Category Archives: artificial intelligence

Is 2017 the Year for Big Change in Civic Tech? No.

No.

big-diaper-change2017 is not the year for Big Change in city, county or state tech.   I’d argue NO year is a year for “Big Change” in the technologies used by government.   Government does not change fast, which may be a Good Thing.

Civic Technology – the information technologies used by local, state and federal governments – typically plod along many years behind commercial adoption of technology and a decade or more behind the latest, leading edge, advances in tech.

Here are some examples: commercial companies go whole hog to adopt cloud technologies while government still operates data centers and even builds new ones (State of Washington, 2014).   Consumers and commercial companies adopt the iPhone; government still uses the Blackberry or (Congress and President Obama finally ditched them in 2016) or doesn’t even issue smart phones to its first responders.   Commercial companies adopt agile development, with sprints that update apps every few weeks; governments still do “big” multi-year projects which invariably go over budget and implement years later than planned, often with semi-disastrous consequences.

Stephen Goldsmith, Director of Innovation in Government at the Harvard Kennedy School and former Mayor of Indianapolis, believes 2017 will be the year for technology breakthroughs in government such as virtual assistants, artificial intelligence, chatbots, natural language processing (think Alexa, Siri or Cortana), machine-to-machine communications and predictive analytics.

I’m not so sure.

Or rather, I am virtually certain 2017 will NOT be the year for chatbots, artificial intelligence and natural language processing.  I’m pretty sure we won’t get very wide adoption of predictive analytics, especially given the recent implosion of “predictive policing”.

There are a number of reasons for my skepticism, but that’s a topic for a different post.

Ok, so if I’m certain no one will be saying “Alexa, pay my parking ticket” in 2017, what technologies will governments be adopting?

  1. iot-smart-cities-nlc-dec-2016Smart Cities. Cities are finally networking their sensors and harnessing the Internet of Civic Things (IoCT) to improve transportation, public safety, and quality of life.   Kansas City, Missouri, led by a gutsy Mayor Sly James and Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennett, along with networking vendor Cisco, is leading this charge with LED street lights, transportation signal timing and tracking, and a smart city map.  Former Mayor Mark Funkhouser, now publisher of Governing Magazine, also deserves credit for his innovative leadership style, as does Google Fiber, for making KCMO its launch city.  Boston will not be far behind as it received 104 responses from 85 companies for its smart city RFI, one of which includes outfitting the city with 15,000 smart street lights.  And Columbus, Ohio, has the right idea – using tech to help people – rather than tech for tech’s sake – as it uses its Smart City Challenge Grant to try and reduce deaths of infants and connect low-income residents to jobs.
  1. Free public Wi-Fi. This was a totally stupid idea when it first surfaced in Philadelphia in 2004, and died a slow, lingering death there and in a hundred other cities across the nation.  But now, with advent of smart street lights, well-developed municipal fiber networks, and the whole concept of “smart cities”, the idea has come of age.   If a city is already connecting its parking kiosks, street lights, public buildings and other infrastructure to the network, popping up “free” public wi-fi is trivial.  New York City’s LinkNYC, after it fixed its porn problem, is starting to be quite successful, with 600+ kiosks enabled.  Kansas City is using its smart city platform to provide Wi-Fi to 50 blocks in the downtown area.
  1. Cloud computing. Governments have been extraordinarily reluctant to get rid of their dinosaur data centers.  The move to the cloud is actually accelerating now, led by initiatives such as body-worn video storage in Taser’s evidence.com, for example, which is hosted by Microsoft in its Azure cloud.   But, as a matter of fact, many other cloud based solutions are being adopted by government such as NeoGov for human resources, Accela for licensing, permitting and finance, and Workday for human resources and financial management.  In many cases the line departments (utilities, public works, permitting, public safety) of governments acquire these cloud solutions, either with the support of their IT departments or despite them.
  1. Ufirefighting-drones-jpgnhumaned aerial vehicles – UAVs or Drones. Drones seem to have suddenly exploded on the scene a couple of years ago when the technology was ripe, although radio-controlled aircraft have been around for decades.  Now, however, governments have discovered the tremendous usefulness of these aircraft, far beyond the military applications.   North Carolina’s Department of Transportation is working with other agencies to use drones in crises ranging from flooding to traffic collisions.     Use of drones in search-and-rescue (SAR) is becoming so commonplace there is even an organization of 1,100 SAR drone pilots, which goes by the name of SWARM.   Both police and fire agencies are using drones for searches, observing major fires to guide firefighting, and other purposes.   We will see a major expansion of use in 2017.
  1. Body-worn video (BWV). Body-worn video burst on the scene after the Ferguson, Missouri, riots, with many police departments adopting them quickly, without thinking about the privacy and policy implications.  We will not only see improved policy controls, but also see wider use of BWV for officers and detectives to walk around and describe serious auto collisions and crime scenes in great detail, easing investigation and prosecution.   While the original reason for use of BWV was making police officers more accountable, we’re also seeing increased professionalism, decreased liability (fewer sustained complaints) and better investigations, according to work done by Dr. David Makin of Washington State University.  In 2017 more law enforcement agencies will realize these benefits, along with, of course, an increased workload for officers, detectives and prosecutors.

