Government Technology Top News
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which has been exploring mobile technology and making its work more digital, is now beginning to change both customer and employee experiences, its chief information officer told Government Technology, as the agency expands its presence and information technology workforce in Sacramento.
Recognizing the transformational impact of IT, CPUC has upgraded IT services from a branch to a division, filling 55 positions — 37 of them new employees. That’s no mean feat in Northern California, where unfilled tech positions in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley have driven salaries to record levels, CIO Reza Yazdi said.
With these hirings, Yazdi said, he was able to reorganize the IT Services Division (ITSD), adding sections focused on Web applications, mobile development, network and information security. He's also bringing in a new enterprise architect.
The agency has also added organizationwide committees, including its IT governance committee, tasked with enabling the efficient and effective use of IT and helping CPUC achieve strategy goals and objectives; and the IT change control approval committee, focused on ensuring changes in IT and technical areas do not sacrifice business continuity.
The electronic age, Yazdi said, has placed many new responsibilities on CPUC.
“These components of electronic communication, in general, have (made) a lot of new roles and responsibilities for IT, to create a digital foundation for the CPUC, to be able to do transactions with the customer, internal users, the external users, the utility companies and all other sister agencies statewide,” said Yazdi, a state employee of more than 20 years who has been CIO since June 2015.
To that end, CPUC developed eFAST last year, an e-filing system aimed at streamlining the filing process for utilities. Now, the agency is looking at applications for that system and is doing market research for a transportation career application and equipment e-filing portal.
Similarly, CPUC is looking into developing another application for consumers, who now file complaints against utilities by letter or telephone call, to do so more efficiently online.
“We want to shorten the window of time to process these applications, do a response to the public … and make any kind of transaction basically faster,” said Yazdi.
Somewhat simultaneously, the organization is working to transform how CPUC staffers can do their own jobs — standing up a new virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) platform capable of allowing around 600 employees to concurrently work “from anywhere,” with full access to their existing environments.
The agency has also deployed SharePoint and is in the process of transitioning to Office 365. And here, as elsewhere, Yazdi and others have kept an eye on cybersecurity.
Its VDI and SharePoint deployments require two-factor authentication, and CPUC has received state approval to create a cybersecurity task force under its Safety and Enforcement Division (SED), Yazdi said. The agency is in the process of hiring to create that group.
The division is charged with, among other things, ensuring consumer protection in utility transactions. Its responsibilities will include ensuring those transactions remain secure from bad actors, and that data is also accessible but secure.
Exploring and creating new apps, and standing up divisions has cost “a lot of money,” Yazdi said, noting that CPUC has spent at least $12 million annually to secure services and products and employ the vendor community for assistance in roll-outs, technical support and training.
As might be expected, integrating new technologies, offering additional services and expanding IT has been reflected in the number of internal CPUC service request tickets. The agency processed more than 22,000 during the last year, the CIO said — a record-breaking number.
“That, by itself, shows how IT has changed its role to the core business of CPUC and made a big impact on all different aspects of the CPUC environment,” Yazdi said.
Grand Rapids, Mich., has redesigned its website, and in doing so, officials are hopeful that sometime soon the government will never have to talk with its citizens again.
That is unless, of course, the citizens actually want to talk to their government. Basically, in redesigning its website, Grand Rapids has made it so that 240 municipal services that used to require in-person appearances, letters or phone calls can now be done entirely online, at any time of day and from any location. This includes things like starting water service, signing up for refuse removal and paying parking tickets.
Creating a one-stop website — or a digital city hall as those involved with the project have dubbed it — was not easy, said Becky Jo Glover, Grand Rapids’ 311 customer service center manager and the website redesign team lead. In fact, this redesign process took between eight and 10 months, and it involved working across 41 different internal government departments and divisions.
It also involved going out and conducting interviews with the residents who would be using the site, as well as with internal government employees who would also need its functions. This sort of human-centered online presence redesign is part of a larger trend in local governments in which city halls have begun to shift from designing technology that simply satisfied bureaucratic needs, to creating simplified products that entice users, much like those built by the private sector.
Grand Rapids, for example, rewrote all of its website content from scratch to drop formal government phrasing and to adapt a friendlier, conversational tone. It was a major undertaking, one that Glover and the two others on her team — Zac Thiel and Alex Melton — fostered buy-in for by incentivizing citizens with $10 gift cards to local restaurants. They also offered a 5 percent pay increase on top of salary in exchange for public servants spending extra hours each week working on the project.
“Rather than going out and hiring a whole group of people, we used existing staff that met our criteria, and they became our subject matter experts that helped us get the training completed and then also work on all the content, bumper-to-bumper,” Glover said.
This sort of work lead to the website redesign coming in under budget, too. Glover said the city had allocated roughly $625,000 for the project, and that her team had done the work for about $187,000 less than that.
To accomplish the technical side of things, Grand Rapids used the OpenCities content management system. Although they are in a planning stage for the second phase, one that will involve digitizing even more services, the team is happy with the improvements they’ve made thus far.
“The biggest difference in my mind between the old site and the new is on the old site every department acted independently,” Thiel said. “In fact, they all had their own website with its own navigation. You’d go to one department and that’s just where you were. There was nothing tying the whole thing together. With the new site one of our main goals was to present a unified city with a unified voice.”
Although some internal employees were initially resistant to change, the user-centered research broke down those barriers quickly, specifically the sessions in which department heads sat in and watched actual residents struggle to navigate their services. That, Glover said, was one of the most powerful takeaways of the entire process.
“You’re forever changed when you think you’re so good at knowing what your community wants and in reality we are the antithesis,” Glover said. “It’s nobody’s fault. We’re government employees and we know our business, and we do it every day.”
A California legislator has introduced legislation that will force social media sites to protect users from bots and create a state privacy agency to regulate and protect consumers’ online information. The activity in Sacramento comes at a time of heightened urgency around these issues, including special counsel Robert Mueller's recent indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian companies for their use of bots on social media to diminish voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election.
“We saw the harm that this unregulated space could cause to citizens, and we decided to do something,” said Rep. Marc Levine, D-District 10. “There is just too much profit to be made off of real humans and bots,” he said.
A social media bot or chatterbot is a computer program that engages with users’ conversation via text. The programs are designed to simulate how a human would behave in a discussion and are frequently mistaken for real people. Some 15 percent of the total users on Twitter that were active during the 2016 U.S. presidential election were bots. At least 400,000 thousand bots were responsible for about 3.8 million tweets, roughly 19 percent of the total volume during election season, according to Recode.
To stop the bots, Levine introduced AB 1950 in January, a bill that would require social media sites to identify and verify all social media advertising purchases to be linked to verifiable humans. “AB 1950 will regulate bots and prevent the spread of misinformation,” he said.
According to Levine, the tech industry is unable to regulate itself. “These things are not difficult to verify; the software they have written is not magic,” he said. “This is merely a work effort to add more lines of code. I am sure they can verify this stuff.”
In addition to Levine’s bill on bots, the legislator has also introduced a placeholder bill (SB 2182) designed to protect users from social media companies taking ownership of a user’s social media material; and other vital data that is held by companies.
The bill would create the California Data Protection Authority and oversee Californians’ personal data on the Internet. The legislation was inspired by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which goes into effect in late March.
The GDPR forces companies to erase a user’s identity upon request. It also requires that social media companies explicitly state what users agree to when they sign a consent to participate in the social media platform. The rule also addresses data breaches. In the case of a breach, the GDPR calls for users to be notified within 72 hours when personal and sensitive information has been released, and it also allows for an independent authority to monitor complaints and violation of the rule. The independent regulator could charge and fine those companies that have violated the law.
Levine says there is a significant number of questions that need to be answered by regulation. The federal government has failed to act on the issues of privacy and the issue of ownership needs to be clarified, he said. “The federal government has been useless and powerless. California has a role to play and can be a model for federal law.”
According to Levine, key questions must be answered: “Who owns your data? Once you decide to leave Facebook, do you still want your information to continue (in perpetuity)?"
He points to the Equifax data breach that exposed more than 140 million Americans to identity theft and the hacking of Yahoo.com, which affected 3 billion email accounts containing passwords and birthdates. These companies were unable to inform their clients of the piracy in a timely fashion.
Facebook also gave academic researchers access to the home pages of some 689,000 users to conduct a study. Researchers manipulated users posts to make them feel more positive or negative through a process of "emotional contagion.”
