With explosive population growth hitting cities, leaders must deal with more citywide events than ever before. This often means synchronizing actions across dozens of internal agencies—a logistical challenge frequently made worse by time pressures, complexity, and limited budgets. Increasingly, I see mayors, city managers, and city CIOs considering new city operations centers to ease these everyday challenges. At the Microsoft campus in Redmond, which is similar in many ways to a small city, we’ve reached the same conclusion and built our own central command centers—a huge help in large-scale coordination. In our experience, successful operations centers get three things right.
City operations centers are designed to help leaders make timely and informed decisions. That makes it essential that each agency within your city government holds a seat at the table. With the right people in the room, no matter what situation you face, you can get answers immediately. If your city hosts a major event, like the recent Honolulu Marathon or Southeast Asia Games in Myanmar, a host of agencies will have to work together to create traffic plans (transportation), control crowds (police), remove garbage (public works), issue communications (public information), and much more. These are massive efforts that require in-depth agency knowledge. Every call you have to place to someone outside the room adds a potential bottleneck, which in extreme cases can endanger lives.
City operations centers also must have real-time data about situations arising in your city. Correlating multiple data feeds and displaying this information upfront on large screens delivers one version of the truth to everyone in the room. This truth can then be acted on swiftly and decisively. To display the right information, be sure to include:
Video feeds from near the event
Audio feeds of communications between responding groups
Maps showing the locations of your assets
County, state, and national feeds
Predictive analysis related to past events
When there’s an incident, your people combine their agency knowledge with this information to develop their plan. In the case of a major snowstorm, for example, they’ll take all of the incoming information and correlate it with data points about population density, upcoming weather, transportation patterns, and historical information to formulate action plans to keep the city running smoothly.
To ensure the most rapid responses possible, your city operations center also must integrate your communications, focusing on three areas:
Maintaining access to experts by cell phone, phone, or pager so you can get advice quickly.
Opening communication channels with people in the field by integrating disparate systems. This will enable you to improve incoming information from police, fire, and medical emergency teams for a more complete understanding of the situation. And it will simplify outgoing communications with workers on the scene waiting for your decisions.
Providing actionable information to citizens in advance.
Centralized command and control is not a new idea—think NASA or even air traffic control towers. Many cities already have emergency control centers or dashboards like the Domain Awareness System Microsoft created with the New York City Police Department. Now we’re talking about taking it a step further and bringing together people, information, and communication into a single citywide operations center. These centers apply the centralized command approach that’s been so successful in emergency management to managing large events and public safety responses—helping your government provide the same great citizen service in daily life that you provide in emergencies.
I’d love to hear what you think about this idea. Are the three priorities above the right priorities, or would you include something else? Let’s get a discussion going that will help our growing cities become the best possible places to live.
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