The Georgia State Alumni Association 40 Under 40 honoree and director of Atlanta’s Smart City Program leads efforts to leverage technology to make the city more efficient, resilient and equitable.
Cities aren’t born smart. Smart people like Lillie Madali (M.P.A. ’13) make them that way.
The Georgia State Alumni Association 40 Under 40 honoree and director of Atlanta’s Smart City Program champions universal access to technology.
Written by Charles McNair
Written by Charles McNair
Lillie Madali stepped into a big new job in 2019 as director of Atlanta’s Smart City Program.
She leads efforts to leverage technology that can give Atlanta’s 500,000 residents — and millions of visitors to the city — more efficient operations, faster and better services, and governmental transparency.
“We’re looking for ways to improve daily life using tools, technology and new ideas,” Madali said. “But we’re not running a tech program. We’re focused on the person. Smart City Atlanta is not about cool, shiny gadgets but rather how people can use tech to make this city special.”
How cities work matters more than ever in these times of climate disaster, crumbling infrastructure, cybersecurity villains and income inequality.
It’s why Georgia State’s Alumni Association honored Madali as one of the university’s most influential and innovative graduates under the age of 40.
Madali’s work has a special focus on using technology to address issues of income equality.
“A commuter in Atlanta can board a train on the south side, ride north 20 minutes and step out where the average annual income is $80,000 higher,” she said. “Smart City is paying attention now to income inequality issues like this by providing access to broadband.”
A 2014 Brookings Institution study strongly suggested an association between digital access and income, community health and crime. In an increasingly tech-driven world, vulnerable communities without basic digital resources get left behind.
Madali knows firsthand the advantages of digital inclusion.
She grew up in south Cobb County, Ga., the daughter of first-generation Filipino immigrants.
“We got our first computer in 1995 when I was in middle school,” she remembers. “My whole life changed.”
It opened a new world of opportunities for Madali.
“I saw that if I worked hard, I could get into the schools I wanted. I could write my research papers. I could advocate for my parents who didn’t speak English well. As a middle-schooler, I wrote letters to magistrate court on their behalf,” she said. “It was one of the things I had to do as a first-generation kid.”
Madali says the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates conditions for already vulnerable communities.
“Places that lack access to broadband now lack access to education, too,” she said, “because school is virtual, and jobs have gone online. But if you don’t have access, how do you work? Even many government services are now online. The pathway to a more equitable Atlanta is through broadband access.”
Madali and her team can see progress.
Using data analytics and geospatial information, Madali worked with a team of graduate students from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies to pinpoint areas of Atlanta with lower rates of broadband access. These data will guide interventions like free public Wi-Fi and recreation center upgrades to bridge the digital divide.
Madali, who once performed for President Barack Obama as a DJ (she still performs around town as DJ Lillie Smalls and co-hosts a podcast called “The Quick and Swift”), entered public service first with the Mayor’s Office of Innovation Delivery and Performance, and then WorkSource Atlanta, the city’s workforce development agency.
In the Department of City Planning, she simplified commercial permit processes with the launch of OpenCounter. The site merged information on 141 commercial permits from six city departments into one central site, prompting more than 3,000 new city projects.
She credits Georgia State for insights into how to succeed with Smart City Atlanta.
“My master’s program was really special,” she said. “Georgia State focused on foundations, giving me a great base for public work. Learning the spirit of the law and the spirit of public service has given me great instincts when I’ve had to make difficult decisions.”
Lillie Madali at Atlanta City Hall.
Photos by Steven Thackston