Best of California 2018: Winners Tackle Projects to Improve Safety, Efficiency and Quality of Life

This year's Best of California awards go to agencies and individuals championing innovative public-sector tech, from transportation analytics and electronic health records to drones and smart swimming pools.

by / September 17, 2018
e.Republic/David Kidd

This year’s Best of California Award winners span a range of front-burner IT issues, from unmanned aerial vehicles to electronic health records to enhanced citizen engagement. Agencies across the state tackled diverse government needs, from streamlining the lottery to delivering improved human services.

Leaders involved in several of the 15 winning projects showcase a few things that California famously has a lot of: swimming pools, automobiles and legalized marijuana. In their own ways, each of the projects profiled here shines a light on the state’s vigorous, creative, citizen-centric IT efforts.

Best IT Collaboration Among Organizations

When Californians voted to legalize marijuana, that decision brought with it serious technology implications. “It became an IT challenge because it was a new bureau, a new regulatory market for the state of California,” said Jason Piccione, CIO of the California Department of Consumer Affairs.

With the fledgling industry still finding its feet, the IT team had a moving target. “We had to come up with an IT overlay to a business that was still evolving. The inherent risks for IT around an established business are large enough, and here we had to do it around an emerging and evolving business,” Piccione said. “We knew things were shifting all the time, so we had to be agile — big ‘A’ and little ‘a’ — both in methodology and execution.”

Collaboration was key here. Using an agile methodology meant setting up an iterative, customer-centric process, with frequent check-ins between the IT team, the Bureau of Cannabis Control within the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Department of Public Health.

“Because we all knew of the changing and evolving nature of the situation, we could be a little more flexible in what needed to happen,” Piccione said. “For example, we would go down the road of licensing, some new regulations would come out that were different from what we had planned, and we were able to shift and accommodate those changes.”

In order to implement this free-flowing process, the IT team had to take the lead in forging new intergovernmental connections, a new collaborative paradigm. “We don’t necessarily communicate operationally from department to department on a normal basis,” Piccione said. To open up the flow of information, the IT helped to forge “a hub for brainstorming, requirement-gathering and communication for all the departments. We created a cannabis war room, both physical and figurative, where we could demonstrate the technologies and create the business requirements.”

In addition to building business processes around a still-emerging industry, the IT team also had to grapple with implementing a previously untried technology, as they adopted the Accela platform to underpin the emerging cannabis bureaucracy.

“Accela was a new product for our portfolio, so there are intrinsic challenges in that,” Piccione said. “This was also one of our first forays into a cloud-hosted regulatory system of record. That posed new considerations. Would performance be an issue? Did we have contractual agreements that protected the state in terms of uptime and performance? Those were all considerations.”

A lot was riding on the outcome, as the nation watched to see whether California could successfully decriminalize this formerly contraband crop. “We had the world looking at us,” he said. “From an IT perspective we had to make sure we were spot on. Our risk management game had to be stellar.”

In the end, the team developed new data standards and forged new interaction points. They implemented three licensing and enforcement platforms to serve different statutory elements. What made it all work? Piccione credits the close cooperation between the business side — especially the Bureau of Cannabis Control — and the IT leadership.

"We had consistent engagement. They showed openness to the flexibility and to the process,” he said. “When we have a project like this there can be different levels of engagement. In this case the business leadership understood the method, they understood the path, and they worked with us throughout the entire lifecycle. That made decision-making easier and quicker.”

Demonstrated Excellence in Project Management

They say no good deed goes unpunished. Take for instance California’s ongoing migration toward more fuel-efficient automobiles. That’s great for the planet. The downside? Less fuel consumption means radical declines in the fuel-tax base that pays for highway maintenance and operations.

The state has said that by 2030 it could lose up to half that revenue thanks to increased fuel efficiencies. How to pay for roadwork in this brave new world?

Enter the Road Charge pilot project, an effort to test-drive a variety of technologies that would allow the state to make up lost gas revenue by charging motorists for how much they drive. “This was highly complex, with a lot of moving parts,” said Brady Tacdol, the project manager in the California Department of Transportation who headed up the effort.

