The City of Toronto is a pioneer when it comes to smart cities. However, the pandemic highlighted the “digital divide” between the richest and poorest in society. In a recent episode of my podcast, Lawrence Eta, Chief Technology Officer for the City of Toronto, spoke with me about building digital equity and the type of digital platform that can help achieve this. Here are some of the key points he raised.
As remote working increased and more services needed to be delivered online, the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated the very real dangers that can arise when many citizens lack basic access to internet connectivity. Lawrence says 10 percent of urban populations lack high-speed broadband—for Toronto, that equates to 150,000 people. The pandemic showed the urgent need to improve internet access for all.
Building a digital canopy
“The new normal is where vulnerable residents have equitable access to government or social service, which includes fast, reliable and affordable internet,” Lawrence told me.
“Canadians have indicated that they cannot afford to pay for broadband service and they have to sacrifice other necessities such as food, clothing and healthcare. But how many parents and children are having to facilitate virtual learning and are falling behind from an education standpoint? That can really affect not only their lives, but literally generations of folks within the city of Toronto.”
To address this problem, the city is building a “digital canopy” that connects tower blocks to deliver a low-cost broadband network.
Toward a city-wide digital infrastructure
Like most government agencies, the City of Toronto had to quickly introduce remote working and move to end-to-end digital service delivery when COVID-19 struck. Luckily, Lawrence and his team had already been working on a digital infrastructure plan based on what he calls “the four ”:
- Stability: The technology environment must be stable. While new digital services and remote working environments were being established in a matter of weeks, these systems can’t succeed if they aren’t always available and secure.
- Scalability: As more services became digital and more citizens interacted with the city online, it was essential that the architecture could ramp up quickly and smoothly. This has accelerated the city’s move to the cloud; Lawrence estimates that 80 percent of the city’s workloads will soon be cloud-based.
- Solution architecture: The city aimed to create an architecture that supported quick integration to help overcome information silos and deliver an end-to-end experience. To ensure interoperability, it worked with service providers to identify and implement the right solutions with baked-in integration capabilities and strong APIs.
- Sustainability: Security and safety are critical, but the city also wanted to ensure that systems were sustainable and able to rapidly create lasting experiences for citizens. For example, in just six weeks, Lawrence and his team built a coronavirus case management system for Toronto Public Health that enabled the operation of 13 mobile contact centers. This helped the agency to continue providing excellent services while allowing people to work remotely.
Introducing a shared-services model
The pandemic showed that government can move fast in difficult times. It also demonstrated the need for a centralized and coordinated approach to digital delivery. While Lawrence acknowledges the city is quite decentralized at the moment, he says the complexity involved in delivering end-to-end services is taking Toronto toward a shared-services model.
“We’re going to more of a centralized model… and that’s not just the technology,” he says. “For example, you want to make a payment. Then that payment needs to talk to back-end services. Those services have to report to data and that data has to let you take government to a more results-based outcome.”
The power is in the data
“Data now is an asset,” Lawrence says. “So, from a technology standpoint, it’s no longer just the software and the hardware. It’s actually the data. Cities have been custodians traditionally. I would say to the politicians, we’re custodians of the data. So we need technology tools that help us interpret the data and make good decisions, because the data is now the most precious asset.”
Lawrence and his team believe that working with private partners is essential to making data work for the city while also protecting citizens’ privacy. He says the city is looking to create a shared approach and “allow us to work with the private sector so that they can interconnect and engage with us to provide solutions as more of our environment is going to the cloud.”
You can listen to the full interview with Lawrence Eta here.
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