Universities Create Innovative Solutions for GMA & Cities

August 13, 2020

While “big data” sounds out of reach for most cities, access to research and development may be as close as the nearest university.

Debra Lam is the managing director of Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation for Georgia Tech, an initiative that pairs researchers with local governments to create innovative solutions.

“Georgia Tech is a public university. We are very beholden to the state and its communities. If we have something that is useful, we want the community to benefit from it,” Lam said.

Across Georgia, cities and counties are collab- orating with universities to solve common problems through community engagement and unique ideas. Some are longstanding relationships, like the Business Innovation Group at Georgia Southern University that continues to support economic vitality in Statesboro. Others are short-term projects with a targeted purpose, such as the redesign of the city of South Fulton’s police zones. Both have dual benefits for the university and local government.

Dr. Yao Xie, an associate professor in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech, developed a system to analyze thou- sands of police reports and put the data to work. For South Fulton, the data has helped establish long-term staffing needs, reduced response time by a minute, and allowed officers to connect with the communities they patrol, Police Chief Keith Meadows said.

“Ensuring the safety of residents and businesses is our top priority and having more officers patrolling our neighborhoods helps us make good on that commitment,” Mayor William “Bill” Edwards said. “The new beat design also allows us to assign officers to specific, smaller zones, where they can get to know residents and build relationships with them and earn their trust.”

The partnership with the university was critical to the project’s success.

“Many people think redesigning beats is as simple as redrawing lines. It’s far more complicated. We went through over 200 iterations of various designs. The re- search was invaluable,” Meadows said.

Partnership Opportunities for All

One of the most notable programs is the Smart Communities Challenge at Georgia Tech. To date, eight communities have received up to $100,000 in financial assistance, access to technical resources and a dedicated researcher. GMA is one of the program’s many supporters.

“Cities and communities don’t necessarily have re- search and development access or innovation capacity, so they get access to some great research. From the research side, they get to implement their research and verify it. So, it really creates a nice partnership,” Lam said.

GMA has also benefited from partnerships with universities. In the early months of the pandemic, GMA and the University of Georgia Department of Public Administration and Policy collaborated to survey Georgia cities about the local response. Thanks to the 216 cities that responded, Dr. Eric Zeemering was able to generate valuable data and recommendations. “While 75 percent of survey respondents did not have a written pandemic response plan at the start of March, COVID-19 will spur new strategic planning and policy development,” Zeemering said in his over- view report.

Practical Insights for City Governments:
  • Carefully document the city government’s early response to COVID-19, which will help city officials develop stronger plans for future pandemic response.
  • Establish a regular dialogue with stakeholders, including the business and medical communities, which may offer valuable insights to inform the city’s response in the months ahead.
  • Review public communication plans and inform res- idents about how they can support public health, as well as how they can access government support for individuals or small businesses.
  • Develop plans to enhance communication with the public to keep residents informed about changes to city services and action by the governing board.
  • Revise sick leave policies and enhance access to employee assistance programs.
  • Cross-train employees to cover absences due to ill- ness, avoiding a disruption of city services.
  • Initiate multi-sector partnerships to address resident needs, such as emergency food and housing.

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