Ask What Technology You Can Buy For Your Country

Kim Nelson (Chevy Chase, MD) —

It’s the holiday season, and as usual there is a media frenzy over consumers, what they are buying, and more importantly, what it may or may not mean.

In the issue of Time that I received on Cyber Monday an article by Stephen Gandel titled “The Shopping Bag Indicator” outlined the theory that so-called “must-have” holiday items are leading indicators of which direction the economy is headed in. Gandel looks back at hot retail items like the $25 Cabbage Patch doll of 1983, which ushered in the Reagan boom under the guise of conspicuous consumption. Overall, he claims that electronic gadgets sell out in good times and, “in downturns we retreat to lower-priced toys and other comfort items” – like Snuggies in 2008.

(As a Microsoftie, though, I have to take issue with Gandel’s claim that the $499 iPad was the 2010 holiday’s hottest item. He must have missed the story that the Guiness Book of World records announced that the $150 Microsoft Kinect broke a consumer electronics record as the fastest selling electronic device during the 60 day period leading up to Christmas 2010 – selling more than 8 million units.)

Being someone who’s spent her entire career working in government or closely with government customers, I was led to ask: What do the latest consumer trends mean for the public sector? We certainly know by now that consumer technologies are now regularly making their way into government organizations. What are some of the trends that government leaders might start considering as they look for innovative ways to fundamentally change how people experience government, from how workers do their jobs, how information is made available, and how citizen services are delivered?

I recently spent time with a number of state senators in Pennsylvania discussing, on the backdrop of the state’s upcoming IT Strategic Plan, the impact of two of Microsoft’s consumer products on government: Skype and Kinect. Public sector decision makers are beginning to envision a near-future that involves things like ubiquitous Skype video communications between citizens and government, and engaging agency services and data using “natural user interfaces” (hand gestures, speaking, etc.) via Kinect.

Skype is the world’s most popular Internet-based text, voice, and video communications service. In the near future, we expect that Skype will bring a more personal connection to how citizens engage with their government. It can help bridge distances between public health agencies and the patients they serve; enhance communication for emergency workers; and create new communication paradigms, such as elevating an email interchange to a face-to-face video conference with a simple click. For education, Skype opens up classrooms as wide as the world, enabling students and teachers anywhere to share experiences, discover new cultures and develop new ways of learning through real-time video communication.

Likewise, Kinect is a voice and motion-sensing technology that enables you to control and interact with computing devices through a natural user interface that recognizes gestures and spoken commands. Designed for entertainment and selected as for a Parents’ Choice Award, Kinect has inspired creativity and innovation across many fields, including government. Kinect’s full body play technologies enhance skill-building therapies for autistic children; help rehabilitate stroke and brain-damage patients; monitor the mobility of senior citizens to prevent falls; and lead exercise in physical fitness classes in public schools.

Both of these technologies, currently mainly known as consumer products, have the potential to fundamentally alter some public sector internal operations, and external interactions with citizens – and possibly even saving taxpayer dollars along the way.

Kim Nelson is the executive director of e-government for Microsoft.

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