The pilot ran for nine months. More than 5,000 citizens volunteered to test out six different mileage recording technologies including in-vehicle telematics, smartphone applications and onboard diagnostic port devices. Multiple agencies weighed in and multiple vendors helped coordinate the effort. Adding to the complexity of the project was a need to safeguard personal and location data of the many participants.

More to the point, this was all brand new.

“This was looking at revenue collection from a perspective that we’ve never used before. As much as it was a technological test, this was also very much a public outreach effort,” Tacdol said. “We had legislative representation, we had the trucking industry, we had AAA as a highway user group. There were data security and privacy advocates. Then along the way we had to bring in various departments who are involved in the gas tax, who could potentially take on new responsibilities.”

Clearly, such a high-visibility project would require high-caliber project management. Tacdol’s secret? Always have a Plan B.

“Not everything goes according to plan, so you have to have contingency plans in place,” he said. At one point in the project, a recording device wouldn’t interface properly with electric vehicles. That’s where the decision to simultaneously test multiple technologies really paid off. “It meant we had other options within the pilot, so we were nimble enough to allow them to test out a different reporting mechanism.” 

Tacdol managed privacy concerns across the project by using only aggregated data, with locations and other personal information removed. “That was established at the start, along with how the different technologies and subsystems would communicate with one another. We spent the time up front to really flesh out those business requirements,” he said.

The project came in $1 million under its $10 million budget and the team delivered its final report six months in advance of its legislative deadline. More to the point, the broad effort to build a coalition may eventually pay dividends for whatever solution the state eventually adopts. “The participants generally wanted to learn more about transportation, so we communicated to them frequently,” Tacdol said. “These were the early adopters and I wanted them to come out with not just a greater awareness, but a high comfort level.”

Best Application Serving the Public

Mohammed Al Rawi argues passionately for the business value of the IT department. “As an IT executive, I want the workplace to realize what IT can do. We are not ‘geek squads.’ We don’t only fix computer and printers. We are more than that. We can help solve complex business problems,” he said.

As CIO of the County of Los Angeles Parks and Recreation department, Al Rawi, one of Government Technology's 2018 Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers, set out to prove that point. To demonstrate the business value of IT, he took on the challenge of “passive drowning,” a phenomenon in which swimmers faint underwater, either because of exhaustion or a medical event. “They sink silently and it’s extremely difficult for a lifeguard to detect,” he said. “It is very rare but it happens.”

As the operator of 38 public swimming pools, Parks and Rec could perhaps make a difference here. “This is our type of problem,” he said. With a combination of sophisticated sensors and artificial intelligence, “we can make the invisible visible.”

In researching the problem, Al Rawi came upon a cluster of emerging technologies that seemed relevant. On the hardware side, he found designs for a camera that could be securely embedded in an underwater light — or in multiple lights around the periphery of a pool. On the software side, emerging data analytic techniques offered a means to identify apparent drowning behaviors.

“You have a light enclosure underwater with a camera in the middle, and all these cameras get wired to a server doing video analytics. When a drowning is detected, the lifeguard gets a signal on a wearable device and can see a picture of the person, along with a dot showing exactly where that person is in the pool,” he said.

County aquatics professionals were skeptical at first: They knew how hard it was to detect an underwater drowning, and anyway, what did the IT people know about swimming pools?

A successful live demonstration helped to change their minds. A lifeguard’s average response time in training is 9.5 seconds, whereas lifeguards supported by the AI-driven analytics could respond to a simulated drowning in 1.5 seconds. Better still, the IT team carried out the demonstration at the Jesse Owens Pool in south L.A., where serious near-drowning incidents have occurred.

“That’s when the transition from IT to business happened. That was then they took it over and really made it their project,” Al Rawi said. It helped that the director of parks and rec is a former lifeguard who lent his full support to the project.

The system is in place in one pool and the county has an RFP planned to bring the AI-driven capability to five more. With a competitive process pending, Al Rawi won’t cite a dollar figure for the project, but he said the technology when fully implemented should cost about 5 percent of what a single drowning-related lawsuit has cost the county in the past.

For the full list of this year's winners, click here.

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.