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L.A. County Parks CIO: ‘Push Digital Transition to Cutting-Edge Technologies’

An image of Terence Davis, CIO of the L.A. County Department of Parks and Recreation, below a quote that reads, "DPR is committed to becoming a data-driven organization. A key step in my transformation plans is the use of an advanced analytics platform with integration of multiple data sources for reporting, analytics and forecasting."
As part of Industry Insider — California’s ongoing efforts to educate readers on state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT leaders.

Terence Davis is the chief information officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, an entity that encompasses more than 100 parks, 20 golf courses, 25 nature/wildlife centers, 42 swimming pools, the Hollywood Bowl and the Ford Theater. Davis, who has more than 30 years’ experience in governance, architecture, security, design and delivery, oversees the teams that manage the tech for more than 70,000 acres across more than 4,000 square miles in a county of 10 million residents. He’s been in his role for just over a year after having served as the inaugural chief enterprise architect for the county’s Office of the CIO. Before that, Davis held various technical, architect and executive roles in the private sector, including with Incedo Inc., ClearPath Networks, AAXIS Group, Mphasis Corp., Sony Pictures and Citibank.

The Santa Monica resident received his bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from the University of California, Los Angeles and his master of science in MS, information and cybersecurity from UC Berkeley. He also holds a graduate certificate in applied data science from UC Berkeley.

Industry Insider — California: As the fairly new CIO of Parks and Recreation, how do you describe your role?

Terence Davis: I have a few roles here at Parks and Recreation (DPR), but before I answer the question, let me provide a bit of background on the complexity of the DPR environment which I think will shed light on the challenges that environment places on the IT organization. The mission of Parks and Recreation is to provide the best possible experience to all park patrons. We deliver that experience at 180-plus individual locations throughout L.A. County. This includes over 100 parks, 20 golf courses, 25 nature/wildlife centers, 42 pools, the Hollywood Bowl and the Ford Theater; all together, DPR manages over 70,000 acres across the 4,000-plus square miles and 10 million residents of L.A. County. You can see the scale of the task that IT must address. IT’s role and my role is to work with the various business units within Parks to deliver technology in support of our mission to all of the DPR locations. This runs the gamut from deployment of hardware at individual parks to the identification and deployment of enterprise solutions (both vendor-provided and internally developed). I have a further mandate to pioneer the effective use of data within Parks and Recreation. As is the case in many organizations, DPR has data locked up in silos where it can’t be used for analysis and trending. I have several ongoing projects and tasks that will begin the transition to a centralized warehouse for data; this is a multiyear adventure, but I hope to have something done in calendar 2023. Last, but equally important, I drive the effective deployment of my teams: software development, network support, cybersecurity and GIS. A key goal I’ve set for myself is to better integrate these teams with the day-to-day operations of the Parks business. We (IT) can really help efficiency and workflow within the business, and I spend a large part of each week working with individuals and groups to identify and address those opportunities.

IICA: How do you define “digital transformation?” How far along is your department in that process, and how will you know when it’s finished?

Davis: For Parks and Recreation, there are two primary components to digital transformation. First is the focus on addressing the longstanding inequities in the availability of technology at our parks for our park patrons. An extremely visible example is access to Wi-Fi. We recently completed deployment of Wi-Fi to all L.A. County pools (42 individual locations) — this was a huge step forward. Building on that momentum, we are currently in the middle of a roughly 24-month process to expand Wi-Fi coverage in 36 parks identified as being in high or very high need locations. Park-accessible Wi-Fi is used by a wide variety of people for school, for work, to access and track job applications, social media, etc. For some park patrons, the park Wi-Fi is their most reliable Internet connection — it is these situations that really make an impact on the digital transformation. To answer the second part of your question, I don’t think there was a defined beginning and I know there’s no actual end to the transformation. That sounds cliché, but I firmly believe that it’s true. For example, once we complete the current Wi-Fi deployment, we will move on to all the remaining parks. Then, someday, when every park has Wi-Fi, we will begin deployment of the Next Big Thing in communication technology. DPR was one of the innovators in computer labs over the last 15 years; however, the traditional computer lab is giving way to media centers and maker spaces. To keep pace with the needs of our communities, we need to push the digital transition to these cutting-edge technologies. The above is just the obvious stuff. My team held an off-site (meeting) in August 2022, where we discussed what technology for Parks and Rec will look like in 20 years. Let me say that we’ve got some real forward thinkers in the department; everything from augmented reality to robots to land management was discussed. I think we will be busy for 100 years with all the potential digital innovations that came out of our off-site! We all know that what really drives good business decisions is data, and as mentioned above, DPR is committed to becoming a data-driven organization. A key step in my transformation plans is the use of an advanced analytics platform with integration of multiple data sources for reporting, analytics and forecasting. Once we have a robust data set, we will be able to tease out usage trends that will inform budget, future projects and actions to further improve how we deliver services to park visitors and point us in the right direction for future major technology initiatives.