The bill would create an agency or privacy czar that would oversee the actions of Internet companies and hold them responsible for data breaches and other actions. “I think it is important to have a regulatory agency that holds these companies and their actions accountable.”
He said he purposely wrote the bill in an open-ended way so that fellow lawmakers and regulation experts could have input on the final product. “This bill will go through many committee hearings; it will change.”
With both bills, Levine hopes to engage the industry early in the process of crafting the laws. “This is a consumer protection measure, and we want to engage these companies and get their input.”
The very open-endedness of the current bills has made it difficult for lobbying groups to develop positions. Two groups that one would expect to oppose these bills include the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), an advocate for the $1.5 trillion U.S. information technology ecosystem, and the California Chamber of Commerce. Both say they have not taken a position on either bill yet.
So far, he has seen lobbyists from trade groups within the sector but has not had contact directly with Facebook or Yahoo.com. “I want to engage with social media companies to make sure this law works,” he said. “I would welcome heartier engagement.”
PayIt, a Kansas City, Mo.-based startup that helps governments set up digital services, has brought a former state chief technology officer onto its board of directors.
Mike Wons, who served as CTO for the state of Illinois from 2015 to 2018, will be PayIt’s new voice on the board.
“I have had the unique opportunity to work with the PayIt team and their configurable digital government platform for the past three years,” Wons said in a press release. “I am excited about the opportunity to join PayIt in an advisory role to help them accelerate their strategy execution.”
As Illinois CTO, Wons worked alongside state CIO Hardik Bhatt, who is now working at Amazon Web Services. During that time, the duo’s Department of Innovation and Technology worked on increasing mobile citizen engagement and reimagined its strategy. They also helped start a series of blockchain pilot projects to test out the emerging technology.
Wons left the state government at the start of 2018 to join the risk, compliance and cybersecurity firm SAI Global. He remains that company's CTO and global product officer.
PayIt, a GovTech 100 company, operates on a business model where it builds out digital services at no cost to its government customers, then makes revenue off transaction fees. It also offers chatbots to help citizens navigate those services, and document management for citizens and government service customers to keep track of their information.
“Mobile payments are the foundation for helping improve the overall services that government provides to citizens,” Wons said in the statement.
Communities, big and small, around Georgia are encouraged to enter a new smart city funding and support competition. The Georgia Smart Communities Challenge, led by Georgia Tech University, will award grants of up to $50,000 to four cities, counties or city-county governments willing to explore smart city projects around themes such as mobility and equity or resilience. “We’re defining resilience in a very broad term,” explained Debra Lam, managing director for Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation at Georgia Tech, adding these could be projects that help a city recover from sharp setbacks. One element would be how quickly a community can “bounce back and bounce forward, from predicted and unpredicted shocks and stresses,” she added. Georgia Smart will hold webinars throughout March and April to help communities prepare their proposals, which are due May 1. In addition to cash funding, winners will receive expert advice and technical assistance. Georgia Smart brings together a number of partners in the private and public sectors, and also academia and nonprofits. “Community initiatives can be more successful through collaborative, people-focused approaches, and those qualities are what make the Georgia Smart Communities Challenge an important effort for the region,” said Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, in a statement. Organizers of the challenge grant project say it’s important to structure the program to ensure cities outside of the Atlanta orbit will be equally considered. The four winning recipients will come from two regions: Two from within metro Atlanta, and two from outside the Atlanta metro region. “It’s not just one winner. It’s a cohort of winners,” said Lam. Atlanta is no stranger to smart city projects. The city includes a “living lab” to test Internet of Things (IoT) technology along North Avenue, while also hosting events like the MetroLab Annual Summit. “We at Georgia Tech have a very fruitful relationship with Atlanta. And that’s wonderful and great,” Lam went on. “But we can’t do smart cities based on one city. What about the other local communities in Georgia, and what can we do with them? “It’s not a one-size-fits-all. And that’s why we kept the themes fairly broad,” she said. “Because we want to show that you could be ‘smart’ in different ways.” To plan and develop the challenge grant program, university officials held a number of workshops across the state to receive feedback from cities — many of them small, where staffs may not include positions like chief information officer. Part of the conversations held in cities across Georgia was about the meaning of smart cities. “It’s for the community to say, ‘What are our challenges? What are our priorities? And what do we have, and what do we need?’ Rather than a top-down approach saying, ‘You need to be smart.’ And here’s that very prescriptive approach to be smart,” said Lam. A recent survey by the tech association CompTIA found that only 9 percent of city officials are “deeply engaged” with smart cities initiatives. Larger cities, with more than 250,000 residents, seem to be more involved with smart cities, with 23 percent of city officials saying they are “deeply engaged,” while only 7 percent of officials from smaller cities report the same, according to the survey. “What’s important for us to think about for smart cities and smart communities, is there’s no population constraint,” said Lam. “All communities can be smart if you are cognizant about the process.”
Bloomberg Philanthropies has announced its 35 Champion Cities for its 2018 Mayors Challenge, a nationwide competition aimed at encouraging municipal government leaders to find innovative solutions for the common problems cities face.
The 35 winners were selected from a pool of 320 applications, and they will now start six-month testing phases, according to an announcement from Bloomberg. During that time, the cities will conduct public prototypes of the winning solutions they submitted to the challenge. In turn, Bloomberg will supply grant funding of up to $100,000 per city.
In the immediate future, a team from each city will visit Bloomberg Philanthropies Ideas Camp in New York City, where they will receive coaching and feedback from other participants while working to strengthen their ideas. In addition to this trip and the grant funding, participants will get “personalized support from innovation experts, to test and begin building support for their urban innovations,” according to the announcement.
The 35 winners represent a wide range of cities spread across the nation. From major metros such as Washington, D.C., to smaller jurisdictions such as Georgetown, Texas; Elk Grove, Calif.; and Coral Gables, Fla. The proposals they presented are just as diverse, taking on challenges that include climate, health, the opioid crisis and preventing arrested youth from re-entering the criminal justice system, among many others.
More information about both the cities and their proposals, as well as the 2018 Mayors Challenge itself, can be found here. This is the first time since 2013 that the challenge has been open to cities in the United States. In 2014, it was open to cities in Europe, and in 2016, it was open to cities in Latin America and the Caribbean. The challenge is part of the Bloomberg American Cities Initiative, and it will ultimately invest $17.5 million in grants and technical assistance.
New York City updates its “Ready NYC” mobile app that encourages users to make disaster plans
New York City has announced plans to update its Ready NYC mobile app, which is part of the Ready New York public education campaign that encourages residents to prepare a plan before a disaster strikes.
With the app, users can store important information such as emergency contacts, potential meeting places, health information and supply lists of the things they would need should a disaster strike. The forthcoming updates will include new text and in improved interface that will be compatible with the latest versions of the iOS and Android operating systems.
Other key features within the app include tips and information about what residents should and can do during emergencies, as well as an alerts feed from Notify NYC, which is New York City’s official source of info about emergency events.
These updates and the app itself are the work of the NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.
“The Ready NYC app puts vital planning resources for all types of emergencies at New Yorkers’ fingertips,” said Samir Saini, commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, in a press release. “It’s a one-stop-shop for emergency preparedness that can be accessed in any situation. We’re constantly improving our city mobile applications and leveraging technology as a service to help the city become stronger and more resilient.”
Nashville launches NashView community data map
Nashville has launched NashView, a map that provides easy-to-understand information about services the municipal government provides to businesses and residents of the city.
NashView is essentially a data map that enables users to take an in-depth look at the local government’s activity by neighborhood. Interested parties can use NashView’s map-based viewer to browse information about resident requests, building permits, municipal buildings and more. All information is organized on the map by location.
In an announcement for NashView, city officials emphasized that it is designed as a complement to hubNashville, which is Davison County’s own one-stop shop for its services. With hubNashville, users can identify issues, make service requests and track the progress of service deliveries. With NashView, those very same users can then browse a visualization of what’s being reported in their neighborhoods, as well as throughout the rest of the country.
NashView was developed by the prominent gov tech company, Socrata, and it is powered by Metro Nashville’s open data portal. It comes equipped with a wide range of fields users can employ to visualize its information by Metro Council district, school district and ZIP code.
Nasvhille is currently at work on integrating the new platform into Nashville.gov’s home page, work that officials expect to be completed in the coming months.
