South Bend, Indiana, Integrates Technology and Innovation with a Practical Approach - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 378

South Bend, Indiana, is a mid-sized city of around 100,000 people where they are making practical use of their dark fiber network and technology. In episode 378 of the podcast, Christopher talks with Denise Linn Riedl, Chief Innovation Officer. Denise describes many of the "non-sexy" ways the community and her department are using technology to encourage interdepartmental cooperation, efficiency, and the idea that technology is a standard tool, rather than a "shiny new thing."

Denise introduces us to the publicly owned dark fiber infrastructure, Choice Light, and shares a little about its history. She describes how Internet access companies use the infrastructure to provide service to various sectors of the community. Digital inclusion is on the minds of South Bend leadership and Denise describes partnerships that have helped shrink the lack of access for people who struggle to get online. Christopher and Denise delve into the subtle digital inclusion efforts that happen every day in South Bend.

The interview also covers the city's work to use technology and data to measure success and find areas for increased efficiencies in city services. Christopher and Denise examine ways to reduce bureaucracy through technology and take a practical approach by considering what resources are currently available. Denise's department works with other governmental departments on adopting new approaches and working through change management. She discusses the city's data governance project and reviews some of the surprising moments that have led to innovative use of data to enhance city operations in South Bend and cut costs.

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Transcript below. 

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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Denise Linn Riedl: Technology is not a separate bright and shiny thing. It really is something that we want to be additive to residents and to city government employees.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 378 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. This week, Christopher visits with Denise Linn Riedl, chief innovation officer with the city of South Bend, Indiana. The community owns a dark fiber network that it's using for practical purposes that we don't often hear about in tech news but are nonetheless important for city operations. Denise introduces us to the network and the entities it serves and describes some of the advantages and benefits the asset have brought to South Bend. She talks about their digital inclusion programs and how they've used the network to break through bureaucratic silos. The city is involved in a data governance project, and Denise shares some surprising moments related to innovation surrounding data collection. She explains how the Department of Innovation and Technology has helped other local government departments embrace change management, and she talks about what it's like encouraging people to approach technology differently than they have in the past. Now, here's Christopher with Denise Linn Riedl from South Bend, Indiana.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance up in Minneapolis. Today I'm speaking with Denise Linn Riedl, the chief innovation officer for South Bend, Indiana. Welcome to the show, Denise.

Denise Linn Riedl: Thank you very much for having me, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: You and I have bumped into each other many times over the years. I'm really excited to get a better sense of what you're up to. I'm glad that you're working in a place that really seems to be very interested in innovation. Let me start by asking you — chief innovation officer. What do you spend most of your time doing?

Denise Linn Riedl: Yeah, I mean, actually one thing I love about my job is how impossible it is to answer that question. I would say, as chief innovation officer, I have a really interesting diverse portfolio of work at the city. I am the head of our Department of Innovation and Technology. So our department in city government, we manage everything from internal IT for the city, so making sure everyone has a device and that the networks are running well and securely, but we also run data and performance management for the city and open data. So we partner with other departments to make sure that they have what they need to track their data and use data to improve services and track their strategic priorities. We also manage technology policy generally in the region, and so that means that we are the hub for digital inclusion work at the city. We're the hub for smart city work and smart city piloting. And yeah, I mean, on any given day I could be thinking about how we can use sensors to improve the way we salt roads to using data to think about police recruiting or I could be thinking about how we can connect more residents to the Internet. So it's a really interesting job and encompasses a lot of different things, but all of them in some way connect to how data and technology can improve lives in the city of South Bend.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, and that's why I really wanted to talk to you because I wanted to get a sense of what you're doing on broadband and sort of moving data around the city. But I also wanted to get beyond that to talk about why this is important from a municipal perspective, why — how local governments can be different as we move into this world with all this connectivity. But let's start. You have a very interesting dark fiber network in South Bend that is not the normal. So tell us a little bit about that, but you don't have to tell us everything. I just want to let people know we're not gonna go too in depth because I think this is going to be a subject of an entire show in the future.

