Cisco Canada the City has been able to build out an extensive Wi-Fi network in all City libraries, community centers, arenas, marinas and many outdoor locations such parks, Celebration Square, and four small business areas where district Wi-Fi has been provided.

Being a connected and engaged City is an important objective and in 2018 over 8mn hours of free public Wi-Fi was used across the City. Providing this access in so many locations across the City is one way of tackling the digital divide and providing opportunity for those who might not otherwise have had this access. In May of 2017, the City of Mississauga was the first City in Canada to become a virtual campus. The City partnered with CANARIE and Eduroam to provide a gateway to over 70,000 post-secondary institutions from around the world for visiting students and exchange students who access its Wi-Fi network. In the first year there were over 1mn international students using the service, with over half of them from Europe.  “There's a term out there that Wi-Fi is the new oxygen. This really demonstrates that providing connectivity is a city service. So, the digital divide is something that we really pay attention to,” states Slack.

Mississauga has certainly demonstrated that it is a Smart City leader in Canada and beyond, but the journey is not over yet; in fact, there is a great deal more to do. The Smart City Master Plan will provide a framework and vision for the future. Having a Smart City lens integrated into its planning process will inform how the City’s services can effectively adopt new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and major shifts in industry that affect the built environment like autonomous vehicles, drones and 5G networks. Collaboration and partnerships will continue to be important in the future as exploration and experimentation of new technologies de-risk the adoption of emerging technologies while creating unique opportunities to engage the community in an open way.  

A Smart City is one that inspires possibilities and the City of Mississauga has established a strong commitment through its Strategic Plan, Master Plans and Smart City initiatives. “I am excited for the future,” says Slack. “We are enabling a connected and engaged City. We are actively addressing the digital divide and providing opportunity in a City with a renowned welcoming world culture!”

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