What’s happening for Open Data Day 2018 near you?
Boy, Open Data Day really came fast this year, so fast in fact that you might not be ready for or aware of the great Open Data Day events happening in your area.
Not to worry, however. Some intrepid technologists have created an Open Data Day map that visualizes the dozens of affiliated events taking place across the globe. Open Data Day, by the way, is on Saturday, March 3, 2018, and, for those who don’t know, the event stands as an annual celebration of open data all over the world. This is the seventh year in which groups have come together to coordinate events in their communities.
This year’s Open Data Day events will also have a focus, meaning there are four key areas that organizers believe open data work can solve. Those areas are open research data, tracking public money flows, open mapping and data for equal development. There are roughly 20 events taking place throughout the United States, and the map can help you find the one closest to you.
The organization of the future is one with a digital mindset, with the private sector taking the lead in implementing new tools to attract and retain talent. Government agencies are beginning to embrace similar tactics and are adopting modern workforce technologies that are changing the way they manage employees, from recruitment through retirement.
Younger generations including sought-after millennials expect to be able to search and apply for jobs from any device, anytime, with minimal time and effort. They will likely be put off by a cumbersome and outdated application process that is indicative of what their work experience will be like. Talent is the lifeblood of any organization, and with the nation at near full employment every organization must compete and differentiate its value to prospective employees. Here are some ways agencies can put technology to work to find, attract and retain a talented workforce: Play to your strengths – Surveys show younger generations are attracted to the idea of meaningful work and making a difference. To appeal to these candidates, government agencies need to communicate the rewarding and service-oriented aspects of a career in the public sector. It’s important to share stories of the difference your agency makes no matter what its mission. Creative marketing tactics could include improving an agency’s social media presence and modern, engaging websites, using “meaningful work” messaging in all recruiting and application processes. Implement human capital management (HCM) solutions and mobile compatibility – Government agencies can adopt modern HCM technologies to expedite recruitment and hiring processes. Algorithmic insights help users make better decisions throughout the application, from highlighting best-fit candidates to hiring managers, suggesting other possible career opportunities for candidates and predicting candidate offer acceptance to recruiters. It’s also important to make communications user-friendly and compatible with a mobile interface. Although it was previously thought that mobile applications would alienate a lower-income population, the inverse is actually true. Smartphones are often the only piece of technology lower-income groups possess, so implementing a mobile strategy is important to reach all demographics. Centralize workforce information – Updating and maintaining employee data in a central location allows for real-time assessment and data insight that could help re-deploy an agency’s workforce while also giving employees new growth opportunities. Employees often have skills that they may not be using in their current role. Storing this information in a database can help agencies identify who to consider for new projects. When the data is aggregated and analyzed, it can also reveal where more training might be necessary agencywide. Finally, aggregating employee data also helps plan for the future by maintaining inventory of all internal talent available to replace retiring employees. Make the experience user-friendly – Government agencies have been using artificial intelligence (AI) to create more citizen-centric experiences. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau is considering using an AI-powered call center that uses virtual digital assistants (“chatbots”) to answer questions about the 2020 census, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has been finding more ways to incorporate AI into law enforcement. These technologies could also make the hiring process more candidate-centric, with chatbots putting a more user-friendly face on applying for a government job. Our society is facing an aging workforce that is retiring at the rate of 10,000 employees per day. The problem is even more acute for government agencies, where on average workforces are five to 10 years older than in the private sector. In order to replace this retiring workforce, agencies will need to work harder and more creatively — including using new digital technologies — to attract and retain talent. The good news is that these technologies are available today. Celeste O'Dea is senior manager of public sector application strategy and business development for Oracle and is responsible for helping public-sector agencies identify, operationalize and implement integrated application strategies for their organizations. She holds an MBA from University of Phoenix, a BA in mathematics education from Syracuse University, and holds a Project Management Professional certification.
Washington, D.C., is preparing for a future with self-driving cars by inviting companies to test their autonomous vehicle technology in the District.
The city partnered with the Southwest Business Improvement District (SWBID) to release a request for information (RFI) for an autonomous vehicle pilot program on 10th Street, the area near L’Enfant Plaza in the city’s Federal Triangle area. The street, which is basically a straight line with few pedestrians, connects the new waterfront plaza development to the National Mall.
In addition to testing the effectiveness of AVs in Washington’s urban landscape, a pilot program could also bring attention to a street that is often overlooked, said Steve Moore, executive director for the Southwest Business Improvement District.
“It was kind of begging for wayfinding, maybe some installed artwork, that kind of thing,” said Moore.
The Wharf, as the $2.5 billion development is known, opened in mid-October. It includes a concert hall, more than 20 restaurants, three hotels and other development. It’s also an area with new concerns related to traffic. In addition to the need to accommodate personal cars, there are ride-shares to consider, as well as drop-off areas.
“The area went from no activity at all, to a lot of traffic, almost literally over night,” said Moore.
In addition to issuing the RFI, Mayor Muriel Bowser established the Interagency AV Working Group to examine AV technologies, and the public policy needed to facilitate self-driving cars while ensuring safety for residents and visitors.
“We, like many cities, are thinking about autonomous vehicles in our city and urban environment,” said Andrew Trueblood, chief of staff for Mayor Bowser.
“It’s important to be thoughtful, and proactive at the same time. And what this really is, is an attempt to say, ‘here’s a potential challenge that we have. Here’s a potential place that’s interesting and we think has interesting variables, but also, kind of limits some of them.’ And so, lets be proactive in putting this out, rather than reactive and waiting for a company to come to us,” he added.
The city’s top goals when it comes to autonomous vehicles are first safety, but also relieving congestion, increasing mobility and a source of expanded equity when it comes to transportation. The city’s population was 681,000 in 2016, according to the U.S. Census, up from 565,000 in 1998. That means more people — and cars — on the city’s streets. The Washington, D.C., metro area has the sixth worst traffic congestion in the country, according to INRIX, a global traffic scorecard.
“This is very much a push to be innovative,” said Trueblood.
Regardless of when fully autonomous vehicles become just another car on city streets, major international cities like Washington need to be ahead of the game, say officials.
“Some people say, ‘this is a decade away. This is 15 years away.’ Other people say, ‘listen, this is three to four years away,’” said Moore, echoing the wide range of opinions related to when AVs will be a regular occurrence. Already, cities like Phoenix have opened their streets to companies like Waymo and Uber to test the technology in live settings.
“I think D.C. should absolutely be among the first cities that are looking at this,” said Moore, pointing out the high profile of the city as the nation’s capital with tremendous international visibility.
“We should really be on the edge of what’s occurring in the technology, and how cities solve these solutions,” he added.
D.C.’s particular government structure as a city, county and state all in one allows it to be more agile when it comes to technology and technology adoption, said Trueblood.
“So in order to do any of these innovative kinds of things, it really just takes the [city] council and our mayor, and sometimes just an agency, to make it happen. And that ability to be nimble has actually been very attractive to different companies that are interested in doing a pilot,” he explained.
The RFI will be due in two months.
“We put it out specifically, as an RFI, because we know there’s a lot we don’t know. And we’re interested in hearing from the industry,” said Trueblood. “What are the technologies we should be thinking about? What are the concerns we should be having before embarking on a pilot?”
And a public-private partnership with the Southwest Business Improvement District was also the correct approach, said Trueblood.
“We could help think about city goals and provide regulatory review. But the Southwest BID, they’re the ones that want to help move people around, and actually help implement it,” he added. “So I think that partnership is a really good one.”
With FirstNet on track to complete its core network on schedule this quarter, the dedicated, nationwide first responder platform is seeing a markedly positive response from local agencies that, like the states and territories that unanimously opted in, are making their own affirmative choices.
Doug Clark, AT&T assistant vice president for FirstNet state outreach and consultation, declined to cite specific numbers but characterized participation as “enthusiastic,” with “lots” of agencies joining and “significant interest.”
One such agency is the Brazos County Sheriff’s Office, a far-flung jurisdiction in eastern central Texas that’s more than half the size of Rhode Island. It had prior, positive experience with the network, having participated in a FirstNet test node at Texas A&M University, which boosted its technology deployments — then became the first agency in the state to join FirstNet. The state joined FirstNet in September.
Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk said opting in, a decision announced Jan. 25, dramatically increased the agency’s coverage and enabled it to utilize a single carrier rather than switching from one network to another. County firefighters and emergency medical services (EMS) have not yet joined FirstNet, but Kirk said it’s more likely they may now that “things are in place.”
The First Responder Network Authority of the United States, as FirstNet is officially known, said in October it would complete its core network in March 2018, with a complete buildout of network infrastructure around 2020.
Clark said “everything’s in lockstep” with previous projections, and that Band Class 14 capabilities — a radio spectrum area in the 700 MHz band dedicated to public safety — should become a reality for FirstNet with that core buildout.
But the assistant vice president noted that the network also leverages multiple spectrum bands, and enables larger goals of helping save lives and reduce response times by enhancing the situational awareness of law enforcement, emergency medical technicians and firefighters in real time.
“We’ll see coverage expand,” Clark said. “What AT&T has done is, we’ve really accelerated the buildout of this national public safety broadband network by giving first responders access to AT&T’s existing spectrum, and then also building out their spectrum, the Band Class 14 spectrum, to provide propagation and coverage.”
Two differing classifications distinguish FirstNet members, Clark said. Primary subscribers include firefighters, EMS, law enforcement, public safety answering point personnel and emergency management agencies, while extended primary subscribers include “supportive agencies” like health care, transportation and utilities.
Brazos County, roughly equidistant between Austin and Houston — and home to more than 200,000 residents in 591 square miles — is a primary subscriber that has already benefited greatly from an association with FirstNet, its sheriff said.
The agency began utilizing bandwidth from the Texas A&M test node in 2016 and was provided with modems for its 61 patrol vehicles. That by itself represented a huge leap forward, as the agency, which has 253 paid staff and 102 sworn deputies, was able to greatly improve the information flow to and from the field via in-vehicle, high-speed Internet.
During a recent tornado, a flood and an armed stand-off, deputies were able to park vehicles with front- and rear-facing cameras at key locations, then livestream video back to command — protecting their own lives and informing a better use of resources.
Faster Internet connections let deputies write reports and log evidence in the field, and get real-time information on everything from license plate checks to federal and state criminal backgrounds. They also power more than 800 IT-based security system cameras to stream live from the courthouse, jail and administrative building to the command center or even patrol vehicles.
“They’re directly connected to dispatch, the calls streamed directly into their cars, and they’ve cut down on radio traffic, even. Now, they’re actually spending more time in their patrol zones. It’s an assurance to our community and it’s a deterrent to criminals,” Kirk said.
Transitioning from the node to AT&T brought new aircards — though the agency intends to update with modems at a later time — and increased its coverage from around 60 percent on the node to around 100 percent.
“It was conceptual before, basically, but it’s all real now. We don’t have to switch back and forth from the node to a public carrier anymore,” Kirk said, adding that the department, like others that have joined, is able to utilize priority and pre-emption capabilities.
Going forward, Clark said AT&T will build the network, which he described as “purpose-built,” founded on singular qualities like priority and pre-emption, and on many thousands of sites across rural America that have become part of FirstNet.
“This footprint hasn’t existed before, nationally, with priority and pre-emption, ever,” Clark said.
The OpenGov Foundation, an apolitical nonprofit that develops open source software products for government, is using human-centric research and design to improve communication between elected officials and those they represent.
After Donald Trump surprisingly won the 2016 presidential election, many elected officials found their offices inundated with phone calls and other correspondence from the public. During this deluge it was not uncommon for those calls to go unanswered and, ultimately, unheard. Seamus Kraft, executive director of the OpenGov Foundation, said his group identified this in the wake of the election and initiated a user-centric research sprint. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, user-centric research means studying the experiences of actual users, which seems simple enough but is just now becoming a rapidly evolving tool in technologies developed for government.
What user-centric research meant for the OpenGov Foundation’s project, which has been dubbed From Voicemails to Votes, is that developers spent four months studying 20 congressional offices, spending time within them and interviewing staffers who worked there. The goal was to get an accurate idea of ways that better tech could improve the situation.
What this research uncovered was troubling, Kraft said. Although means of communication had evolved — along with constituents’ expectations for them — congressional offices were still using older technologies. They were essentially relying on voicemail boxes that quickly become clogged with messages, rather than texts, emails or other more advanced technologies.
“Ninety-four percent of congressional staff say they don’t have the tech to do the job,” Kraft said, “and I want to meet that other 6 percent.”
There were myriad communications issues, but the OpenGov Foundation started by targeting the phone-based engagement process, which Kraft said was easy to measure and was also getting worse. Congress has institutional technologists in its employ, but they had not attempted to solve this issue. So, the OpenGov Foundation’s team set about developing a tool that leverages Google’s voice transcription technology to automate voicemails and make them easier to store and assess.
Currently, this tool is being tested in seven pilot offices belonging to a diverse range of politicians, including members of both parties, as well as representatives from both rural and urban areas. The OpenGov Foundation, Kraft said, is also in the process of negotiating licensing agreements to take the tech from the seven offices to about 365 later this year.
The work is not likely to stop with just the phone improvements. Kraft said the user-centric research found a need for better social media engagement and for tools that would allow people to text in opinions. It also found that the phone-based engagement problems exist at all levels of government, including cities, states and agencies, such as the FCC.
A natural question in these polarized and chaotic times is whether receiving more phone calls and understanding the opinions within them stands to change elected officials’ stances. That, however, is not the goal of this work, at least not entirely.
The OpenGov Foundation acknowledges that there are policy stances — often high-profile ones — on which politicians simply will not budge, regardless of how often they hear from constituents who disagree. The idea behind improving lines of communication is that perhaps constituents and their representatives can find common ground elsewhere, or even have a respectful conversation about who believes what and why, ultimately leading to increased faith in an elected official that will improve the quality of future interactions.
“Right now we’re living in a moment of real frustration, distrust and democratic desperation, not just in the public but in the business community, the advocacy community, and in those who serve in government,” Kraft said. “To have something like this, which is an actual road map for turning this around, is one of the most exciting outcomes for the work we’re doing.”
The rise of cryptocurrency has meant many things: An alternative method for funding startups, a record-keeping paradigm that could transform government operations and a new path for criminals to get paid.
Recently it has also meant the advent of “cryptojacking.”
In simple terms, cryptojacking is when a hacker slips code into a website or piece of software that uses some end users’ computing power to validate cryptocurrency transactions. That validation process, called “mining,” earns digital coins for the person who carries it out — and it rewards people with more processing power, giving an incentive to miners to use as much computing resources as they can get their hands on.
It’s a pretty new concept. Michael Roling, chief information security officer of the state of Missouri, said he started noticing cryptojacking activity about half a year ago.
A recent cryptojacking operation highlighted how this threatens government. Over a span of about four hours, hackers infected thousands of websites — many of them belonging to state and local governments in the U.S. — with code to force those sites’ visitors to mine the cryptocurrency Monero.
The hackers accomplished this not by attacking the websites themselves, but a third-party service those websites use called Browsealoud. The service, from the company Texthelp, is accessibility software to help people consume website content. And it relies on websites embedding code.
So, all the hackers had to do was gain access to Browsealoud’s code and direct the script to load the cryptomining software. Instantly, any website using that version of the script was hijacked for the hacker’s purposes.
In that case, the hackers used a service called Coinhive, legitimate software for mining Monero. Website owners use the software to mine the cryptocurrency using visitors’ computing power, but the creators intended for it to be used for things like monetizing Web traffic without advertising. Coinhive’s terms of service specifically forbid cryptojacking.
The problem with cryptojacking is that it’s tough for a website manager to know it’s happening — the attack affects end users, not the website itself.
Scott Helme, a security researcher in the United Kingdom who noticed the cryptojacking operation, wrote that using subresource integrity attributes might be a good way for website managers to avoid loading hacked scripts, though that approach might not work for everybody.
Chip, the city of Los Angeles’ new chatbot, has only been “off probation” since July — but impressed by “his” performance, innovation officials have deputized him to deliver answers to potential police department recruits.
Chip, an acronym for City Hall Internet Personality, was launched in beta last May at the Business Assistance Virtual Network (BAVN), where he quickly took charge of helping the city’s more than 97,000 businesses understand how to find contracts, register for notifications and generally interact with the city.