Denise Linn Riedl: So our dark fiber network — they actually just rebranded, so they're named ChoiceLigh. And they were started several years ago really as a partnership between the major anchor institutions here in South Bend, Indiana, so Notre Dame obviously was involved as well as our hospital systems, the city, and other governments. And really, it was just a matter of we needed the infrastructure, especially with the research institution in our backyard. Everyone — the demand existed, but the supply wasn't there. That's really how ChoiceLight was born. The dark fiber network was built, and it's been expanding ever since. I think they have over 250 miles of dark fiber in the region. They partner with the ISPs to deliver services to university, to the hospitals, the city, and all of our city facilities, as well as many small businesses in the area. And so, that's been a really wonderful asset that the city's been able to leverage, not only for, you know, helping stakeholders in the community get the connectivity they need, but also one really interesting example that touches on digital inclusion. We have these sites called CLICK sites here in South Bend, so that's a great partnership between the city of South Bend, the Saint Joseph County Public Library, and ChoiceLight, our dark fiber network. And ChoiceLight essentially provided connectivity to the sites, the library staffed them, and the city manages them. And they're place-based community centers that really help people get connections, kids do homework, people apply for jobs outside their homes in public spaces. And so, that's been a great asset here in the city, to have that partnership and leverage that so that people can get online. It certainly doesn't solve the digital divide entirely, but it's something that has made a difference here in our community.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, it sounds like something that would also be very useful for the census, to make sure that people are able to fill it out and be counted.

Denise Linn Riedl: Yes. Actually, that's another partnership we're excited for in 2020 is how we can leverage those centers to make sure that everyone's getting counted. One thing I love about this job as well is how — you know, my background is mostly in telecommunications policy. I've done a lot of digital inclusion work in other cities, a lot of telecommunications planning work in other cities, and some open data and civic tech work. But I love how as CIO, I can think about how all of these things intersect, and I think the census is an excellent example of that. So, you know, for Census 2020, it not only matters because obviously the data created from the census will impact nonprofit research and academic research in community indicators for the next decade. It also impacts federal funding. It also just impacts justice in general. You know, you want to make sure that your community is well represented in the numbers that the government collects. But also, with the new 2020 Census and having the online portion of the census, having potentially new trust issues with the census and data collection with the census, those trust issues to a certain degree have always existed, but they're going to become different now that the census is modernizing. And we certainly want to be a resource to community members that have those concerns, make sure that we're addressing any misinformation out there about the census, but then helping people fill out their census forms and be counted I think is really important. And I think that's a really interesting example about how digital inclusion, data equity, community research, all are kind of intersecting in a very important timely local issue.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. I think that that's something we're going to hear a lot more about is how cities are trying to make sure that people are filling that out because of all of the implications. So that actually just feeds right into something that you'd already started talking about, which is digital inclusion. So, what additional things are happening around digital inclusion in South Bend?

Denise Linn Riedl: So that's a great question. Our library system is grea. They've been doing a lot of work on digital inclusion, and the CLICK SB sites have been great. The city of South Bend has been expanding our free Wi-Fi network,so we actually have some plans to expand that further not just in downtown but different neighborhood corridors upcoming in 2020. Beyond that, I've spent a lot of this year — I started position in February of 2019 — really just doing a deep dive into where the city is when it comes to digital equity. So for instance, I know that almost 30 percent of South Bend households, according to the latest American Community Survey data, don't have a broadband subscription. And so, that's a big problem when it comes to, you know, me making sure and the city making sure that children can do their homework at home or that senior citizens can access their benefits and they can communicate with their families. You know, we're working now to really make sure that we can go in the right direction with our commitment to digital inclusion, and so we really had our heads down this year working with stakeholders and thinking about how we're going to take next steps, potentially creating a digital inclusion plan, and a broader coordinated regional effort around digital equity. I feel like, you know . . . As in most cities, I think digital inclusion isn't just touching librarians, and it's not even just touching the people that traditionally do this work. The more I learn about other parts of the city, the more I realize there are people who work in digital inclusion that don't know it, and one really good example is our community paramedicine program here in South Bend. So I work closely with the fire department because they use technology and data to really inform their emergency services. One thing that they do is they have a community paramedic that goes to homes that are the origins of frequent ER visitors, and they'll offer services, help them, try and provide some preventative care. And often a lot of that preventative care is helping people sign up for care online, helping people access health information, do health research independently, getting people online at all. And so, that's been one really interesting example about how we've discovered there are hidden digital inclusion frontline workers. One thing we're doing is taking stock of all those people and seeing how we can essentially coordinate, train the trainer, so we can make sure that where resources currently exist, we're connecting them to people that need them the most, but then also figuring out where those gaps are in our city so we can deploy them in all the places that will be useful.