But how about those predictions of chatbots, virtual assistants, natural language processing and artificial intelligence?

Well, these technologies are all linked.  Natural language processing (“Alexa”) allows humans to easily communicate to virtual assistants, which, in turn, can engage artificial intelligence like IBM’s Watson, Google Tensorflow or Microsoft’s Scattershot (my reference to the significant work Microsoft is doing, but not necessarily tied into a single AI engine).

alexa-call-911But it will take significant time for these engines to be linked to civic problems.   Las Vegas is writing some skills for Alexa and New York City would like to harness Watson for its 311 center.  But, like everything else in government, don’t expect a “Big Change” to suddenly happen, but rather an evolutionary development and adoption of these technologies.

With some luck, sometime in the near future, there will be a Sherlock AI for helping detectives solve crimes and a Bob-the-Builder AI for helping people navigate the myriad building and zoning regulations of a modern city and similar ways that AI linked to natural language processing and personal assistants or chatbots help city residents.

But not in 2017.

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Filed under Alexa, artificial intelligence, drones, firefighting, Internet of Things, smart cities

Can Government CIOs Avoid Politics?

The short answer, as known by everyone who has been a government Chief Information Officer, is a resounding “NO”.

This question is becoming more urgent as a new federal government administration in Washington charts its own, unique, path of policies and directives.   But it is a question which is lurking in the shadows of the march of technology, and will emerge as a more painful question for CIOs soon.

korematsu-fred-googleTechnology companies and executives have tried to stay apart from politics.  Taking sides on political questions is usually the recipe for customer disaffection and even a boycott.  #deleteuber has gone viral in the past few days as customers perceived Uber lacked opposition to President Trump’s executive order on immigration.   In response to that same order, many have called for a boycott of Starbucks after its CEO planned to hire 10,000 immigrants, responding to that same presidential order.  Most companies involved in technology are now taking sides on this political issue.  Google, for example, wryly protested the order by putting an image of Fred Korematsu on its search site.  Korematsu protested the internment (by Executive Order) of Japanese-American’s in World War II.

Since the emergence of the role of chief information officer in the 1990s, federal, state and large city CIOs have always been involved in politics.  They work for elected officials who are members of political parties, and are expected to have allegiance to those individuals and those parties.

On the other hand, CIOs of smaller cities and counties – usually those with a professional city or county manager – often have long tenures if they are professionally competent.   Steve Monaghan of Nevada County, California, has served in that role since 1999.  Phil Bertolini of Oakland County, Michigan, has served as CIO and Deputy County Administrator since 2005 and was information technology director prior to that.

