A Geographic Approach Catapults Orlando, Florida, into a Smart City
How we live, work, and play is rapidly being transformed by data-informed and technology-enabled ideas. For communities both large and small, there is an opportunity to reimagine the built environment of today for better outcomes tomorrow. For governments, the journey to becoming future ready means becoming a smart community. The term has been around for more than a decade, but at its core, smart communities are those that work to improve quality of life for residents by providing the most efficient government services and private sector partnerships. To do this—to future proof their communities for unforeseen challenges or occurrences—governments are leading with a geographic approach and prioritizing geospatial-enabled solutions. One such community at the forefront of realizing a smart community through technology is Orlando, Florida.
Smart Communities Happen When Location Is at the Forefront
While Orlando has a history of innovation and environmentalism, city staff knew they needed to more clearly define, elevate, and embrace initiatives that would help them more effectively meet community challenges. They engaged with VHB, an Esri Gold partner, to focus on how a geospatial approach and geographic information system (GIS) technology could enhance their Future-Ready City Master Plan.
"Done well, a smart city puts the needs of the community first," explained Curt Ostrodka, VHB director of smart communities. "At VHB, we begin with an exploratory process to identify what people care about; what a community is doing well and where they're falling short; and what services and geospatial technology are needed to provide greater sustainability, equity, and quality of life."
For Orlando, that exploratory process involved stakeholder engagement both within the city and throughout the community. Privacy concerns around data sharing are especially important to the public, so it was critical to open lines of communication early to achieve consensus and buy-in. The City of Orlando's exploratory phase helped to define seven focus areas to prioritize: connectivity, energy, health and safety, placemaking, mobility, water, and materials. Esri GIS platforms played a critical role in helping the city roll out initiatives in support of the focus areas.
Roundtable meetings with stakeholders across the city were conducted for each of the seven focus areas, with robust discussions led by designated subject matter experts. This hyperfocused, winnowing-down approach really helped team members define realistic, actionable objectives and design initiatives that would meet—and exceed—their smart community goals.
The city started with a vision statement followed by goals, objectives, and strategies for each of the seven pillar focus areas. With realistic and actionable objectives in place, city staff began to strategize how technology, and GIS and geospatial data in particular, would support their smart community initiatives.
Connectivity Happens When You Address the Digital Divide
A major issue that emerged during stakeholder engagement around the connectivity pillar was the digital divide. To provide greater access to the internet and address equity concerns, Orlando helped develop a yearlong pilot that supplied neighborhood centers with mobile tablets and 4G LTE hot spots, which people can check out for two weeks at a time. Residents of all ages are now able to use the tablets to apply for jobs, join Zoom calls, access email and social media, and schedule vaccine appointments. The city used GIS, 2020 Census data, and third-party internet speed data to map out areas that lacked access to the internet and needed assistance. The city also installed solar picnic tables with Wi-Fi hot spots in areas prone to power outages.
Mobility Happens When You Prepare for Drone-Filled Skies
VHB also helped the city earn an exclusive advanced air mobility (AAM) aeroresearch partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to provide insight and engage with research about integrating vertiports for vertical takeoff and landing aircraft in the region—an initiative born of the mobility pillar. Orlando was one of five entities, and the only city, selected by NASA for the partnership, which includes MassDOT, MnDOT, North Central Texas Council of Governments, and Ohio DOT.
VHB used Survey123 to create an online platform for identifying potential vertiport locations and AAM corridors throughout the Central Florida region. This allowed multiple stakeholders to work simultaneously in the workshop format and resulted in a vision map for future AAM service.
The NASA partnership will continue with a series of community workshops through the summer of 2022. Insight from the workshops will be incorporated into Orlando's AAM Transportation Plan and is a great example of a smart community initiative that will help the community stay ahead of an innovative form of mobility, with input about environmental and equity challenges and opportunities from a wide representation of community members.
Resiliency Happens When You Prepare for the Unexpected
Finally, VHB is working with the city to develop a resilience plan that sees economic, environmental, and equity factors as critical to the community's success in overcoming future challenges and addresses all pillar focus areas. Orlando is using GIS to identify the most vulnerable communities that are at risk from adverse climate, environmental, and economic impacts. This allows the city to create specific mitigation strategies to improve resilience for these vulnerable communities rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach.
The plan will include climate hazard projections (considering each threat's probability of occurrence and order of magnitude) and vulnerability analyses. The team is also reviewing multiple community assessments, continuity of operations plans, and emergency management plans to catalog potential threats with matching strategies that reduce risk.
What's Next for VHB Smart Communities?
VHB is continuing to enable clients to extend the limits of what's possible through the Esri ArcGIS system to harness the power of data and technology for the public good. VHB is currently building a user-friendly dashboard site for state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and local government agencies to address issues of environmental justice via GIS mapping that identifies areas lacking equitable access to transportation. VHB is also helping municipalities begin to map their city as a digital twin—a 3D virtual city model that can include every floor of every building, overhead utilities, and underground infrastructure for complex scenario planning and disaster preparation. Cities with digital twins can more easily determine what happens if the power grid is knocked out for three days in a neighborhood, what flooding will look like in 30 years with sea level rise, and how a new college campus location would impact water consumption.