Technology improvements in Sandy City lead to efficiency, savingsJan 05, 2021 12:09PM ● By Justin Adams
A screenshot of Sandy’s live budget dashboard, which is made possible by the digital infrastructure improvements made during the last two years.
By Justin Adams | [email protected]
When Sandy Mayor Kurt Bradburn came into office two years ago, one of his goals was to bring the city into the 21st century. For example, the fire department’s system for regular fire hydrant checks used to consist of several large three-ring binders full of paper logs. Now, you can hop on an app and see a map of the city that shows where all the fire hydrants are, and when each one was last checked. That transformation is just one of many that have taken place in the last two years as part of the city’s drive to become more efficient.
“We all started with a smartphone but that was years ago. Now we have smart houses. The natural evolution is to create smart communities and smart cities,” said Sandy Chief Administrative Officer Matthew Huish, who was brought over from the University of Utah Hospital System by Bradburn because of his experience with maximizing the efficiency of complex systems.
So what does a smart city look like?
It means parents can sign their kids up for summer camps at Alta Canyon Recreation Center online, rather than going in person and waiting in long lines. It means sprinkler systems at the city’s many parks are controlled by an automated system that changes according to the weather. It means city department heads being able to view their departmental budget live every day, rather than waiting on a monthly update from the finance department. It means contractors can submit bids to the city electronically, rather than having to mail it to city hall. And those are just a few things.
Moving city operations from analog to digital systems produces a lot of valuable data. To take advantage of that, the city started a new Business Intelligence division.
‘Business Intelligence’ refers to a genre of software products that specialize in aggregating data from a variety of other software programs and organizes it in a central hub, analyzes it, and packages it in a user-friendly dashboard.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is to tap into these systems to make it easier for managers and employees to have access to the data,” said Brett Neumann, the Business Intelligence director.
A Sandy native, Neumann attended the University of Utah where he received a Master’s in Public Administration and has worked for the city since 2007.
Along with his team, Neumann acts as a consultant for all the various departments in the city. If a department head has an idea for something they’d like to try, the Business Intelligence team can look at the data and determine whether or not it’s likely to work.
“It’s the analytics that allow you to look at trends and make data-driven decisions,” explained Huish.
This digital transformation paid off in a big way this year when much of the city unexpectedly shifted into work-from-home mode because of COVID-19.
“When it hit in March you saw across the country, the city reacted to the crisis by setting up telecommuting and digitizing our processes,” said Zach Whalen, one of the city’s analysts who focuses on the budget. “We were in a position to hit the ground running. We were using Microsoft Teams for six months before COVID hit. We have put some stuff in place that has made us a lot more nimble for a climate like this.”
Of course, as soon as you start talking about governments collecting data from residents or using algorithms to drive decision-making for things like police work, it’s easy to start envisioning unintended dystopian consequences. That’s why ethics play an important role in everything the Business Intelligence team does.
“It’s definitely on the forefront of our thoughts in the public sector,” Whalen said.
Finding a balance between technologically-driven improvements to government efficiency and various ethical concerns really comes down to policy, according to Huish. It will be up to residents’ elected representatives on the city council to determine what the city is comfortable with.
“Different communities have different values,” Neumann said. “I think that’s likely to be a healthy debate in the public square. There may be some things that Sandy residents want but there may be some tradeoffs.”
The big question is: has this digital transformation saved the Sandy City taxpayer money?
The short answer is yes, according to Huish. Getting an exact figure for the city’s return on its investment in this new digital infrastructure is a little trickier however.
The Business Intelligence team has started working on conducting ROI studies on some of the software it has licensed in the last two years.
“We found out we were easily breaking even and even coming out ahead on an ROI analysis for our purchasing software,” Neumann said.
Other ways of measuring savings include hours saved by employees. For one small example, periodic training sessions for city employees used to be held in-person at city hall. Now that they can be taken online, it saves a car trip to city hall for the many employees who work elsewhere throughout the city.
“What’s the return on that? I can’t even imagine,” Huish said.
Looking long-term, it’s also possible that the city will be able to save on employment costs as it slowly eliminates positions. (Huish was careful to specify that no Sandy City employee would be laid off because of their job being taken over by a computer. Instead, as employees retire or leave for other reasons, the city will weigh whether or not it’s necessary to refill that position.)
With so much changing in such short a time, it may be possible that some residents aren’t even aware of a change that might benefit them. To remedy that, the city is working on ways to let residents know about these changes in a way that doesn’t come across as the city “tooting its own horn.” However, the best way for residents to find out about these improvements is by experiencing them firsthand as they interact with the city, according to Huish.
“It’s one thing to market it to them, it’s another for them to experience it,” he said.