Competent and politically savvy CIOs of larger cities and counties have survived changes in their executives too – witness Joe Marcella’s 18 years in Las Vegas.  Others have successfully moved between jobs in major jurisdictions such as Cathy Maras who started as CIO in Cook County and is now in Bexar County (San Antonio) or Steve Reneker who has moved from the City of Riverside to the City of Los Angeles and is now in Riverside County.  Adel Abeid, Jon Walton and Beth Niblock are other examples of successful CIOs moving between multiple large jurisdictions.

In the future, however, government CIOs are going to face daunting political and ethical questions, for examples:

  • Facial Recognition. Your City (county, state) operates video cameras in public spaces.  These might include traffic cameras, security cameras or surveillance cameras in public spaces.  Your executive wants you to implement facial recognition, and build a database of individuals who attend protest marches, to find those who commit violence and crimes in order to arrest and prosecute them.   While this is a noble mission, such a database also will capture the identities of many others who are legitimately exercising their right to free speech.
  • Social Media. Your police chief or executive asks you to find and implement software to scan social media use by existing and prospective employees.   The immediate need is to make sure they are not criminals, racists, or committing other illegal acts.   But that same database could be used to determine their political affiliation and views.    It is clearly unethical to use such information when making employment (or continuation of employment) decisions about employees protected by civil service.  But is it ethical to consider such information for political (“at will”) employees or in jurisdictions without civil service?  Could such information be used to go on a “witch hunt” for employees who do not share the chief executive’s view?
  • Protected classes. Your executive is concerned about terrorism and potential hacking or damage to the City’s image by disgruntled employees.  You know that disgruntled employees are a primary cause of cyber theft and other insider threats.  Your executive asks you to use a social media monitoring tool and other technology to build a dossier on employees who potentially pose such threats, especially if they have family/friend links to known terrorist nations.
  • New technology. Your executive demands you improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the City’s call center for city services.   You can implement a variety of new technologies such as chatbots, natural language processing (think “Alexa” or “Siri”) and even artificial intelligence such as IBM’s Watson.   Such technologies will eliminate dozens or hundreds of living wage jobs for people of color and those who are single parents or the sole breadwinner for their families.  While a typical response might be to offer re-training programs, the displaced workers in many cases will not have the basic education or abilities to learn the replacement high-tech jobs which will become available.

The convergence of the new “America First” policy in Washington, D. C., and the availability of a number of new technologies ranging from the Internet of Things to natural language processing to video analytics (facial and object recognition) to massive databases with associated “big data” analytics (and the threat of significant misinterpretation) will present many dilemmas for the government Chief Information Officer.

artificial-intelligence-iconEven more frightening, artificial intelligence will vastly transform the face of society and the economy of the United States over the next 20 years, as documented in a 2016 federal government report here.  Millions from jobs ranging from call centers to lawyers to accountants to everyone who drives a vehicle are at risk of elimination or significant change.  All of this technology change will be infused with politics as elected officials scramble to create jobs, save jobs or fix blame for loss of jobs.

Government CIOs work for these elected officials.  CIOs have this technology tiger by the tail.  They should pray it does not eat them alive.

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Filed under Alexa, artificial intelligence, big data, CIOs, future of technology

– I-Everything, Lawyers, Watson and Plumbers

The I-Everything

The I-Everything?

Robert Reich* had an interesting piece on October 10th on NPR’s* Marketplace:  “Is technology to Blame for Chronic Unemployment?” He talked about the immanent end of many jobs and professions in the developed world, and specifically the United States, due to massive changes in technology.  Read or listen to it here.

The logic of his arguments is quite clear.

First, the miniaturization of electronics coupled with the consumer technology revolution (smart phones and tablets) is really just in its infancy. Gee, the smart phone, for example, is just five years old, and the tablet computer (in its very usable, iPad-type format) is not even three years old. We’ve just begun to tap their potential.

Next, we are seeing more and more data and information squeezed into ever smaller spaces. While the first personal computers had less than 640 kilobytes of memory*, today we have widely available thumbdrives with 64 gigabytes of memory. Service members and others can carry their entire medical history on a chip in a credit card.

