June 17, 2008 By Jessica Mulholland
Tony Cardenas was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 2003, representing parts of the city's sprawling San Fernando Valley. In early March, Cardenas sat down with Government Technology to discuss how the nation's second most-populous city uses technology to strengthen public safety and improve quality of life for residents.
In particular, Cardenas pointed to L.A.'s Jordan Downs public housing project, where a wireless mesh network provides streaming video surveillance for Los Angeles Police Department officers and wireless Internet access for Jordan Downs residents. Cardenas, a former California assemblyman, also talked about his efforts to finance traffic light synchronization that helped tame the city's infamous roadway congestion and about plans for citywide wireless Internet access.
Q: What are your top technology priorities for the city?
A: One is something that our police department has testified is critical in some of the high-crime areas. For example, in Jordan Downs, we have a pilot program with a private company working with the police department. They have two commandments. One is that they have cameras that are already hooked in to the police department, and [officers] can actually watch them from a screen within their vehicles. So if they have a shooting, or a report of rape or other heavy crime, they can turn to those cameras and see the scene before they walk in. They may be going into a scene where someone has weapons, so for the police officer to actually get a bird's-eye view of what's going on in there is a tremendous safety [feature], not only for the public, but for the department.
Now that the infrastructure is there, the second commandment is to have technology and computers available to kids and families in Jordan Downs, which is a public housing facility - one of the biggest and most crime-ridden in the city. They're using the technology for public safety, and at the same time, using that backbone of infrastructure to have technology available so kids become computer literate. ... When you look at the digital divide, they're trying to provide answers.
Q: Can you tell me about other ways you've bridged technology and public safety?
A: Reporting is very important. I was trained as an engineer, and it's important for me to have feedback. Once you get feedback, you can decide whether or not the first investment did happen and it's working the way it was expected.
In addition to that, feedback systems are the backbone of human improvement. A feedback system is a fancy way of saying you take information and then think about it, analyze what you've learned, put it back in the system and get better results. One of my responsibilities that I'm holding the police department and also the technology company accountable for, is they stay on course, report to my IT committee and tell me the progress [of the Jordan Downs pilot].
We're also always looking for opportunities and other beneficial factors, such as making sure that backbone of infrastructure can be used for the community's purposes as well. So it's primarily for public safety, and that's what we use it for. We're keeping our fingers crossed because we hope and expect it will be successful, and if it's proven successful, we want to duplicate [the Jordan Downs pilot program] throughout the city.
Q: In less than two years, you've overhauled L.A.'s business tax system. What did that entail?
A: L.A.'s mayor [Antonio Villaraigosa ] was quoted as acknowledging we had an overburdened city tax system for businesses. We don't rank very well with our neighboring cities - some cities have no city tax for businesses; some have a very minimal tax; we have had one