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When Data Rules, Government Innovates

Budgets are getting tighter and resources are being spread thin at the state and local level. One way for governments to stretch their diminishing dollars is to use data to make smarter decisions. For example, agencies can leverage public transit, traffic and carpooling data to better understand local transportation needs and improve mobility. Experts say that to drive these strategic decisions, state and local entities need access to good data.

In a recent GovLoop online training, these panelists discussed how state and local governments can save money and improve the efficacy of citizen services by harnessing public and commercial data sources:

  • Hardik Bhatt, Former Chief Information Officer for the State of Illinois and Smart Cities and Mobility Lead for Amazon Web Services
  • Gregory G. Curtin, Ph.D., JD, Founder, Chairman & CEO of CivicConnect
  • Brandon Freeman, Solution Architect and Smart Cities Practice Lead for Leidos

The Emergence of the Smart City

While governments are beginning to make progress with new technology, Bhatt believes that most agencies take a narrow approach to modernization that does not leverage existing data. “Most smart city conversations start and end with the Internet of Things (IoT), but when you think of a smart city, IoT is just one ninth of the equation,” he said. According to Bhatt, an effective smart city takes a holistic approach to improving citizen services that includes employing mobile applications, data-driven practices as well as technological convergence.

As far as the huge data surplus, a unified smart city or smart agency platform will connect all of these disparate data sources to generate the best outcomes. “The key is that 95 percent of data in the digital universe is unstructured,” Bhatt said. But by finding ways to structure their data, agencies can unleash its value and begin employing better analytics and better products.

How Agencies Become Data-Driven

According to Curtin, “Data is being generated and sourced by just about everything in our environment.” With so much data out there, how do governments generate good outcomes and benefits for their citizens?

  • Employ a solid platform. Agencies can begin the process by utilizing a unified platform for their community or environment. “The hallmarks of a true platform in this digital age is one that is flexible, cloud based and secure,” Curtin said.
  • Connect the dots. Governments must also think about how to connect the multiple sets of data like IoT, open government data and mobile user data. “Don’t just think about the data that is obvious to you,” Curtin said. “Think about how to connect data and data sources across disparate subject matters and services.”
  • Future proof your technology. Future proof whatever data application or service is being used. “You don’t want to get caught in a trap by investing in something that can’t grow with your agency,” Curtin said. Agencies also need to account for new, up-and-coming technologies. “While some [new technologies] may not be ready for applications today, they will be in the very near future.”

San Francisco: A Smart City Case Study 

To demonstrate how smart cities are leveraging data for better outcomes and citizen services, Curtin shared a case study from the golden city. A few years ago, the San Francisco Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission realized that the 511.org site they created to improve mobility for its 8 million residents, visitors and workers was too expensive to maintain and unwieldly to manage. They leveraged the CivicConnect platform to connect data feeds from 33 agencies, 100 cities, 9 counties and numerous other public , private and real-time data sources. “They were able to fuse and integrate all of those data points to provide new value to commuters and visitors,” Curtin said.

The change improved the experience of San Francisco Bay Area travelers and saved the city $10 million annually. The platform also connected city officials to their millions of citizens. “It became a critical tool for emergency communications because it connected hundreds of data services that reached millions of citizens and users in the area,” Curtin said. The city used the platform to deploy emergency instructions and alerts in the wake of forest fires, earthquakes and a transportation strike. Overall, Curtin believes that multi-channel, cross-device applications are the best way to deliver data in the digital age.

How the Private Sector Can Help

While the city of San Francisco saved millions by employing a data-driven strategy, Freeman explained that funding is often a critical challenge. There is funding available initially for agencies to establish infrastructure, but some projects take 5 to 10 years to maintain and the costs can put a strain on an agency’s budget. “Agencies should think about leveraging the infrastructure they’re using to gather data as an economic engine to fund some of the projects,” Freeman said. “A lot of critical industries have cost opportunities for agencies to share infrastructure with the private sector in ways that are appropriate. This way, agencies can use cost-sharing to fund these projects.”

Freeman explained that a holistic approach between the public and the private sector is also important in providing these outcomes. “A lot of commercial industries are changing,” he said. “Traditionally there were silos between industry and government. But now, there is an emerging reliance between the infrastructure of the commercial industry and government data.”

The Data Journey Toward Citizen-Centricity

Overall, the experts agreed that a holistic approach provides the best data outcomes and allows agencies to structure previously unused data for better citizen services. Additionally, Curtin believes that the smart city transformation begins with agency personnel. “This opportunity is really about capturing, changing and guiding the new digital experience for your users, consumers and constituents,” Curtin concluded. “The organizations that can drive a leadership and cultural change are the agencies that will really move forward with data.”

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