November 5, 2020

This FUSE-produced story was originally published on Next City.

The Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting has the not-so-small task of maintaining more than 223,000 lights throughout city neighborhoods and streets, contributing to the safety and well-being of four million residents. For more than a decade, it has been transitioning to new technologies — converting to LEDs, updating to 5G, adding smart nodes, installing electric vehicle charging stations — to provide more services, save money, and improve environmental sustainability, making Los Angeles a leader in smart city technology.

For years, the bureau has connected with communities through various initiatives, including apps, service centers, and cultural programs. For its first major strategic plan, LA Lights Strategic Plan 2020-2025, agency leaders prioritized better engaging with low-income neighborhoods to make sure its plans were equitable across neighborhoods.

Working alongside the bureau, FUSE executive fellow Angelica Frias helped sharpen its focus on community engagement. “The Smart City plan looks at not only how we expand and strengthen our current street lighting system, but also what we need to think about as we adopt new technology and digital solutions. And by that I mean, are we solving both city challenges and people challenges?” she said. “What is our growth plan for some of these new technology solutions, and are we considering the diverse needs of our stakeholders? Are we being inclusive as we grow?”

Here’s what the bureau learned about understanding the wants, needs, and concerns of communities.

To find out what people want, you have to ask.

In addition to other outreach efforts, the bureau developed a pilot specifically targeted at low-income and underserved communities to figure out their priorities and interests in smart city technology. To reach people with limited English proficiency, who are not connected digitally, and who reside in low-income neighborhoods, staff distributed surveys at community events, through Family Source Centers, and by partnering with community-based organizations to hold focus groups in Spanish.

“What is our growth plan for some of these new technology solutions, and are we considering the diverse needs of our stakeholders? Are we being inclusive as we grow?” Angelica Frias, FUSE executive fellow for Los Angeles

What did they learn? Safety is a priority, so interest is high in safety cameras and sensors that automatically turn on lights as pedestrians walk by. People are also interested in air quality sensors, and they want access to wifi. “Natural, right? Because we know there’s a digital divide,” said Frias. “It’s about basic needs. Cities are still all about the people.”

The bureau also learned that people want to be heard. “They were happy we were there, saying, ‘Wow, nobody’s ever asked me what I wanted.’ They wanted to engage. They just didn’t know how. They didn’t know about us,” Frias said.

To continue building more collaborative and trusting relationships with communities, businesses, and local organizations, the bureau is working on ways to ensure these voices are part of its design and planning processes. “We’re going to develop tools to engage with the community on a regular basis,” Frias said. “It’s about how you continue to collaborate with the community.”

Let people know what isn’t working.

Los Angeles has a problem with copper wire and power theft, which has increased along with the rise in homelessness. When copper wires are stolen, the lights on entire streets go out, and the repair is costly and can take several days. But residents didn’t know the reason behind their lights going out, or why it would take so long for them to be fixed. “We realized we need to educate people about this so they understand and also call us and let us know,” said Frias.

The bureau installed four safety cameras in neighborhoods where copper wire and power theft occur to serve as a deterrent. To improve its response, the bureau is also working on a High Impact Area pilot that combines repair and maintenance activities, which are often performed separately, while also enhancing outreach to increase awareness. The pilot is planned for this winter.

To serve everyone, dig deeper into the data.

When people see that a street light is out, they can report it using the bureau’s app, email, Twitter account, website, or they can call. The bureau collects and tracks this “lights out” data, which breaks down reported outages by council district, of which there are 15 in the city. An initial look at the data shows the bureau is doing its job: 99 percent of the city’s street lights are operational. But it also turns out that most of the lights-out reports were taking place in wealthier districts.

To create an informed five-year strategy, we have to talk to the people, and not just the people who already know about us. — Norma Isahakian, executive director, L.A. Bureau of Street Lighting

“We knew that lights were going out in other districts. The question became, is it our job just to serve the people who call?” Frias said. “We asked ourselves, is this an equitable distribution of resources?”

In addition to improving service through the High Impact Area pilot, the bureau is working to achieve more equitable distribution of smart solutions across council districts. Plans include increasing access to high-speed broadband in underserved communities, as well as beta testing of smart lighting poles with public wifi, USB ports, and air quality sensors.

Put your money where your mouth is.

To create an informed five-year strategy, Norma Isahakian, executive director of the Bureau of Street Lighting, wanted to talk to the people, and not just the people who already knew about the bureau. So she created a Community Engagement Division. “She really put her money where her mouth is,” said Frias. “We asked, how are we going to engage the community in a new way? So now we have the new division, and it’s going to carry on the work started by the strategic plan.”

The division is working on a community engagement program that looks at best ways to communicate with residents across geographic, social-economic, and racial boundaries, as well as developing ways to track and measure the impact of its work. Plans include developing cultural and linguistically appropriate materials, continuing to work with community-based organizations and city partners to reach non-English speaking communities, and improving its website to make it more user friendly and allow for community feedback.

With the COVID-19 pandemic adversely affecting city budgets nationwide, the bureau knows its ability to advance these initiatives will be impacted. “But at the core, we’re committed,” Frias said. “We’re going to find ways. We just might have to be a little more industrious.”

Taneasha White is a freelance writer and editor. She is founder and lead editor of Unsung Literary Magazine and has been published in Rewire.News, Black Youth Project, Next City, them., and more.

Photo credit: Image by Pexels from Pixabay