L.A. is a Smart City on the Rise

CIO Ted Ross is hardwiring the second-largest city in the United States and connecting four million residents to real-world solutions

For Ted Ross, leveraging technology to improve his city isn’t a luxury, it’s an obligation. The native Angeleno and diehard Lakers fan is the chief information officer for the City of Los Angeles. In an era of doing more with less—his IT department has 40 percent less staff than it did in 2008—he’s finding new ways to engage residents, drive digital innovation, and advance America’s second-largest city.

Ross started his career working in IT systems and finance in the private sector before discovering his passion for government work while improving financial systems at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). From there, he moved on to the successful $50 million enterprise resource planning (ERP) project with the LA controller’s office before accepting a role as deputy CIO of the city’s Information Technology Agency in 2012. Mayor Eric Garcetti tapped Ross to lead LA’s tech group in 2015.

As the IT agency for the City of Los Angeles, Ross’s group consists of 480 employees with a budget of $90 million, serving 48,000 city employees and four million residents stretching across 469-square-miles. The department runs a traditional IT shop, a 24-7 data center, the city’s network, and a portfolio of more than 250 applications. Additionally, Ross manages special services, such as a 311 call center, the city’s cable TV station, radio communication systems for police and fire departments, and even helicopter avionics.

To guide such a large organization, Ross relies on practices learned as an MBA, where he specialized in IT management. He’s also learned to delegate. “I liken it to the military,” he says. “Our group is large. You can’t use squad tactics; you need to be more of a general.” With that in mind, Ross has deployed a network of trusted deputy CIOs and employed a balanced hierarchy that allows him to disperse management throughout the organization and empower staff to make decisions in the field as long as those verdicts align with the city’s overall strategy.

Thankfully, Los Angeles has a tech-savvy mayor who understands both the pressure Ross is under and the potential impact his office can have on the city. Mayor Garcetti has encouraged his leaders to adopt PerformanceStat, a data-driven, metrics-based management approach pioneered by the Los Angeles Police Department. Every month, Ross uses the digital system to monitor and set objectives for the services his department provides. “Data is the only way to put your finger on the pulse of a large organization. With the right data, our leaders know exactly what’s going on in our key services, and it lets us prioritize our resources to help them succeed,” Ross explains.

Armed with monthly information on unfulfilled tickets, major outages, or other key performance indicators (KPIs), he can identify issues quickly and implement the effective responses. Setting performance metrics, using robust data, and becoming truly data-driven is the only way to find and sustain success in what could become an overwhelming and impossibly large undertaking.

An effective leader, Ross says, should take an organization from good to great. That’s exactly what he’s trying to do by helping the City of Los Angeles shift from solely focusing on excellent information technology to responsive and responsible information technology. “A data-driven approach can help us effect real change, such as giving previously underserved communities better access to city services,” he says.

For example, Los Angeles’ 311 call center receives more than 119,000 calls each month regarding graffiti, potholes, illegal dumping, and other problems. Recently, Ross’s group launched the MyLA311 mobile application and web portal to create a sophisticated service Angelinos can use to report those problems without placing a call. Now, users who would never take the time to place a phone call simply snap a photo of graffiti (or any other reportable item) and send it via their smartphones. Today, more than 20 percent of all requests for city services arrive digitally, improving the customer experience and lowering city expenses.

As Ross and his colleagues mine the depths of government data, they’re looking to make that data freely available to others. “As a city council member, Eric Garcetti was a strong proponent of open data for transparency and government innovation, and as mayor, he’s a champion. It’s great for us to have council members and a mayor who believe in the power of data and technology to improve the city,” Ross says.

He’s worked to implement an open data portal—Data.LACity.org—in which city departments publish more than 450 data sets covering everything from traffic to crime. While the private sector brings great innovation, the public sector has unique datasets and information. And by making that information available through open data, Ross gives nonprofits, universities, and businesses the chance to research city problems, launch new businesses, and create new solutions for Angelenos. “Through open data, the City of Los Angeles can partner its information with the innovation and experience of four million Angelenos. . . . Open data and collaboration are the vehicles to take us there,” he says.

In 2015, the department completed a project with the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business designed to reduce traffic deaths. Along with the LAPD and Los Angeles Department of Transportation, they combined transportation data on traffic fatalities with other data sets around demographics, streets, and traffic engineering. Five USC graduate teams worked to create new insights and propose real-world solutions based on their findings.

Other important projects include digital inclusion and diversity in technology. In 2015, the Information Technology Agency worked with local nonprofits to recycle, refurbish, and distribute city computers to families in need. To date, it has donated approximately 1,600 computers to low-income families who have not had reliable Internet access. Now, it is working on connectivity and digital literacy training so students and families can compete in today’s digital society.

Ross is active in raising diversity awareness and shared some surprising statistics. Nearly 10 percent of the city’s jobs are in high tech. In fact, the region has more tech jobs (by total number) than the Bay Area. “Los Angeles has a booming tech industry, yet at least 75 percent of those jobs are held by men,” he says. The industry—which enjoys low unemployment rates and higher pay—doesn’t truly reflect the city’s total population. To address the imbalance, Ross and his agency are promoting diversity in the field, and they’ve been making progress. Within the agency, 53 percent of managers and 42 percent of programmers are highly qualified women.

As the digital revolution rushes on, cities must leverage the power of technology to engage their residents. It’s a simple numbers game. “We’d have to fill up the STAPLES Center 222 times to speak to all of Los Angeles through traditional means,” he explains. “With mobile devices and digital communications, we can communicate and engage them faster than ever before.” Through effective digital services, Ross hopes to truly help Angelenos live in a smart, global city.