Articles

Software for the Social Good: Technology as a Unifying Force

In part of our Digital Communities Special Report, we look at how CIOs play a critical role in getting technology into the process of fixing urban social problems.

by / December 1, 2017

Editor's note: The Digital Communities Special Report, which appears twice a year in Government Technology magazine, offers in-depth coverage for local government leaders and technology professionals. View links to the entire report here.

Tackling homelessness, poverty, food deserts, opioid addiction and other social ills draws in a lot of different experts and professionals from government agencies, nonprofits and even academia. But what is the role of the CIO? Stephen Goldsmith, who has worked with many technology chiefs in his career in public service, said CIOs play an absolutely critical role in getting technology into the process of fixing urban social problems.

“They should first focus on how much value they can bring: to help their elected officials, to hire better workers who can figure better solutions and to manage contracts more effectively,” he said. More importantly, the CIO has to be clear about the value proposition around technology’s role in data-driven solutions to social problems. “Then the role of the CIO is to have the mayor bring in the right legal support to develop policies around privacy and security to help create the right kind of data-sharing agreements,” said Goldsmith. “CIOs need to toot their horns on what they can do and make sure the right process is in place, along with the right tools. Then it’s up to the mayor to expend the political capital to get it to work.”

Others counsel CIOs, data officers and social policy managers to focus on tactics that lead to small wins. Don’t try to solve the opioid epidemic within one project. “Start with data collection or simple solutions, maybe an app that shows the location of opioid prescription drop-offs,” said Esri’s Chris Thomas.

While tackling social problems can be complex, the underlying technology and the process it drives don’t have to be radically new or different. “We’re seeing a lot of parallels between winning solutions in non-social areas, such as snow removal data, and how it can be applied to social problems and become a game-changer,” he added.

For Nancy Burke, the role of technology in helping Anchorage come to grips with its homeless problem wasn’t clear-cut at first. But the more she talked with her colleague Tina Miller, the more she saw the possibilities of what could be done with mapping, dashboards and mobile apps.

“Seeking out technology doesn’t come naturally from the social services side of the house,” she said. “But technology has been a unifying force for bringing efficiencies internally and also for connecting with our community partners and the public.” 

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.