The chatbot, which assisted more than 180 people during its first 24 hours, moved out of beta and went live in July 2017 — and attracted the notice of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Innovation Team. In Los Angeles, as it is elsewhere, police recruitment is time-intensive both for applicants — around 7,000 of whom are in its system at any given time — and for the City Hall staffers who field their questions.
Garcetti’s Innovation Team, in the Mayor’s Office of Budget and Innovation, focuses its work in single areas. Currently, it’s partnering with the Personnel Department, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and the Information Technology Agency, to help with LAPD hiring and recruiting.
Officer Chip, as the chatbot is known in his LAPD role, is a fast-track project that’s just one of 15 to 20 team initiatives in various stages.
His debut is intended to improve access to resources, reduce the thousands of monthly calls on basic process questions that candidates make to the Personnel Department’s Public Safety Division; and give the city insight into what candidates want to know.
“This is one of many things that we’re doing, but the overarching goal is to make it easier for police recruits to learn about what it means to be a police officer. I think the power of Chip is that it can be used in lots of different places,” said Amanda Daflos, director of the Mayor’s Innovation Team.
Activating the chatbot on joinLAPD.com meant replacing Chip’s business-related responses with public safety data. Officials started with an initial list of around 1,000 questions, on topics ranging from salary to drug tests to boot camp, but that number has more than doubled in the weeks after its launch.
Questions for Officer Chip are visible on the back end, and being able to review them has helped the bot become more intelligent, and educated officials about what residents need to know from them.
To date, the chatbot is averaging 35 to 40 chat sessions per day, a number Daflos said is highly encouraging considering officials haven’t advertised the technology.
“It’s telling us that, without even marketing or telling people, this is a thing that there’s a lot of interest in,” Daflos said.
These interactions are believed to last around two minutes each, meaning Officer Chip is saving the city roughly 70 to 80 minutes of call time a day — but one observer who praised the city’s deployment as “a very smart and leading job” said he thinks those numbers may be low.
“I would venture to say that there’s probably more than two hours of time savings in a given day. Plus the morale boost,” said former North Carolina Chief Technology and Innovation Officer Eric Ellis, a chatbot expert.
“I’d like us to suss out the dollar, the human value to the workers that are no longer having to answer mundane questions, and who have maybe started to move up a role duty standpoint because they’re no longer resetting passwords every single second,” he added.
The Chip chatbot was designed by two city developers with training from Microsoft and access to its Cortana platform and Azure bot framework, during a three-day period last year. Its cost, officials said last year, has been unremarkable. Daflos said Chip’s creation is a great example of staff being able to quickly address residents’ needs.
“We can do things with vendors all the time but really, being able to sustain things in government, you need to have staff that can deliver it, can design it, can make it better, can sustain it, all those kinds of things. I think it’s a really positive win for the city, that that is the case,” she said.
Currently, the partner agencies scrutinizing LAPD recruitment have found other ways to meet candidates at their level: texting, enabled last fall as a way for the Personnel Department to confirm appointments; and an LAPD marketing campaign featuring officers from a variety of backgrounds discussing the job, and community leaders talking about what they’d like to see from future officers.
Ellis said the chatbot’s robotic appearance is appropriate and sets “really good expectations” for residents that yes, they will be interacting with artificial intelligence — discussions that could have personal resonance despite their anonymization.
“When somebody goes to a chatbot, I think it is of great value to communicate to someone that, by using Chip, the information you provide will improve the experience for the residents to the citizens. It almost makes you feel a part of the community, which I think is the goal,” Ellis said.
Daflos said the two-way information flow has an exponential value for all parties.
“I think not only is it letting candidates get the answers that they need, but it’s letting the city understand how it should be designing programs, and the different elements of recruiting and hiring. It’s a wealth of knowledge for us as well,” Daflos said.
Electric-powered mobility keeps taking new forms.
In September, Santa Monica, Calif., launched an electric scooter-sharing program where riders can unlock more than 1,000 small electric scooters with a phone app. The service is provided by Bird, a startup. Rides start at $1 and then click along at 15 cents for each minute of use, according to an article on CNNtech.
These are scooters not in the sense of something like a Vespa, but more like a skateboard with handlebars.
The program is similar to bike-sharing, which has become nearly ubiquitous in large and mid-size cities. Many bike-share companies have also added electric-assist bikes to their fleets, given the popularity — and growing familiarity — of electric bikes.
The electric scooters, which travel at about 15 miles per hour, open new urban mobility possibilities, as well as raise new regulatory questions such as listening or helmet requirements.
The Cleveland region is set to explore Internet of Things (IoT) technology with help from two area universities.
Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland State University have joined forces with the IoT Collaborative to focus on the researching and testing of IoT devices and projects related to smart city, health care, energy and other areas. The collaborative is funded, in part, with a $1.75 million grant from the Cleveland Foundation awarded in late January.
“We really found it as a way for economic improvement,” said Leon Wilson, chief of digital innovation and CIO with the Cleveland Foundation. “And also, bringing a lot more brain talent into the region. But equally important, is where they were focusing their energy in: manufacturing, energy, health care.”
About three or four years ago, the electrical engineering department at Case Western Reserve University saw the ability to overlap IoT and data and analytics at the boundaries of the different disciplines, and set out to begin exploring how these could come together in a new area of study, said Ken Loparo, chair of the electrical engineering and computer science department at the university.
“As a result of thinking about, ‘What are the emerging challenges and opportunities that we face in a number of application sectors like manufacturing, energy, health care, critical infrastructure, and cities and communities?’ it became obvious that the whole idea of the Internet of Things and the deployment of sensors that are communication enabled, that are interacting with the physical world … that led us to create something that we call ISSACS (Institute for Smart Secure and Connected Systems), and it’s all about sort of the Industrial Internet of Things,” he explained.
When Loparo uses the term “Industrial,” he’s not referring to consumer products of even manufacturing, but the widescale deployment of smart technology across an area such as a neighborhood or city.
“We’re really talking about the ecosystem that would evolve around connected devices in what we call a cyberphysical world ...,” said Laparo. “You’re sucking data from that physical world, doing something with that data.”
Organizers of ISSACS knew they wanted the research to reach well beyond the halls of the electrical engineering department at Case Western. So they reached out to numerous other departments — arts and sciences, law, business, engineering, social sciences and others — to bring multiple disciplines and perspectives under an initiative to study IoT and smart technologies.
ISSACS then began exploring funding sources and opportunities, which is what brought the team to the Cleveland Foundation.
“They were extremely excited and supportive,” said Laparo. “They were looking at developing sort of their own digital strategy for Cleveland; but they wanted us to think outside of just CWRU, and to think of things as the city of Cleveland and northeast Ohio as a region.”
The Cleveland Foundation encouraged a collaboration with nearby Cleveland State University (CSU), which has privacy and cybersecurity center in its law school and focuses on the legal and regulatory aspects of data privacy and security. CSU also includes a college of urban studies, which often works with various cities and communities.
“So we partnered with Cleveland State and formed an academic partnership,” said Laparo.
The IoT Collaborative was born.
The partnership among university, private and public sectors has the potential to grow the Cleveland region as place for research and development, officials explain.
Exploring IoT-related research in say, health care, opens up opportunities to expand bio-medical and other related industries in the Cleveland region, said Shilpa Kedar, program director for the Cleveland Foundation's Economic and Workforce Development.
“We think that not only grows the industry — the bio-medical industry here — but also directly impacts the quality of life of the citizens,” she added.
The money provided by the Cleveland Foundation will be used to, in part, to “attract star faculty,” said Kedar.
“Attracting star faculty will require a lot of startup funding, and that’s where the bulk of the dollars, we expect, will go,” she added.
The collaborative will determine what projects and what research angles it pursues.
“We are not in any way being prescriptive around that,” said Kedar. “That is truly going to be a function of what corporations step up and decide to engage with the university.”
The collaborative has two projects involving Cleveland — both in the beginning stages — related to roads and buried infrastructure and another related to the opioid crisis in the region.
“This is a great opportunity for us to engage without community partners,” said Laparo.
“We’re also trying to make the campuses sort of living laboratories. Because very often, when we end up talking to people in the city and community about deploying technology within the city infrastructure, they would really like to see it deployed someplace else first,” he added. “And so the campus just becomes a wonderful opportunity to begin to test out some of the infrastructure and use it as a demonstration site.”
The Trump administration formally released its long-awaited infrastructure plan on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, emphasizing that our current approach isn’t working for America.