Christopher Mitchell: That is actually an answer that leads again right into my next thought, which is really, it seems to me that you are tasked with looking across all of the silos and figuring out how to solve some of these problems, break down some of the silos, and that sort of a thing. I noticed actually that you've also worked with the fire department on improving fire inspections and trying to work with people, and this is something that I think it may all come back to this perspective that seems to infuse South Bend, which is one in which I only can only assume — I mean, I know that you haven't been there since the beginning of the CIO approach, but it seems like it's a very healthy place where people are trying to work together to solve these problems. So I'm curious if you can, you know, using an example, like perhaps the fire department inspections or some other one, in which you're using IT to try to maybe break down some of these silos or take advantage of all the connectivity we have now — in ways that you might call smart city, but I think really may not be sexy enough for something in a panel in a conference somewhere.

Denise Linn Riedl: Yeah, no, that's a really a really good question because I think a lot of the wins in IT are those wonderful but as you would say, unsexy things, these quick wins that help the city run better. I think we get a lot of those through our performance management program that we run here at the city of South Bend. It's called SB Stat, and what that looks like is in partnership with the mayor's office, our department will sit down with other departments or other teams in the city, and they'll pick a strategical. So for instance, for the fire department, historically one of their goals was intelligently deploying a fire alarm and smoke detector program. And so, what they did through SB Stat is they partnered with our department, and we did a data analysis and essentially created an equation for them to figure out the areas of the city that really they should be targeting for these resources. And that's been a great way to, again, kind of be data-driven in our program design approach but also make sure that departments, as they deploy programs and as they track their success, they have technical assistance on that front. And so SB stat, it's been a great collaboration with other departments, showcasing the way data can be leveraged to improve their work, highlight their success, and tell their story. The fire department's been a great partner on that front. We've also worked with our police department. We work with our Department of Public Works. So recently, we actually partnered with the Venues Parks and Arts Department here in South Bend, and we use the data they collect every day on parks maintenance, things like mowing, tree cover, graffiti removal, and we were able to take that live data that they collect every day on the front lines of their jobs and turn it into a dashboard. And so, we have a beta version of that we're working on now and we would hope to release to the public soon, but then create an even more detailed version for parks management so they can see live what's happening in the park system, where they can be dedicating more resources or manpower, and just help them make better daily management decisions. And so, that's one way we've been able to kind of foster that culture of data and performance.

Christopher Mitchell: Let me just ask you, because this to me seems like a perfect example of the way that we would want our cities to work, but I worked briefly for state government, I don't know, 13-14 years ago. And my impression was then, and I'm sure that it's still the case in some places today, that if they wanted to do what you're describing — to maybe create some sort of interface in which people that are out getting this intelligence who are seeing the graffiti or, you know, are getting those reports that they can then enter it into a system and then turn it into usable information — they would have had to procure a contractor to write the software and go through all these levels of bureaucracy, which I don't say to be pejorative. Like, there's reasons to have processes. But how do you make it work? Do you have programmers that just do this sort of a thing for you or like what do you go through to make that happen?

Denise Linn Riedl: That's a very good question. One of the mantras of our team — I mean, our official mantra is "listen first, build with," which is just the way we like to approach problems. Whether we're working with a colleague in city government that's not familiar with technology or we're working with a resident who cares about open data, we want to listen first and build with. I would say another hidden mantra that relates to what you just talked about, Chris, is "let's do as much as we can with as little as we have." Right? So we are, I think, a small or mid-sized city.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to make sure people know. I mean, you're talking about 100,000 people, right? I mean it's —

Denise Linn Riedl: Yeah, yeah. I'm sorry. I apologize to you and your listeners. I just moved from Chicago. My reference point is very strange.

