Q&A: Innovation Official Marquis Willis on Why Little Rock Is a Smart City to Watch

Web-based data analysis and visualization tools are helping Little Rock, Ark., combat crime, provide greater transparency and enhance a number of city services.

Through an open-data hub the city launched in 2016, residents can access charts and other resources highlighting information ranging from the number of licenses that have been issued for various types of businesses to recent attendance at the Little Rock Zoo.

Little Rock’s Citizen Connect website offers a mapped view of police incidents, building permits and 311 statistics. The data is culled from the software solution the city uses to manage nonemergency calls and requests submitted through an associated app, says Marquis Willis, performance and innovation coordinator for the city.

DISCOVER: StateTech’s seven Smart Cities to Watch in 2022.

“We publish information in an easy-to-digest manner for people who don’t look at data and Excel spreadsheets all the time and just need a quick nugget of information,” Willis says. “They want to know things like where the grass is being cut or where the bulky item pickup locations are. Citizen Connect was very beneficial in terms of getting that information out.”

These are some reasons why Little Rock was named a StateTech Smart City to Watch in 2022.

StateTech recently spoke with Willis about some of the ways Little Rock uses data to improve residents’ quality of life and develop the city’s future technology plans.

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STATETECH: In addition to a sensor- and GPS-based gunshot detection system and a license plate reader system that uses high-resolution cameras, is Little Rock using any other type of technology to support public safety?

Willis: Citizens can receive information related to incidents that are happening. We live in a time where we’re hearing more and more about active shooters in certain scenarios. God forbid, if we ever have that situation occur, we’re able to use an app, in conjunction with social media, to get the word out quickly if we need citizens to avoid an area. It allows us to communicate more effectively in hazardous situations.

We also try to use data in a comprehensive manner to see what city services, not exclusive to the police department, we can use to impact crime. We’ve found marginalized areas tend to be more crime-infested. It happens when basic needs are not met, and it’s not specific to Little Rock.

When you have an area that’s impoverished, that doesn’t have a grocery store that will provide you with fresh produce and milk within a mile and a half of your home, if you live around dilapidated buildings that are breeding grounds for crime, lighting is an issue — those are things data showed us where we could have a direct impact to help reduce crimes in those areas. While we can’t build a grocery store, we can try to incentivize grocery stores to get into certain communities. It’s a creative approach to fighting crime without trying to overpolice the city.

REVIEW: How criminal justice agencies are using digital evidence management tools.

STATETECH: How is Little Rock recording and using information, like the location of problematic buildings?

Willis: We have code enforcement officers who go out daily looking for code violations. If they see a building that’s run down, vacant or uninhabitable, we’ll put it into the system. We expedite and improve their workflow, so code enforcement officers aren’t in the field having to pull out a notepad and write down everything. They’re able to key it into a tablet.

There’s a time period in which we try to determine whether or not the building needs to be demolished, if the owner is going to have the ability to get it up to code or if the city’s going take it over and sell it. Once we get to the end of that time period, we take the action necessary.

We’re trying to go a step further and not just demolish buildings. Creating a vacant lot does nothing for the city, so how can we repurpose these areas? That’s what we’re working through now. If we try to move to a more efficient and greener city, maybe that’s an area we can use for a charging station or maybe we can do a pop-up produce shop in some communities that have more dilapidated buildings than others. We’re trying to figure out exactly how and what we can do.

STATETECH: Has the city made or considered any infrastructure changes to allow for expanded smart technology and connectivity needs?

Willis: While the data portals were robust in terms of the abilities and what you could display for citizens, they did not put a lot of strain on bandwidth. We didn’t have to do much in that capacity.

But we have been working to lay fiber across the city. We recognized during the pandemic that we have real infrastructure needs in certain parts of the city where they have limited to no access to the internet.

EXPLORE: How states are establishing broadband to reach agency employees anywhere.

STATETECH: Is Little Rock considering any additional ways to use technology to enhance residents’ day-to-day experience?

Willis: Absolutely. One of the big focuses for the end of the year, going into next year, is using performance measures to specifically guide how we manage and govern the city and our departments. We want to set realistic goals that push us to be the best we can be.

One of the big things that’s going on right now for various states — and for federal agencies — is Freedom of Information Act requests. We try to use that information to guide our data portal. We know that if we get four or five of the same or similar requests within a month and a half, we want to turn the requested information into a data set. So, when a citizen calls and says, “I want to FOIA salaries for the city of Little Rock,” we can say, “Sure, here’s a link to that. It’s already been published,” because we want to be transparent. We want to do things that are beneficial holistically for Little Rock.

DIVE DEEPER: How Virginia is using data to support citizens.

STATETECH: How can having data available in one central location help cities gain insight into operational improvements and other potential benefits?

Willis: Lil Wayne has a line, he says, “Women lie, men lie, but numbers don’t lie.” It doesn’t matter what the issue is. You can always trace numbers, data and information to figure out what a likely successful solution could be for that problem. The numbers will always tell the story. The data always answers the question.

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