IICA: You have a deep background in the technical side — architect, developer and executive in both the private and public sectors. What does the private sector do better than government, and where does government perform better than industry?

Davis: The private sector is good at imposing cohesive technical and architectural strategies and standards across their deployed solutions. At most of the organizations I guided, the CIO/CTO could dictate the use of certain platforms and require a very high standard of documentation and project leadership. The private sector can also be very nimble when it comes to the adoption of new technology. That is not to say private organizations get technology correct all the time — they fail as often as anybody — but private organizations are acutely aware that they must adapt to survive. On the other hand, government technology projects are very good at long-term thinking. Once government adopts a technology, they stick with it and so maximize technology value while minimizing technological disruption. That said, government can stick with technologies for too long, resulting in inflexible workflows and limited integration capabilities.

IICA: Does Parks and Rec have a strategic plan, and may we hyperlink to it? How big a role will you play in writing the next strategic plan?

Davis: I am pleased to say that DPR has finalized and released a new strategic plan; I encourage everyone to review it (Strategic Plan 2023 — Parks and Recreation). This plan is intended to bring us to 2028 and I hope to be around when we publish the next one! To discuss the current plan for a moment, it is focused on tangible actions; as you review the document, you’ll see that each of our six goals has specific actions that we will be reviewing yearly with department personnel and our constituents to track our progress. From a technology point of view, it’s clear that data plays a key role. As has been mentioned above, DPR is firmly committed to becoming a data-driven organization, and the strategic plan identifies numerous areas where data will inform how we evolve. Finally, the executive team recognizes that technology changes and we are prepared to review our progress against best practices and new breakthroughs as they emerge.

IICA: What is your estimated IT budget, and how many members does your IT team have? What is the overall department budget?

Davis: The IT budget is roughly $10 million annually, depending on the number of additional internal projects, managed vendor projects and hardware support that we are called on to perform. My team is 18 (full-time equivalents) FTE and three interns. The overall Parks budget is available from the L.A. County 2022-23 final budget book but is roughly $250 million.

IICA: What big initiatives or projects are coming up for your department? What sorts of developing opportunities and RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Davis: RFPs are managed through the Internal Services Department. I encourage potential vendors to become registered county vendors, at which point you will be notified of upcoming RFPs.

IICA: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors, including via social media such as LinkedIn? How might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Davis: If you want contact me please use my direct email address: or you can find me on LinkedIn. The best way to participate in county opportunities is to become a registered vendor with our Internal Services Department so you are notified of upcoming RFPs.

IICA: If you could change one thing about IT procurement, what would it be?

Davis: Since you opened the door, I actually have several. These are very geeky topics but they drive me batty. First, any product that I am asked to review or approve for use at DPR absolutely must authenticate against Azure Active Directory. Full stop. Second, your product must expose data and workflow via an API (we are no longer in 1990). I have had vendors try to charge me $10,000 for AD integration and look at me like I’m crazy when I ask about APIs. Any vendor that does not provide those basic functionalities will have a hard time passing my procurement prerequisites. A final critical point: Security. DPR has a somewhat unique security profile in that we have fundamental use cases that expose our technology outside the organization in a manner that other county departments do not encounter. L.A. County is an enormous target and we work very hard to minimize our vulnerabilities. To ensure our continued high security environment, I expect every vendor to demonstrate to me that their product or service considers security from the outset and that it will play nice with the security stack that the county has deployed.

IICA: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the gov tech/SLED sector?

Davis: Perhaps not a direct answer, but I like to speak with my peers within the county and collaborate with other government technologists at small monthly meetings. I have found that in an organization as large as L.A. County (100,000-plus FTEs in roughly 40 departments) someone, somewhere has used almost any technology I’m interested in — be it (continuous integration/continuous delivery or deployment) CI/CD, API management, data governance, forms processing, etc.

IICA: What are your hobbies?

Davis: I have three main hobbies: skiing, computers and sports cars. I’ve been skiing since I was 5 and count the days from when the last chairlift closes in the spring until the snow begins to fall in November/December. I also really enjoy fiddling with my computers — I recently put together a new desktop computer (AMD 5750X with 128GB RAM, for those fellow nerds) and I have several personal Raspberry Pi projects. Though I don’t get to do much programming these days, I try to keep my skills up by helping my dev team where I can (perhaps a net negative), writing and re-implementing personal projects and new software experiments using my current favorite language, Python, or my first love, C. My other expensive hobby is sports cars and taking them to local Southern California Monte Carlo road rallies and tracks. What do I read? One of my astronomy professors years ago said that as young scientists we should read Scientific American. I’ve subscribed ever since. Aside from science, programming and technology-focused media, I mostly read science fiction.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.