The infrastructure initiative highlights four “key principles” (details are listed at link above):
Make Targeted Federal Investments Encourage Self-Help Align Infrastructure Investment with Entities Best Suited to Provide Sustained and Efficient Investment. Leverage the Private Sector
“The Nation’s infrastructure needs to be rebuilt and modernized to create jobs, maintain America’s economic competitiveness, and connect communities and people to more opportunities. …
Underperformance is evident in many areas, from our congested highways, which costs the country $160 billion annually in lost productivity, to our deteriorating water systems, which experience 240,000 water main breaks annually. …”
CNN reported that the plan offers new federal money in several ways. “Half of the new federal money, $100 billion, would be parceled out as incentives to local government entities.
An additional $20 billion would go toward "projects of national significance" that can "lift the American spirit," such as New York's Gateway tunnel under the Hudson River.
Another $50 billion is earmarked for rural block grants, most of which will be given to states according to a formula based on the miles of rural roads and the rural population they have. States can then spend that money on transportation, broadband, water, waste and power projects.
The rest of the money would support other infrastructure-related undertakings, including existing loan programs like the one operated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which White House officials said could leverage up to $40 in local and private money for every $1 in federal investment.
Initial Media Response
Mainstream news media response to the plan was all over the map. Here are some examples:
TheHill.com: White House Releases 55-page $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan USA Today: Don’t dismiss infrastructure proposal Politico: Trump infrastructure plan could sell off Reagan, Dulles airports WSJ: The White House Infrastructure Plan Faces Hurdles Funding Airport Modernization NY Times: Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Puts Burden on State and Private Money CNBC: Trump reportedly endorses 25-cent gas tax to pay for infrastructure plan Brookings: Trump’s infrastructure plan: The good, the bad and the biblical Fortune: Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Is a Scam
Critics of the plan focused on the lack of new money identified to pay for the plan as well as rollbacks of previous regulations:
“President Donald Trump's infrastructure plan would trigger one of the most significant regulation rollbacks in decades, benefiting not just roads and bridges, but businesses ranging from coal mines to homebuilders to factories.
The blueprint the White House released this week would eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to veto the Army Corps of Engineers’ wetlands permits, a power that the EPA wielded during the Obama administration to block a controversial mountaintop coal mine in West Virginia. Industrial facilities like coal plants and steel factories could get 15-year Clean Water Act pollution permits — up from five years — that would be automatically renewed. For some infrastructure permits, the deadline for opponents to file legal challenges would shrink from six years to 150 days.”
The National Governors Association released the following response to the new infrastructure plan:
“The nation’s governors welcome the President’s and Congress’ focus on improving our nation’s infrastructure. That includes roads and bridges, airports, ports, inland waterways, transit, passenger rail, drinking water and wastewater systems, energy and broadband networks.
That is why it is absolutely paramount that state, federal and local governments continue our longstanding partnership to invest in quality infrastructure and meet the nation’s needs. A strong cooperative relationship between states and the federal government is essential to best serve the interests of all citizens.
President Trump and Congress have an opportunity to not only invigorate our approach to infrastructure spending, but to stabilize the funding streams that state and local governments depend on the most, such as the Highway Trust Fund, while supporting programs like the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds. …”
NGA Chair Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, in prepared remarks, drew heavily on transportation and energy to illustrate opportunities for innovation, including autonomous and electric vehicle technology, drones, ridesharing, and more. (His NGA chair’s initiative, Ahead of the Curve: Innovation Governors, focuses on how states can respond to emerging technology in the energy and transportation sectors.)
He also touched on the uncertainty at the federal level regarding infrastructure. “The President has an incredible opportunity to invigorate not just our approach to infrastructure spending, but also to the funding stream state and local governments rely on most: the Highway Trust Fund,” said Sandoval.
In addition, he called on the federal government to “match the rapid pace of autonomous vehicle innovation” with the states, saying state and federal coordination on this issue will remain critical.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) issued the following statement Feb. 12, in response to the public release of the long-anticipated White House infrastructure proposal.
"State DOT leaders appreciate the president's ongoing interest in, and support for, increased federal investment in infrastructure," said Bud Wright, AASHTO executive director. "We hope the release of the Trump infrastructure plan can be a starting point for a robust conversation on how best to make the critical investments in surface transportation. AASHTO and its members stand ready to work with the Administration and Congress to address the long-term viability of the Highway Trust Fund and to speed the federal review and permitting process."
Cities Respond on Infrastructure as Well
The National League of Cities (NLC) released their own “Rebuild With Us” proposal in January, and their proposed partnerships included investments in transportation, workforce, water and broadband. Their news release response to the President’s plan can be found here. Here’s an excerpt:
With the release of this plan, the White House will hopefully start a domino effect in Washington for Congress to pull together a bipartisan bill that works with cities to rebuild America's infrastructure," said National League of Cities (NLC) CEO and Executive Director Clarence E. Anthony. "Congress must step up to join cities in the fight to repair our nation's crumbling infrastructure and build for 2050, instead of simply fixing 1950. Now is the right time for Congress to join us in rebuilding national networks and core infrastructure that delivers what Americans want — great infrastructure that works for them and the economy."
SUSTAINABLE INVESTMENT: Together, cities and our federal partners must address the existing core infrastructure backlog, re-establish long-term funding and use new technologies that will serve America's cities for the next 100 years. LOCALLY DRIVEN PROJECTS: Local leaders, from cities large and small, are best positioned to identify where infrastructure needs are greatest and should be given a stronger voice in how limited federal dollars are invested. FEDERAL-LOCAL PARTNERSHIP: Cities are already paying their fair share and need a steady federal partner to fund existing national programs and make significant capital investments for the long-term benefit of the economy. EXPAND REVENUE TOOLS: Cities should be given more flexibility to raise revenues and use innovative financing techniques while protecting existing tools, such as tax-exempt bonds, to drive regional investments that tie into the national network. REBUILD AND REIMAGINE: Cities are leading the way in building intermodal, sustainable and interconnected infrastructure networks that support a modern economy. Congress must invest in cities' vision to rebuild and reimagine America's infrastructure.
Defining Public-Private Partnerships (P3s)
One central tenet of these new infrastructure plans is the reliance on public-private partnerships to leverage government dollars to go farther with more private-sector investment.
Back last summer, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) offered this excellent summary on P3 infrastructure delivery principles for state legislatures. Here’s a brief excerpt:
Because P3s cover a broad range of innovative contracting, project delivery and financing arrangements, a singular definition is difficult to establish. P3s take various forms based on the type of infrastructure involved and level of risk sharing sought by the public sector. Key characteristics of P3s, delineating them from typical arrangements between the public and private sectors, include the transfer of risk from the public sector to the private sector, the marrying of multiple steps of the procurement life cycle and the shifting of some public-sector responsibilities to the private sector.
One definition which is widely accepted and can be useful beyond the area of transportation comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation:
“A public-private partnership is a contractual agreement formed between public and private sector partners, which allows more private sector participation than is traditional. The agreements usually involve a government agency contracting with a private company to renovate, construct, operate, maintain, and/or manage a facility or system. While the public sector usually retains ownership in the facility or system, the private party will be given additional decision rights in determining how the project or task will be completed.” — The U.S. Department Transportation
Final Thoughts on Infrastructure Next Steps
Although we have a ways to go before disparate legislative proposals are merged with this White House plan on infrastructure to produce meaningful, lasting improvements, it is important to understand the main players and various proposals already on the table. Do your homework on the range of options available.
A deal will eventually be reached somewhere in between these proposals, although a new gas tax is not a certainty. With the help of analyst and historian Andris Ozols, here are some recommended principles and guidelines for government infrastructure framework efforts:
Utilize the full definition of infrastructure, including: full-scope traditional (American Society of Civil Engineers); modernization, development and innovation (NGA, NCSL, NASCIO); hybrid (Information Technology and Innovation Foundation); and critical infrastructure (e.g., USDHS — cybersecurity and electoral systems). Provide the public and decision-makers open, transparent access to fact-based, balanced information and adequate time for deliberation, supporting sound decisions. Consider the public interest of all stakeholders. Ensure balance and equity among stakeholder needs and capabilities — for example: public and private; levels of government; regions of country; services for population groups. Explore the full range of funding, revenue options, including public-private partnerships. Make clear distinction and soundly, prudently balance funding among: gap or historical underfunding; maintenance requirements; disaster recovery; investments; and development and innovation. Take a long-term perspective, sufficient to balance and incorporate and outcomes for current and emerging drivers (e.g., Internet of Things, data and analytics, climate change, demographic shifts), current and emerging solutions (e.g., smart cities), shift to alternate and perhaps innovative fund sources.
