Wednesday, December 03, 2014

On Monday and Tuesday of this week I attended the Massachusetts Digital Government Summit.  It was a very interesting discussion in the latest trends in government technology.  Here are my notes from the conference:

Opening Remarks by Glen Shor (Secretary of Administration and Finance)
Our goal is to use technology to make it easier for citizens to interact with government.  Also, to make more data-driven decisions.  Deval Patrick has committed to technology even in bad financial times.  We’ve been more inclined to use off the shelf software rather than building applications in-house.  Developing it in-house, you have a 100% chance of getting what you want but only a 50% chance of success.  With off-the-shelf, you get 85% of what you want with a 90% chance of success.

Trends in Mass IT by Bill Oates, Massachusetts CIO
Three areas of emphasis have been data management, expanding broadband, and collaboration with cities and the educational system.  He showed a video about the Massachusetts Innovation Challenge in which $50,000 in prizes were awarded in a competition among 25 startup companies.  The goal was to take the creativity inherent in the IT business and apply it to state government. 

CIO Panel Discussion
Bill Oates, Chief Information Officer, Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Chief Information Officer, City of Boston
Craig Burlingame, CIO City of Boston, 2000-2004
Louis Gutierrez, CIO Commonwealth, 1996-1998 and 2003-2005
John Letchford, CIO Commonwealth, 2010-2013
David Lewis, CIO Commonwealth, 1998-2002
Anne Margulies, CIO Commonwealth, 2007-2010
This was a loosely structured question and answer session in which the panelists gave wide-ranging answers to issues raised.  Below are some of the more memorable points that were made:

Y2K gave state government something that had to be done on time; the deadline couldn’t slip.  This was a very different dynamic.  The procurement process is difficult but if all of these procedures were not in place, the system could very easily be corrupted.  Be careful about relying too heavily on consultants.  Remember the essence of consulting: if you can’t solve a problem, there’s good money in prolonging it. 

In cities, especially, there’s often a losing struggle between funding things that are visible like parks and paying for back-end things like computers that are largely invisible.
The future? Because IT is the backbone rather than the backroom, CIOs will become more like COOs.  IT is part of everything an organization does.  One of the tasks of a CIO is to make very compartmented offices work together to improve the customer experience.
At Harvard, they refer to the future as SMAC: social, mobile, analytics and cloud.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” because the pace of change in technology is unbelievable and the future is very nebulous.
You have to spend half your time dabbling in stuff.
Fail early and fail often.
CIOs have to lead major change in organizations because technology is disrupting the current way of doing things.  You have to be good at explaining how new things work otherwise the new things will never succeed.
Patience and persistence are key traits.  Obstacles are inevitable.  Don’t be distracted by minutia. 
IT and Operations are morphing together into the same thing.   END

Day Two Opening Remarks
Jascha Franklin-Hodge, CIO, City of Boston
The role of the CIO is changing greatly.  It’s not just technology anymore but also includes operations.  Technology doesn’t solve anything by itself but nothing in government gets done without technology.  However, government isn’t meeting customer expectations.  They want government service to be as fast and efficient as buying something from Amazon.  Government doesn’t have the resources to compete with business so we have to be more agile and innovative to succeed in the world of limited budgets.

The best way to avoid a big failure is to have a lot of little failures early in the process.  A good way to do this is to develop in-house expertise on today’s technologies. 
Relentlessly focus on end-users.  Design systems for them, not for the employees who will be using the systems.

We have the power to change the perception that government is inherently wasteful and inefficient.  We can show our constituents that government can work well.  Great customer service sends the message that government cares.  END

Specific Topics
Mobile/Government – Jim Upton of AT&T Mobility and Agnieszka Ilnicka of City of Boston IT
(Upton) Citizens are going more mobile but government is not.  Government is losing touch with its constituents.  Government needs to catch up.

Successful mobile apps are fast and “on point” meaning that they do a specific task very well and don’t try to do too much.  It’s better to deliver apps in pieces than it is to try to create a single one-size-fits-all product.  Creating apps for the government has extra challenges such as making them multilingual or protecting privacy.  The apps that get most widely adopted are those available in an app store which should be a consideration in your design decisions.    

Apps take a variety of forms from a programing perspective.  Native apps are those written in the mobile operating system’s code (iOS or Android).  Other apps are written in HTML5.  These are probably easiest to write but they can’t be put in the app store.  The most common type of app today is called a hybrid which is written in HTML5 and then “wrapped” in iOS or Android. 

What does the future hold?  Hyperlocal will be big.  He anticipates the widespread use of iBeacons which emit signals that communicate with your telephone and tell you where and how far the beacon (destination) is from you.  The other big thing he expects is “augmented reality” in which you would point your phone’s camera at something (a particular building, for example) and have information about that building automatically appear on your phone’s screen, overlaying the image produced by your camera.

(Agnieszka): Is the manager of “constituent engagement tools” for the city of Boston.  She described the methods citizens of Boston have to interact with their government.  In 2008, there was the mayor’s 24 hour hotline which is staffed by humans around the clock.  Also, there was email, US mail and contact through the city website.  We knew mobile was the next step. 