Indeed, Reich said, we may very well, in the future, carry an “all purpose” device, the “I-Everything” as he dubbed it. It could contain all relevant information about you, ranging from medical history to financial information to personal preferences (all suitably encrypted, one would hope!). Using a personal-area-network it could communicate with many other devices in or on your body to monitor your health, allow self-diagnosis of medical issues and even carry on most routine financial transactions and interactions. The I-Everything.

These revolutions in technology have already terminated many kinds of jobs. Word processors and data entry jobs are gone and secretaries, if not gone, are highly endangered. Telephone and switchboard operators, and many newspaper jobs, are gone.

More jobs will fall victim to technology. Bank tellers are endangered, as are travel agents. Retail store clerks are still employed in great numbers, but a decline must set in as more shopping goes online. Even restaurant servers may be somewhat endangered as i-Pads and other devices become common at tables.

IBM's WatsonThis change will strike at professional jobs too.  Sloan-Kettering medical centers have been testing the use of IBM’s Watson to help do diagnosis of medical conditions and, starting soon, it will start dispensing medical advice.

(You undoubtedly remember Watson from its appearance on the Jepoardy television show.)

We can see many other professional jobs which will be suspectible to the “artificial intelligence” powers of computers such as Watson.   Such jobs might include attorneys and finance. Lawyers research and interpret laws, but computers are vastly better at raw text-based search. And artificial intelligence as demonstrated by IBM’s Watson computer can do much, if not all, of the interpretation and preparation of legal documents and briefs.

My title “Death of Lawyers” is a little dramatic. Lawyers aren’t going to die, but their profession will rapidly and significantly shrink. I suppose we’ll need trial lawyers for a while but almost all the “clerical” work of legal documents, wills, property transfer, tax preparation and so forth will fall victim to information technology. Most law schools and paralegals will soon follow. Indeed, most of the process of adjudication (“judges”) can probably follow as well.

IBM has 200 people working on applying applying Watson’s abilities to commercial problems like medicine and finance.   And my purpose in writing this column is not to “raise alarm” and cause people to “rise up against the machine”.    Computing is going to keep advancing and hundreds of companies and thousands of people are working to make that happen.  Smarter machines will have many applications to improve our quality of life.

Many professions, however, will experience resurgence. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and auto mechanics are definitely not susceptible to replacement by Watson – or to outsourcing to China and India either, for that matter.  But the sophisticated computers embedded in homes, appliances and automobiles will dictate more sophistication in these professions. Childcare, nursing and eldercare will still require “real people”.   Demand for, and the valuing of, these professions will rise.

Computers such as IBM’s Watson will eventually merge with the “I-Everything”, I think, to produce a true digital assistant, able to interact and transact much of the routine business of your usual life. The only trouble is that, with so many people out of work, who will be able to afford one?

Digital GovernmentWell, this is, actually, supposed to be a blog about the use of technology in government. What do these revolutionary changes mean for government workers?

It’s hard to see how the “I-everything” with integrated Watson can replace cops, firefighters, water pipe workers, electrical line workers, emergency medical techs, pothole-fillers and parks and recreation staff. Spouses angrily fighting with each other, throwing kitchen utensils and pulling out knives and guns – and then calling 911 – are not exactly susceptible to Watson-like reasoning. “Bureaucrats”, in the sense of employees who process documents, issue licenses and permits, and manage finances, may see their jobs in jeopardy.

And, of course, we’ll always need elected officials. Who would want to go to a public meeting and yell at a computer?

Or, perhaps, we’ll just send our I-Everthings to the meeting to yell at the electeds’ I-Everythings!


*Robert Reich is former Secretary of Labor for President Bill Clinton and presently professor of public policy at University of California – Berkeley. http://robertreich.org/

*NPR – gee, you know what NPR is – its that public broadcasting service which includes Big Bird and Jim Lehrer and others who may be sacrificed to the god of Federal Deficit Reduction.

*Bill Gates did NOT say “640k of memory should be enough for anybody” – see here.

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