This infrastructure topic plays into so many other government priority topics, such as critical infrastructure protection, cybersecurity, smart cities and more. It is also one of the few areas that has bipartisan support — albeit with very different perspectives and proposals from different groups.
President Trump said this during his recent State of the Union address: “We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways across our land. And we will do it with American heart, American hands and American grit.”
Let's get to work.
Ten bills introduced in the Virginia General Assembly in January have been withdrawn and placed under the purview of newly elected Gov. Ralph Northam — one of which would create a state chief data officer (CDO) position.
As it stands, Northam is expected to roll most, if not all the bills, together into a larger package — this according to Del. Mark Keam, D - 35th District. “My original bill is not going forward," he said. “The governor has reached out to use my bill in an open data initiative."
According to Keam's HB 781, known as the Virginia Open Data Initiative Act, the state would hire a CDO to “oversee the establishment of procedures, standards, and best practices regarding the appropriate access and presentation of open data and datasets by each agency."
The original legislation would also give the CDO oversight on the development of a data set format standards and data accessibility in a machine-readable format that is compliant with state and federal law.
If Virginia executes this bill as written, the state would be one of nine states to have hired CDOs. Cities have been quicker to embrace the role. To date, at least 12 cities employ a data czar. At last count, only three counties — King County, Wash., Los Angeles County and Riverside County, Calif. — have hired for the position.
Several other Virginia data bills of note include:
HB 1582 Establishes the Commonwealth Data Trust Advisory Council (Council), consisting of 16 members to advise the governor on policy and funding priorities to expedite deployment of data analytics to inform policies in communities throughout the state. SB 580 Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act; amends act to facilitate sharing data. The bill would amend the Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act to facilitate the sharing of data among agencies of the state, and between the commonwealth and political subdivisions. SB 637 Called the Virginia Longitudinal Data System, it would require the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) to report additional information regarding the alignment of postsecondary education and workforce in the state. The bill also directs the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Virginia Employment Commission and the Department of Taxation to cooperate with SCHEV to further assist in the collection and sharing of data regarding workforce analysis.
It may run counterintuitive to the instincts of logical and results-driven technologists — especially the numbers and data crowd — but it is becoming increasingly vital for gov tech leaders to tell stories of their successes.
What these successes, which many call data wins, look like varies from city to city. A data win could be a project in Chicago that helped food inspectors identify restaurants at risk for health violations, or the creation in New Orleans of a data-intensive predictive fire risk model. Data wins are tangible examples of data-driven governance improving life in cities.
They are popping up with increasing frequency across the country, to the point Harvard University’s Stephen Goldsmith has said that there is more potential to reform and improve government now than there has been in nearly 100 years.
In order for that improvement to happen, however, technologists must continue to celebrate data wins. One of the clearest reasons why is that spreading awareness of a win earns support for data work moving forward, support from politicians who approve such work, other public agencies that must cooperate and the community, which ultimately stands to benefit.
In recent years, more than 100 cities have participated in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities program, an initiative that seeks to help mostly mid-sized cities develop data projects that improve citizens’ lives. Sharman Stein, a spokeswoman for What Works Cities, said helping participants learn to better celebrate their data wins was “the lion’s share of what we do.”
“We have found over the last two and a half years that cities that can publicly talk about the work and make this public commitment do a stronger job of actually advancing their practices,” Stein said. “If you talk about data, if you use data as part of your conversation with your residents, if you are transparent about publishing data of your progress, then you invite the public in to not only see what you’re doing, but to participate in using the data as a starting point.”
Stein also said that a public endorsement of data work makes it known to the public, which makes it a priority for political leaders. There are other benefits as well, such as increasing the likelihood of getting the support of the local business community, academics, civic tech groups and other departments within city hall.
“It’s challenging for everybody, because if you haven’t been used to talking about the work, it is a bit of a challenge to figure out how to talk about the work,” Stein said.
Kristin Taylor, also a spokeswoman for What Works Cities, said the group has had many conversations with cities about the best ways for them to identify stories of data wins. Cities and their employees can be reluctant and risk averse, especially when it comes to new technologies, but a strong narrative and ongoing dialogue about what’s working and what’s not can allay some of these concerns.
It’s not just about sharing your biggest words, Taylor said, but about regularly sharing all progress along the way. Bloomberg encourages all participating cities to give regular updates about gov tech work via social media as well as through other channels such as the mayor’s annual address. That way if something doesn’t work out, the public understands why.
“Highlight the good data, absolutely, look for the big wins and the stories,” Stein said. “Those are the cherries on top, but go out there and begin this back and forth. It radiates out in all the ways we’ve been discussing to staff and to people in the community who want to support your work.”
Oliver Wise, formerly New Orleans’ director of performance and accountability and now digital government principal with the gov tech company Socrata, can attest to the value of celebrating data wins. It was something he advocated and practiced often during his seven-year stint with the city. Although Wise had a different job title, his role was essentially that of a chief data officer, and he was one of the earliest in the country to do that sort of work for a major American city.
When Wise and his team started working on data-driven governance initiatives, it was a foreign concept within New Orleans. He recalls having to change peoples’ thinking.
“It’s a very heavy lift to change the status quo in government, and you need a lot of political capital to really shake things up in an organization,” Wise said. “You need to show, not just tell, what your value is. People will be most convinced if you really show them proof points of how data innovation work, or digital services, is really creating real value for people on the ground. The value of data and digital services can be really obvious for people working in that space, but totally un-obvious for people in an un-technical audience.”
Wise also said this means more than just preaching the value of the work to the press. It also means celebrating the mid-level managers and department heads who bought into the work within the organization, thereby creating a culture that welcomes more participants into gov tech.
David Eaves, a lecturer and research fellow with the Harvard Kennedy School, said that while celebrating data wins is important, technologists also must be aware of how and why they’re celebrating their work, emphasizing that the end goal should be entrenching the work within city government, rather than just grabbing quick headlines.
“The most important thing is do you know why you’re doing this?” Eaves said. “Do you know why you’re celebrating a win?”
This, however, likely won’t be a problem, Eaves said, provided the data projects have great value in the first place.
In other words, it’s easiest to tell a story about a data win when that win is significant.
Louisville, Ky., is vying to become probably the first city in the country to use autonomous drones to respond to the sound of gunfire.
The city has applied for a special program the Federal Aviation Administration is running, where it will give a handful of cities temporary permission to get around long-standing drone rules in order to run pilot projects. Those rules, which operators typically have to get individual waivers to get around, include flying drones outside the operator’s line of sight, flying at night and flying above people.
All of those rules would make it pretty difficult for a city to do what Louisville wants to do. The city has ShotSpotter sensors spread throughout its urban fabric, listening for gunshots. When such a noise is picked up, and interpreted by ShotSpotter’s analysts to be gunfire and not a similar sound, a notification is sent to police who can respond to the scene.
Louisville wants to try out the concept of sending self-routing drones to fly to the scene first. That could bring about several possible benefits: Since they’re airborne, drones would likely be able to arrive on scene faster than a police officer. With an aerial view, they could capture video evidence to help authorities find the person who fired the weapon. And in the case of a false alarm — there have been reports of sensors interpreting fireworks and backfiring cars as gunshots — the drones might be able to keep an officer from responding to nothing.
It’s an idea that came out of need. According to Chris Seidt, Louisville’s director of information technology, Mayor Greg Fischer tasked the city’s Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation — which Seidt was in before moving to his current position — with finding outside-the-box solutions to some urgent problems.
Gun violence was a big one. According to LouieStat, the city’s statistics portal, Louisville saw shootings more than double from 228 in 2014 to 460 in 2016. They fell in 2017, but around that time the city was installing ShotSpotter. The new system gave officials an indication that there was still a lot of shooting to worry about.
“In its first six months of existence, we had 800 activations of the system,” Seidt said. “In the 400 square miles of Jefferson County, that’s a bit of a problem.”
Another bad statistic for the city: Its clearance rate, or the rate at which homicide cases end in an arrest, is about 50 percent. That’s below the national average.