The mayor’s office of New Urban Mechanics worked with a company called Connected Bits to give us Citizens Connect, a mobile app that allows people to report infrastructure and service problems.  Simplicity was the key to this app and it was very successful.  We soon discovered that the most frequent users of this app were city workers.  This led them to develop a City Worker app which was a beefed up version of the citizen app.  This has been very successful too.  A new app they’re testing is called “Street Bump” which uses your phone’s GPS and accelerometer to make note of when you drive over a bump like a pot hole.  The citizen doesn’t have to do anything other than turn the thing on at the start of a trip.  They continue to fine tune this app.  Her advice was to keep development costs low by partnering with universities, non-profits and businesses.  END

Analytics in the Age of Big Data
Four major trends in IT today: (1) cloud; (2) mobile [we’re always connected]; (3) Internet of Things [gadgets that generate data; and [4] Big Data.  “Big Data” is a very ambiguous term.  It means data of all types and formats.  It can be text files, spreadsheets, databases, video, audio, images, and machine created data such as that emitted from things like cars, thermostats and sensors.  The challenge is to find a way to store and query all of this stuff even though it remains in its native format.  (there’s no clear answer).  The big payoff will come when mashing up all of this data.

Keynote Speaker (Day Two) Chad Vander Veen, editor of a new “media platform” called Future Structure which is described as “the intersection of ideas, infrastructure and technology.”
Because everything is connected today, we have to fundamentally change the way we look at how government operates.  He compares it to how fantasy football has transformed how (some) people look at the game of football.  It’s still the same game but it’s viewed in a way that breaks down all the old boundaries and practices.      

By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities.  This is a fundamental shift in the history of human civilization.  We have to look at a city as a deeply connected system (or system of systems).  Infrastructure and public health are deeply connected (clean water, working sewers).  Don’t think of roads as being only for cars.  Consider subways, trolleys, bicycles and pedestrians.  A big challenge is how do we move people around our cities more efficiently.
The five pillars of the city are (1) water; (2) waste; (3) energy; (4) transportation; and (5) built environment.  There also a lot of bad ideas out there. 

How will technology influence cities of the future?  With the Internet of Things, everything is connected.  By connecting all of our infrastructure, we generate better data which lets us make smarter decisions.  Value pricing for parking.   

He then talked a lot about “connected autonomous vehicles” which are cars that drive themselves.  By the end of this decade, auto makers will be offering “semi-autonomous vehicles”.  The technology exists today to make this happen but our “soft infrastructure” like law and liability have to catch up.  END

Digital Engagement by Nigel Jacob of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics
Boston is using technology to better engage its residents.  We want to make citizens more central to how we govern.  A big issue is trust of government. 

The way we operate is to try a lot of smaller projects, see if they work, and if they do, we scale them up.  If they don’t work, we shut them down quickly.  It’s important to fail fast.  Two examples of this are related to the Boston Public Schools.  One app is called “Discover” which took the existing school department website that shows each of the 100+ schools in the city and redid it to closely resemble a “” type of site.  The other app is “where is my school bus” which tells a parent where the bus is in real time. 

The other thing we do is blend online with offline.  You can’t separate online from in person engagement.  They created a “City Hall To Go” which is like a food truck for government services.  It drives to where the people are and offers a variety of services rather than forcing them to come to City Hall.  The other app is called “Community Planit” which is a planning app designed like a game.  Information about real projects and problems are made available online.  Before attending an in-person meeting, people can educate themselves on the facts and the issues so when they do finally come together they are much more productive because a lot of the preliminaries are already done.   

This promotes more civic involvement.

The third thing to remember is that real engagement is hard.  Experiment to find what works.  Experimentation is the key to civic engagement.  END

Education Technologies Today and Tomorrow
By Mark Racine, Chief Information Officer of Boston Public Schools (and a former 5th grade teacher)

Started by saying that classrooms haven’t changed much in 100 years.  Goes through classroom technology timeline:

  • 1890s – handheld slate tablets
  • ·        1900s – pencils (affordable but paper isn’t yet so slate tablets continue in use)
  • ·        1920s – radio comes to classroom.  Education programs widely broadcast
  • ·        1930s – reel-to-reel projectors
  • ·        1940s – slide projector (permits efficient distribution of non-book materials by publishers)
  • ·        1950s – overhead projector
  • ·        1960s – calculators and photocopiers
  • ·        1970s – computers in classrooms (but almost exclusively for admin purposes)
  • ·        1980s – educational software – students begin learning from computers
  • ·        1990s – wired to the Internet – slow but at least they’re connected
  • ·        2000s – WIFI

Every one of these technologies is still in use in our schools today.  None have left.  Why are we doing things the same way we always have done?  Why haven’t we evolved?

To change the way we teach we first have to change the way we think about learning.  The old model of learning was linear.  The teacher stood at the front of the room, delivered a standard lesson on a tight schedule whether the students got it or not.  It was like requiring the students to drink 8 glasses of water each day.

Instead, think of learning as a swimming pool in which the student immerses him or herself.  How do you do this?  Technology can surround the student with learning opportunities.  Technology permits this kind of immersion.  But immerse the child in technology, not the teacher. 

Another point: school districts strive to standardize technology which from an Information Technology perspective, is the proper course since it provides economy of scale.  But this type of exclusivity is completely wrong from an education perspective.  Students should be exposed to all types of technology because when they are looking for jobs they will need to know all of these technologies.  If they’ve only been exposed to one in school, the school has missed an opportunity.  Schools should also teach students how this stuff works so that when it doesn’t work they know how to fix it.  This allows students to discover stuff on their own.

The motto should be “failure is not an option, it’s a requirement.”  Failure (of technology) is a learning opportunity.  Teachers and students should prepare for it, deal with it, and learn from it.  One reason teachers rely so much on paper handouts is that it’s a reliable technology that they know is going to work.  That’s not necessarily the case with computers.  But when a computer doesn’t work as planned, it presents a learning opportunity that should be embraced.

Empower the students.  Learning should be personalized even if the technology is not.  And always remember, learning happens everywhere. END

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