Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr famously said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” I tend to agree with him, but as we enter the New Year there are three interrelated technology issues that we can’t ignore. They’ll demand more attention from state and local leaders in 2014.
Governments are great at collecting information, but they often do a lousy job of using it eff ectively. Dropping prices for storage and high-speed computing have put sophisticated analytics capabilities within reach of more public agencies, potentially giving policymakers new tools for spotting trends, allocating resources and modeling the impact of decisions. But there’s a fair amount of work to be done before agencies can really benefi t from these advancements.
Policymakers will need to weigh security and privacy issues as technology makes it possible to collect and mash together diff erent types of data. They’ll also need to force reluctant agencies to share information and comply with standards that allow the data to be used more broadly within a jurisdiction.
For CIOs, the need to use data more predictively could rebalance the information technology equation. In other words, CIOs may spend less time on technology and more time functioning as stewards of a jurisdiction’s information assets. That’ll also drive the need for more data scientists and fewer computer technicians in state and local IT departments.
How eff ectively states and localities confront these issues will determine if they truly understand and realize the promise of “big data” in 2014.
While governments are struggling to get a handle on analytics, many have done a good job of opening data for public consumption. Open data initiatives have powered a groundswell of civic innovation. Now, it’s time to make these activities sustainable.
The earliest government app contests invited local tech geeks to create interesting software applications based on newly opened stockpiles of government information. Those events forged connections between governments and innovative software developers, but the results—an iPhone app that maps the safest walking path from one bar to another, for instance—weren’t necessarily aligned with core government needs.
Since then, groups like the nonprofit Code for America have worked to refine the process through their four-year-old fellowship program—which dispatches teams of software developers to help cities implement technology projects. The group also has launched an accelerator program that gives business training to civic technology startups and introduces them to investors and government officials.
Record attendance at Code for America’s 2013 summit in San Francisco may indicate these efforts are reaching critical mass. If governments can effectively tap into civic development interest, they can cut the cost of software development, nurture local tech companies and probably get software that better fi ts their needs.
One of the biggest barriers to harnessing the growing momentum around civic technology is government procurement. The buying process tends to scare off potential new players and rewards long-time contractors who know how to work the system. As a result, public agencies struggle to attract new ideas, or even keep up with private-sector trends.
One glaring example of this is the launch of HealthCare.gov. As the feds struggled for weeks to fix problems with the site—the heart of which was built by big-time contractor CGI Federal—a chorus of Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs criticized its design as outdated and just plain bad. The feeling was that a superior website could have been built for less money if the nation’s best IT talent hadn’t been locked out of the bidding by overly complex contracting regulations.
Efforts like Philadelphia’s FAST FWD program address the issue by lowering procurement barriers for new companies and reducing the risk of failure by creating deeper relationships between governments and their vendors. The first round of the program, which launched late last year, focused on public safety. Ten tech entrepreneurs were slated to work with the city over a 12-week period to identify a set of problems and propose solutions. The best solutions would receive contracts from the city.
With the HealthCare.gov debacle focusing attention on the issue, look for IT purchasing reform initiatives to take hold at all levels of government this year.