Christopher Mitchell: No, it's fine. Yeah. I'm sensitive to it because your mayor has been slandered as being from some sort of small town, and I think people imagine, you know, like Shawnee or something like that from Parks and Rec. And South Bend, it's got a major university in it. You know, it's a town with 100,000 people. You have a non-small workforce that you're working with. So I just want to make sure people have that sense of what you're talking about. It's not like you go talk to everyone, you know all the other employees. Like, it's a significant workforce that you're dealing with.

Denise Linn Riedl: Yes. No, it's very true. And thank you for saying that Chris. And I was going to say, you know, despite the fact that we are a mid-sized city, we are still big enough that we're quite complex, and so I would say we lack some of the truly, you know, epically burdensome bureaucratic layers that I think some cities do have to deal with just because there are, you know, less degrees of people that we have to work through to find the person that we need to know to get the thing done. But that being said, we still are a complex system, and so I think that's why, you know, we are, as Mayor Pete often references us, a perfect beta city because of our size, but because of our assets and because of our culture. We really have, like, a get it done culture here in city government, not just in the innovation team, but really across departments, which I think I found very refreshing being a relative newcomer to city staff, and I really admire it as well.

Christopher Mitchell: And I just realized, I said Shawnee when I meant Pawnee, which just, you know . . .

Denise Linn Riedl: Oh yes. I was going to correct you, but . . .

Christopher Mitchell: But when I derailed you, you were talking about how you're able to — you were talking about the build with approach, but I'm still curious what the actual mechanics are for getting something like that new dashboard set up.

Denise Linn Riedl: When it came to this dashboard, we didn't procure anything. We didn't buy anything — I mean, except for normal Microsoft products I think that you would, you know, assume that a city had. And really what it is, is we give VPA staff, you know, tablets. They use those tablets to input data every day into, you know, SharePoint spreadsheets. We connect the SharePoint spreadsheets to Power BI dashboards, and they display data. And really, it's just about, you know, doing a simple thing that gets the job done that actually is additive for management and it's not too burdensome in terms of change management for frontline workers, and that's kind of a sweet spot that we like to hit. Technology, you know, while it does come with benefits, it also sometimes gives some people more work. I think whenever we deploy technology, there are always winners and losers, so to speak, and I think, you know, the city certainly has absorbed a lot of cultural and operational change when it comes to technology over the last few years. And the fact that the frontline staff at our Venues Parks and Arts Department, the people that mow the grass in parks and do this work for the city, have been so good at collecting this data and being so vigilant about being up to date on it. It's actually remarkable, and it's something really commendable, I think, for the leadership in that department and at all levels, I think it's been. So really, what's necessary is not so much finding the perfect technology solution; it's about working with the department, figuring out what is the simplest thing that's gonna get the job done and hopefully the cheapest thing, and let's stand it up and do it. I mean, I think that if you're going to undertake all of that cultural change and that change management, you know, let's test something out first. We might buy something more sophisticated later, but I think this is good for now. And actually, we've been able to stand it up probably faster than we would be able to procure and implement a piece of technology.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the side effects of having systems like that is that you end up with a lot of data, and I'm curious if you can tell us about the data governance initiative that you're working on right now.

Denise Linn Riedl: The city of South Bend, like many other cities, participates in the What Works Cities program that Bloomberg runs, and What Works Cities is basically a blueprint for city governments that are trying to be data-driven and think about innovation and think about how they can push their governments to think about performance. And so, we have been a participant in that for several years now, and one area that we've been working on, kind of in that suite of tasks that What Works Cities presents to cities and recommends that cities do, is data governance. And so, what we started earlier this year in 2019 is that we essentially identified data stewards in every single one of our departments, and really what that person does — they're not necessarily a data person or a data expert, but they know about the data that the city collects and they know what data their team collects. They understand how they manage their data, how they store their data, and they speak to the data on their teams. And so, we brought those folks together earlier this year and regularly met with those data stewards across city government. This was a group of about 25 people or so, and again, I think this is another advantage of a city that's large enough to be complex but small enough that we can get things done relatively quickly. This data governance group, we actually undertook together a data inventory at the city of South Bend. And while that sounds really simple, you know, the idea of "Oh, of course you take inventory of all the data you have," actually less than a quarter of cities do this, which is interesting. You know, it's quite a burdensome task, and even before I think the advent of modern technology, cities had been collecting data since cities existed, you know. And so, we really have sat down with every department and figured out what information you're collecting, what data you're maintaining, and you know, that's for several reasons. One, it's good to know, but then two, we can identify data that departments have that are excellent candidates to go on the open data portal. And that's something that we care very much about at the city of South Bend — is transparency, not just releasing data. Open data is a part of our transparency plan and a part of the values we have. But you know, what information can be shared with the public? What tools can we create on top of our open data that would bring value to the public and answer public questions? And so, that data inventory also helps with that process around identifying that information that we can share with the public.