“We thought, ‘What’s the likelihood of getting a better clearance rate if we get to the site of a gunshot incident quickly?’” Seidt said.
There’s another reason, unrelated to crime, behind the project: Like most cities, Louisville still needs to learn about how people are going to use drones in the future.
“We think drones being integrated into urban environments is something the city needs to be involved with, so by taking the lead on this … program, we feel like we can have a say on how the drone ecosystem in our city develops,” he said.
How it Would Work
The pilot, if approved, is likely to be limited in scope to start off with. The city would be looking for a few parts of town without a lot of flight path obstructions or restrictions, and it would set up geofencing to limit the drones to those parts of town. It would need to purchase new autonomous drones; the fire department already uses manual drones under more restricted conditions, but those wouldn’t suit the needs of the project.
“Our goal is to test the theory and see if this is an effective use case of the technology,” Seidt said. “We’re not looking to go immediately into production and deploy hundreds of drones across the community.”
The drones would probably have video cameras, which would turn on the moment they launch to respond to a gunshot report and stay on until they return, and maybe equipment to detect heat signatures at night. They would have manual control for emergencies, but mostly they would rely on software to guide them — at predetermined elevations — to the location of gunshots.
And the drones wouldn’t follow people, cars or other objects. That capability exists within autonomous drones, but for now Seidt said it’s not part of the city’s plans. Remote operators would have the ability to maneuver the cameras in order to capture more footage of something.
From ShotSpotter’s perspective, the idea is pretty straightforward.
“We send an XML digital alert to a system that can ingest it, and then the heavy lifting is done by an (unmanned aerial vehicle) system that can take a specific lat and long from our system and then do the ... work to get a drone to get from wherever it takes off to that alert,” said Ralph Clark, chief executive officer of ShotSpotter.
Clark said he’s only heard of one other group that wanted to use autonomous drones to respond to ShotSpotter, and that was in South Africa where a customer wanted to use them to try to catch rhino poachers. While the idea of using drones to respond to ShotSpotter is new in the U.S. — none of the sources interviewed for this story had heard of similar programs — the idea of people using technology to respond to the system is not. According to Clark, some of the company’s customers have hooked the system up to surveillance cameras that are able to pan, tilt and zoom to focus on the location of a gunshot.
Privacy, Race and the Future
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he has some concerns about the program. One in particular is the possibility that such programs could, if they spread, lead to police disproportionately targeting communities of color. That’s been a problem in the past with policing across the country — as Stanley pointed out, whites and African Americans consume marijuana at about the same rates but African Americans are arrested for it far more often.
“Some cities have only put ShotSpotter in poor and minority neighborhoods,” he said.
That’s been an issue with other types of technology, too. Predictive policing methods have, in the past, taken their data from previous crime figures. Since police were already doing more in low-income and minority neighborhoods, some have accused predictive policing algorithms of flagging those neighborhoods as needing more police.
That said, officials from ShotSpotter and Louisville have both argued that the drone program might actually help protect citizen privacy relative to other surveillance options. After all, the proposal is to only send out drones when there’s a report of a gunshot. If the city were to try to use immobile cameras for the same purpose, they would need to blanket the landscape with them.
In that regard, Stanley agrees.
“I agree in the abstract. If it’s an either-or choice, I’d prefer to have surveillance in places with suspected gunshots than everywhere all the time,” he said.
But he’s skeptical it would actually work out that way.
“If this (idea) were to take off, we’d probably have both,” Stanley said.
Gunshot sensors aren’t the only type of automated data-gathering networks cities are building. The Array of Things project coming out of Chicago is testing the idea that cities can collect all kinds of data — foot traffic, air quality, rain levels, etc. — in order to improve their operations. Premise Data, a startup that uses crowdsourcing to gather information, is starting to make a push into the U.S. And computer vision algorithms are giving more cameras the ability to identify objects and events. Conceivably, these could all act as automatic data feeds to trigger some kind of response from local government.
The purpose of the FAA’s program is to learn about how cities might be able to use drones in ways they haven’t before. So Louisville’s program, being probably the first of its kind, could set an example for other cities to do similar things in the future.
“They’re looking not only to validate the safety … I think they’re trying to drive innovation in many use cases for drones and how those can impact the economy,” Seidt said.
Seidt expects the FAA to announce in May which pilot projects it will approve.
On Jan. 27, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that it had finalized a contract with a San Francisco Bay Area company for technology that would help the agency to track undocumented immigrants through license plate readers.
Connecticut Chief Data Officer Tyler Kleykamp has previously contemplated how nice it would be for state CDOs to have a professional network similar to the Civic Analytics Network, which consists of data officers at the municipal level.
In a recent medium post, Kleykamp and his peers have gone past contemplating the benefits and have begun working to establish a state CDO network, one they describe as “currently a voluntary, self-organized network of state chief data officers or equivalent positions in state government.”
And the effort seems to be off to a good start, as Kleykamp notes that this nascent network includes himself, as well as peers from Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Utah and Vermont. In the post, Kleykamp also lays out a set of operating principles the group has adopted.
These operating principles include purpose, benefits and objectives, voluntary membership, consensus decision-making, prohibition of vendor participation and keeping the group strictly the domain of those who serve the public. The principles include more elaborate and nuanced details about each of the five broader categories.
The network, the post notes, is currently open to proposals from other groups that would seek to partner with it in order to advance its work. A conference call for membership is slated to take place on March 2.
In the earlier post discussing the benefits of this network, Kleykamp noted that his initial inspiration came from attending the Civic Analytics Network’s first Summit on Data-Smart Government in November and noting how beneficial working together had been for CDOs at the city level.
Leaders from 10 cities launch “Mayors for Smart on Crime” initiative
Mayors from 10 cities have joined with the Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy research and advocacy group, to launch a national platform to highlight cities’ smart approaches to public safety.
The group has dubbed this effort Mayors for Smart on Crime, and so far it includes leaders from the following cities: New York City; Seattle; Denver; Boston; Philadelphia; Gary, Ind.; Stockton, Calif.; Baton Rouge, La.; Dayton, Ohio; and Birmingham, Ala. In a press release announcing the initiative, organizers note they expect more mayors to eventually join. One of the main goals of this program is to allow mayors to share ideas and lessons learned.
The program will center on strategies rooted in four principals, with those being fair enforcement of the law, just and proportional responses to crime, comprehensive investments, and strategies that are driven by evidence and data.
Issue areas that the group expects to focus on range from violence reduction, to bail reform, to public health investments. An increasing number of police departments in major cities are turning to gov tech to fight crime, with one notable example being Chicago. The city, which has long struggled with gun violence, saw a 21 percent drop in shootings last year after deploying six Strategic Decision Support Centers. Essentially, Chicago used upgrades to analytics and field technology to reduce crime, which is the sort of work the Mayors for Smart on Crime program seems poised to tackle.
18F warns public agencies against building native mobile apps
The federal tech consultancy 18F has advised public agencies to focus on building highly-optimized, mobile-friendly websites and to leave native mobile apps by the wayside.
In a blog on its website, 18F noted this week that “building products for the public requires a lot of listening and finding the right balance of value, cost and user needs to build the best product.” While the group said there are times when it is appropriate to build a mobile app, a website will almost always be more cost- and time-efficient for governmental departments — especially given the amount of effort it takes to spread awareness and engage app users.
“Native apps also have a huge user acquisition and engagement challenge,” 18F wrote in its blog. “The process of raising audience awareness, getting them to their respective app store, getting them to download and install, getting them to open the app and getting them to regularly use it is a very steep conversion hill to climb. Whereas on the mobile web, there’s no installation needed.”
Essentially, it boils down to this: the vast majority of public agencies aim to serve the most people possible. Given the usual restraints of governmental budgets, this is almost always better accomplished through investments in existing Web presences with an eye toward mobile optimization, rather than by building separate mobile apps.
Detroit seeks to hire director of emerging technology
Detroit is seeking to hire a director of emerging technology to work under the direction of its CIO and lead its Innovation and Emerging Technology (IET) team.
The city has listed the posting online, emphasizing that the IET team manages its open data program in addition to a portfolio of open-source projects, ranging from mapping tools to text and voice applications. “Our work aims to simplify internal workflows, make data more accessible to residents and help our city government be more responsive and connected.”
Those interested in applying are asked to email a resume and a statement of interest to DoITFuture@detroitmi.gov.