By KATIE HOOS
For the ninth year, Westchester County was named one of the nation’s most digital counties, using social media and digital technology to enhance services and keep residents informed.
The award, issued by the Center for Digital Government—a national research institute on information technology within local and state governments—and the National Association of Counties, recognized 10 counties throughout the country that have demonstrated success in engaging citizens through different digital tools and have promoted open government through technology.
In the 500,000 or more population category, Westchester County tied for 10th place, sharing the recognition with King County, Wash., which encompasses the Seattle metropolitan area.
Westchester has been ranked in the top 10 most digital counties for nine out of the 12 years the survey has existed.
The winners were honored on July 11 at the National Association of Counties annual conference in New Orleans.
“The 2014 Digital Counties Survey focused on the county’s story as we have told it online,” said Diana Costello, communication specialist for County Executive Rob Astorino. “County websites are rich repositories of civic information and applications for getting things done by residents and businesses alike.”
Participants in the survey identified and provided links for 10 digital initiatives of which they are most proud across four categories—citizen engagement, operations, policy and technology and data—and were evaluated on how easily accessible the information for these initiatives was online.
“Reviewers accessed the top 10 links, much like a new resident would to determine whether the information was presented clearly and in a way that can be understood, and acted upon, on first visit,” Costello said.
The team of evaluators from the Center for Digital Government scored each county based on eight measures: openness and transparency, web performance, up-to-date IT policies, social presence and activity, previous participation in the Digital Counties Survey, broadband infrastructure, increased IT spending over the past two years and the county’s population trend.
The counties were then assigned a rank for their overall performance across these categories, with Westchester County securing 10th place.
“I am proud that Westchester has once again received this prestigious honor,” Astorino said.
Some of Westchester County’s programs reviewed for the survey include the transparent government initiative, which allows the public to view digital copies of county contracts online; the security awareness program, which protects county users and sensitive data stored on county devices and the shared criminal justice data warehouse, which is a database that houses records from local and county police, the county jail and probation departments, as well as pistol permits and taxi and limousine records to help police investigate and track down suspects.
In May 2014, the county partnered with White Plains-based social media consulting firm Silverback Social to form a county digital communication task force to help optimize the county’s digital presence and discuss new technologies and best practices.
The county has also developed a large broadband infrastructure, providing facilities across the county with voice, high-speed data and internet services; created database systems for emergency response and homeless management, and installed software that automatically shuts down computers at night, which saves the county approximately $100,000 a year in energy costs.
In addition to the county’s database and technology initiatives, the Center for Digital Government survey analyzed how Westchester was engaging residents and expanding digital communications over social media.
Westchester County is currently active across Twitter and Facebook, with departments such as the County Executive’s office, Health Department, Parks Department and Tourism Department each having their own individual pages.
“We know that a lot of people get their news from social media, so we make every effort to utilize the platforms to help keep residents connected, active and in-the-know about things going on in Westchester,” Costello said. “Social media allows us to speak directly with residents. Especially during storms and emergency
situations, social media has been one of the primary means of communication.”
One of the county’s most notable usages of social media was when Hurricane Sandy hit the area in October 2012. The storm, which knocked out power for 179,000 Westchester residents, provided an opportunity for the county to communicate crucial information about power outages and where to find help through Twitter handles like @westchestergov and @robastorino.
Costello, who previously told the Review the social media response from Sandy was “tremendous,” said the county continuously monitors comments year-round and responds to questions posted on social media outlets as quickly as possible. She also said the county will likely expand into Instagram and YouTube soon.
“Our focus will continue to be on improvements in
technology that allow us to better respond to and meet the needs of Westchester residents,” Costello said. “Through constant innovation and an unrelenting focus on improved service delivery through the use of technology, [the Department of Information Technology] and Westchester County will continue to move forward to create an even stronger digital county.”
-With reporting by Conor McKoy