Christopher Mitchell: Did you find any interesting data sets where you were just thinking, "Oh wow, this solves a problem I didn't even realize that we had?" Or rather, that we had a problem and this solves it in ways I didn't know we would be able to.

Denise Linn Riedl: Yeah. We're going through that process now with departments. It's been a lot of, like, smaller aha moments with people around the data they're collecting. Like, one interesting moment we had with our central services team — they have a lot of really good data around the fuel that all of the vehicles in the city are using, and also, I mean, from that we can get a lot of information on fuel savings and also some of the sustainability metrics that the city is collecting over time. I mean, we want to be cognizant certainly of climate change, and that's something that we as a city operationally want to make sure we're tracking, our use of fossil fuels. And so, I think that that was an interesting data set I had no idea they were maintaining but that we had, and I think that's one example of a nice aha moment. Whether cities know it or not, I think there's a lot of interesting data being collected and maintained from different departments. Not all of it I think is necessarily, you know, primetime for public. Some of it of course never can be shared because of privacy concerns, but some of it really does have public value. And I think, you know, we're trying to find that sweet spot of what is the public interest. And even if it doesn't have immediate public interest, what could be used by researchers or developers and be layered with something else to turn into something that has value?

Christopher Mitchell: So the last thing I wanted to ask you about is a quote that I saw that I think came from you, and you can tell me if it didn't, but it had to do with working at the pace of trust. And I'm curious what that means.

Denise Linn Riedl: You know, our department at the city of South Bend, we are internally facing for the most part. We do a lot of programs that have meaning for residents — you know, the CLICK sites are a good example of that — but for the most part we help other departments do their jobs better. And so, a lot of the work we do is about internal change management at the city, and so we work with city stakeholders that have been doing what they've been doing for a long time, whether they personally have been doing it that way for a long time or their team has or just their system has worked the way it's been working for a long time. And whenever you disrupt that or you find a simple or big way to change that process, it's inherently disruptive even if it adds value to either the end user, which is the resident, or to their team. And so, the inspiration behind that quote, like "moving into the speed of trust," I think, you know, while innovation is inherently disruptive and there is productive discomfort that comes along with that, I think in order for it to be sustainable and for you to create a true culture of continuous improvement, you have to get buy in from, you know, other city stakeholders that are not technologists and are not inherently sold on data and technology or digital inclusion or smart city work. And you have to work with them to really show that, one, this is how data can improve the way you're mowing parks or you know, the way you're installing smoke alarms or the way you're deploying the finite resources that we need to use to improve lives in the city of South Bend. Developing those quick wins and adding value with our internal stakeholders, we've been able to leverage that to really show that, you know, innovation has value. It's not just a bright and shiny thing that cities can release press releases on or talk about in speeches. You know, it really is something that is a means to an end, and that end is usually around the work that they do, the services they provide, or the goals that residents have. And so, really the inspiration behind that quote is that, you know, we want to work at the speed of trust. Technology is not a separate bright and shiny thing. It really is something that we want to be additive to residents and to city government employees.

Christopher Mitchell: Well that wraps it up very well, actually comes full circle because that's one of the reasons I was excited to have you on was to talk more about not just how the connectivity works — you know, you have the interesting dark fiber network — but really what comes next in the world as we have this high quality connectivity as we're generating more data and moving into, you know, a place that may be scary for some folks. To me it looks like South Bend is really at the front of doing this in ways that benefit everyone, so I want to thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing that with us.

Denise Linn Riedl: Great. Well thank you for having me.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and Denise Linn Riedl, chief innovation officer with the city of South Bend, Indiana. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.orgs/broadbandbits. Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount helps keep us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the Song Warm Duck shuffle licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 378 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.